5 Ways to Conquer Creative Self-Doubt
I have noticed a common thread with the artistic, or creative, people in my life; myself included.
It’s creative self-doubt. Crippling, painful, ever present self-doubt. It’s there when you wake up in the morning, and it’s there when you lay your head down at night. It’s especially prominent when you are about to embark on a new project. Hell, even the creative greats, our heroes, lamented the extent of it.
“I don’t believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.” — Tennessee Williams
Whenever I am about to start on a project, I’m so excited about the prospect of it. I can’t wait to dive in and release this concept that is constantly nagging at me. But at the same time, I’m plagued by the idea that whatever I will create will be a pathetic shadow of what was in my mind. I often feel like I am a failure - even though I make a living out of my creative talents, I feel like I should be doing more; doing better. I can't count the number of times I've toyed with the idea of quitting my job in the creative industry for a job less artistically rewarding, yet less fraught with self-doubt.
These feelings prevent me from being able to just jump into the work. I procrastinate, worried that I will start, and then realise that there is no way I can do this, I am a complete fraud, and everything I have done up until now has been a result of dumb luck and fortuitous mistakes.
As artists Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman put it, the Fraud Police are going to come knocking at my door, tell me I'm shit and not an artist (I'm paraphrasing here) and force me to get a "real" job. Do yourself a favour and watch their very inspirational commencement speeches which can be found at the end of this post.
Creative self-doubt sucks. But there are ways to minimise it and turn it into something healthy that ultimately benefits you, instead of crippling you.
1. Embrace Your Creative Self-Doubt ; Use it as Your Driving Force
You think your work is not good enough. You have an idea of who or what you would like to be. The work you are producing is not of the caliber you envision. So what is the first thing you should do? Climb into bed and wallow in despair, interspersed with moments of self flagellation? Tell yourself how shitty your art is and how there is no point in wasting your time trying? (No judgement here, I’ve been through this myself). Or do you gird your loins (figuratively, of course. Unless that’s your thing) and prepare for battle? Battle being, allocating time every day when you come home to sit down without interruptions and get to work on becoming the best artist you can possibly be. This is something you need to work at. It’ll be worth it, I promise. Embrace the fact that you have something that is forcing you to be better, to become the best you can be. Be glad for the fact that you will not become complacent. You get better through trial and error, and the only way you can get better fast,is by producing a lot of work, and thus a lot of mistakes, to learn from. “Fail Faster” is a bit of a buzzword now (erm.. buzz phrase?) , for good reason. Because it’s true.
2. Pinpoint Your Weaknesses and Turn Them Into Your Strengths
Maybe your ideas lack originality. Maybe it’s your lighting technique that is not so great, or your composition. For some, it’s just that they struggle with certain specific body parts when doing portraits, such as hands or feet. If you are going to be spending every day battling self doubt, you may as well use that time to work on the things that bring your work down. Get to know and acknowledge your weaknesses and work on getting rid of them. Create projects for yourself that specifically focus on your weaknesses. If you have trouble pinpointing exactly what your weaknesses are, ask other people for critiques and constructive criticism. Humans tend to avoid doing the things they find difficult because, well, it’s difficult, and makes them feel shitty about themselves. So you avoid working at making them better. You get stuck in a rut of what you feel comfortable with, and never grow as an artist. Once you have those issues worked out and have gotten past your creative weak points, everything you create will, overall, be better. And your self confidence will grow as you notice how much better the work you are producing is.
You wouldn’t be having this dilemma if there wasn’t something you were good at, creatively, because then you wouldn’t have been drawn to it in the first place. People don’t persist at things that they are completely terrible at. So you know that there is a reason you are doing this, a reason you have this self doubt. It’s because you have talent but you want to be even better. Self doubt is a protective mechanism. It’s there to protect you from failure, but at the cost of not trying at all.
3. Stop Creating What You Think Other People Want To See
Your passion for your art is very apparent when you work on something you enjoy, something that is you.If you are doing your own projects, such as paintings or an animated series or a graphic novel, hoping someone will see them and like them and that you will gain followers and get exposure and eventually maybe even make a living out of it, then you need to create things that you care about, things that hold a piece of you. I know that’s the scary part- putting yourself out there. But this is what will attract your people. The people who like and care about the same things you do. The people who love your creations the way you do. I realised this after years of trying to create things I thought people wanted to see. But the passion wasn’t there. As soon as I started putting more of myself into my artwork, the more popular my work got. My personality and sense of humour was what people liked, and my most well received pieces are the ones I don’t agonise over and analyse beforehand; they are the ones where I just sit down and do what I feel like. The works that are unique to you are just that… unique. That’s what stands out. And that’s what will make you happiest to create
Now, this point is a lot harder to follow when you are doing work in a company or specifically for clients. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and be given a lot of free reign, but a lot of the time, you work on projects that would not be the kind of project you would choose to do in your free time, and it’s not something you can put your own personality and creative freedom into. But a lot of the time you can find something in these projects that does excite you. Whether it’s a concept or a technique you want to try in the execution, or just the opportunity to learn something new and grow your skills. If you care about something that you are working on, that will shine through. But this also illustrates the importance of doing your own thing in your free time. This will let you stretch your own personal creativity and personality and make the things that you want to make. And you’ll realise that there are kindred spirits out there who love what you make, because it’s real and it speaks to them.
4. Remember That Everyone Started Somewhere and Everyone Feels the Same Way.
Yes, some people are just astounding at what they do. You look at their paintings or renderings and groan at the beauty of it, and the unfairness of the fact that you can’t (at the moment) create anything even a tenth as breathtaking. Or you look at your favourite designer’s work and beat your head on the wall at the sheer genius of their ideas and execution. And yes, at times you may be consumed with jealousy and self loathing when comparing yourself to them, and your creative self doubt will be at it's peak. But you can’t compare yourself to them. You don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. You don’t know how many hours they spent perfecting their craft and what sacrifices they had to make to be that amazing. Sure, some people are born with an innate, incredible talent that may not require as much practice as yours does. But everybody started somewhere. And most people require thousands of hours dedicated to a craft to become amazing at it. More than that 10 000 hours crap. So those people you idolise and envy in equal parts have probably put in a whole ton of time, and still do. Have you noticed how prolific those super amazing people are? They create art almost constantly. They live and breathe it. And doing anything at that rate will make you awesome at it.
Almost every creative person I have spoken to suffers from horrible self doubt. And the ones that didn’t admit to it… well, I take that with a pinch of salt. Even the amazing people that I thought had “made it”, who I looked up to, admitted that sometimes they feel like they should just give up. It’s especially hard when every day you go online and are bombarded with these amazing artists. The market is saturated with incredible talent. So it’s natural to become depressed sometimes, to feel like your efforts are drowning in this sea of awesome. But keep in mind that these people probably felt the same way at some stage. Nobody is born having “made it” . That’s why it’s called “making it”. Because you have to MAKE it happen.
5.Just Do It
“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” - Van Gogh
Whatever it is you need to do, just do it. Sit down at your desk or easel, pick up your pen/pencil/paintbrush/clay and DO IT.
How about this gem from Shia LaBeouf
Put on some music that jumpstarts your creative process, remind yourself why you love doing this, and do it. Once you start, you will get into the flow of it, be absorbed in thinking about how to execute it, and be too busy to worry about whether you actually can do it or not. And even if it takes a few attempts - you need to warm up anyway - you will realise that actually, this is great. What you are doing is great, and will get even better the more you work at it. All the background noise in your head will fade away, and once the paralysis caused by self doubt is gone, your hands and mind will be free to do what they innately know they can.
Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman's fantastically inspiring commencement speeches:
Here are some great links to other articles about conquering your self doubt:
If you are an entrepreneur with your art and trying to make a living from it, this is for you :
Otherwise, if it's just the creativity and not the business side you are worried about:
And to know you are not alone, and that even famous, successful artists know what you are going through :