Being an artist is a tough, emotional job. It’s no secret that the creative side of art requires vulnerability, which can be scary to put on display for others to see. Whether you’re an artist working in painting, sculpture, literature, architecture, cinema, music, or theatre, artistic labour is emotionally taxing. Luckily, there are ways to build up your emotional resilience to function as an artist without being worn down by the process.
People may not know that many artists struggle emotionally. When we think about the artist, we often think of someone who comes up with a new idea and then turns it into a beautiful work of art. What we don’t see is the process: the doubt, the worry, and all the frustration and angst involved in the search for a new idea. And then all of that again during the production of the art. And then all of that again when we show it to the world.
Artistic talent can be a double-edged sword. Those who are gifted with the ability to create often possess an emotional vulnerability—creating what others can’t.
Why are artists likely to struggle emotionally?
As artists—I’m a writer and a book coach, but I also worked extensively in the theatre—we are a sensitive bunch. (I know it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it’s true.) We appreciate the beauty in life—or recognise its inherent ugliness—which can often lead to a low sense of self-worth. As we see the beauty or ugliness in everything around us, we also notice all the flaws in ourselves, and this can lead to feelings of self-loathing and hopelessness.
We often struggle with emotional issues. Anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem can be some of the mental health issues that cause artists to feel as though they are not living up to their full potential. I once spent a week in a mental health unit because the emotional trauma I was bringing to an acting role overwhelmed me. Some of us experience suicidal ideation or suffer from substance dependency. The causes of these problems vary depending on our upbringing, social class, and other factors in our lives.
Even if we’re unlikely to be clinically depressed, we may have a higher risk of experiencing some depressive symptoms. Artists are more likely to experience emotional difficulties because many of the things that we love to do involve being alone and withdrawing from society. For example, painters may spend hours by themselves, even avoiding social interaction.
It isn’t easy to learn how to feel or deal with emotions; it takes time, practice, and patience. Emotional muscles are like any other muscle in your body. They need to be exercised regularly to stay strong and healthy.
Every day we consciously control our bodies—reaching for our daily cuppa, petting the dog, bailing on a date with someone who chews with their mouth open (just me?)—but do we ever consciously control our emotions? Emotions are a part of who we are and what makes us unique, but that doesn’t mean we have to be at their mercy. Our bodies navigate the physical world, and we can build muscular strength to combat its literal pressures, but it’s just as important to work on developing our emotional muscles because they will help keep us balanced and focused on the things that matter most in life. And nowadays there is a lot of pressure for people to be perfect or produce perfect work which can lead to feeling stressed out or overwhelmed.
Think of emotional resilience as a product of skills that help you work through pain, anger, and other difficult emotions. The aim isn’t to get rid of these feelings, but to recognise them, accept they’re there, then step over them. You can build your emotional resilience through repetition, just like someone lifting weights or honing the perfect long jump technique.
It’s impossible to go through life without experiencing any emotion. It may feel like a daunting task to process and understand all the emotions we face in everyday life. But is there anything wrong with feeling? And what types of emotions are most important for our own well-being?
Some people don’t know how to react to a situation. They may be unsure of what should be their response, or they simply may not want to feel any emotion at all. However, this lack of emotions is no good because it leaves the person feeling empty and alone. It can kill our creative drive. To avoid these feelings, it is necessary for someone to learn how to handle their emotions.
Let’s work on responding to some thoughts (lies!) that trigger negative emotions.
“I’m not good enough.”
First, if you thought you were the only person who thought that, if you were the only person who felt that, you would be in a lab somewhere and the government would experiment on your brain because that is the inner cry of every soul.
It is the human condition.
When someone says to you, “I like your t-shirt,” and you go, “It’s only H&M,” you’re not even acknowledging that the clothes you’re wearing are suitable. You’re constantly deflecting and pushing things away. You’re investing time in worrying about things that haven’t happened yet and you don’t do is lift your head up and look back. That’s the key thing. When you look back, you see where you were and where you are now. What you’ve achieved. Those little wins—it’s important that you mark them.
Get a jar then stick a label on it that says, “The Truth About Your Art”. When people compliment you or your art, smile, maintain eye contact, and say thank you. Later, write down their compliment, then pop it into your jar. When you’re feeling discouraged, open the jar and read every slip of paper, because I want you to think, “I’m not a terrible artist”. That jar, full of little successes, is going to become an enormous boost when you’re feeling down.
“My art’s not good enough.”
The first thing to ask yourself is, “Who’s my art for and what’s it for?”
If who it’s for is yourself, then you can never not be good enough. If you want to create something and then criticise yourself, then you might as well lick a toad. That’s miserable. Do that instead.
But if who it’s for is not you, then—and only then—you’re accountable to your audience. Knowing who you are delivering for is important because you’re not the best judge of whether it’s good enough, because it’s not for you. Getting clear on who it’s for is important and tying that in with the feeling of I’m not good enough.
Here’s the thing — good enough for who? Who is this person who is measuring people’s worth? I’ve never met them. And also, we tie self-worth to achievement. That’s where I’m not good enough comes from. We tie in what we do with how good we are.
Your brain’s a liar and that voice saying, “I’m not good enough,” will constantly be there, so if you can ignore it, you can take heart from it. Remember who your story is for, then ask them if it’s good.
If you get into your own head, you’re finished. Creating art is a gift for you and it’s a gift for others, so think about your audience.
I once had a beta reader tell me she didn’t like the main character in my romance novel Behind the Seams. I focused my entire book on his side of a romantic relationship. I thought I’d written him as feisty, but she read him as angry. My first thought was: “I’m terrible. I can’t even write a sympathetic character.”
In the UK we had a TV show called Family Fortunes (Family Feud in America.) The concept is that 100 people were surveyed with everyday questions, e.g., ‘Name something you’d spread on toast.’ Contestants had to guess the top answers the 100 people gave.
You could ask 100 people who view your art what they don’t like. 21 might dislike the white blobs, 13 might dislike the sweeping forms, and 33 hate the fact that your art opening kicked off at 8pm (because they wanted to catch the hot new West End show based on [insert your own Disney movie here]).
What I’m getting at is there’s a difference between creating art for other people and pleasing everybody. As much as who your art is for, there are those it’s not for. And those people might see your work, hate it, then write a scathing review.
Now, if 100 people came back, and they all hated the same thing, you’re on to something and that’s feedback worth paying attention to. But it really is a numbers game.
And anyway, can you really create something that everybody hates? People are weird. There’s someone to like everything you do. Judging your work on one person’s reaction, or a few people’s reaction…? It’s not the healthy thing to do.
When we experience emotions that are not in line with our intentions, it’s difficult to feel in control. Whenever you feel yourself going through a string of emotions, try to identify the cause and plan for what will help you take control.
There are two voices in your head, and there’s more than one side of the story, but when you get feedback, congratulate yourself on being brave because you put it out there. Most people wouldn’t do it because they fear what if I’m not good enough?
Emotional You: “Oh my God, I’m an awful artist.”
Rational You: “Well, you know it’s just one person’s view of you work…”
Emotional You: “But that review, it’s terrible. I wanted them to like it and they don’t like it, so I’ve got to stop creating forever.”
Rational You: “That’s one option, but here’s another one…”
“I’m going to fail.”
Let’s be honest—there’s no if. You’re going to fail. Of course you are. Do you want to be the only human on the planet who doesn’t fail? Never going to happen.
You are going to fail.
You’re better investing your energy in when this doesn’t work, and I have negative comments, what is my strategy going to be? How are you going to navigate that perceived failure and use that as a ‘failure rung’ on your ladder that takes you to success?
The arts provide a wonderful outlet for many people. Artists of all kinds struggle with their emotions and feelings, and sometimes these feelings can be overwhelming. One way to build emotional muscles as an artist is to create a space for yourself where you can creatively express your emotions in a healthy way.
For many artists, there is a deep connection between creativity and the soul. Weaving art into your life can be healing, but it comes with challenges like balancing creativity with everyday responsibilities. One way to strengthen your emotional muscles as an artist is to learn how to self-soothe.
A few ways to do this are through exercising (physical activity releases endorphins which increases serotonin levels) or singing (singing releases dopamine that increases happiness). If you think you’re a terrible singer, I refer you to Judy Garland’s adorable If You Feel Like Singing, Sing from Summer Stock.
Your resilience is your ability to deal with difficult events in your life and bounce back from them. The key word is “deal” because handling difficult events differs greatly from simply getting through them. You need to take care of yourself emotionally, psychologically, and physically during stressful times.
It’s important to be resilient to keep moving when the going gets tough. This ability is not something that comes naturally, but something that must be learned. Resilience is the ability to cope with adversity. It is adapting well in the face of negative events. Resilience also includes having a positive outlook and keeping one’s self-esteem high, even when faced with onerous tasks.
A study by the American Psychological Association has found that resilient people have strong emotional intelligence. This means they can regulate their emotions, understand what their emotions are trying to tell them, and respond to the situation calmly. Resilient people can empathize with others’ feelings, manage stress, take risks, and be self-aware of their feelings and self-caring without being too self-centred.
Becoming an artist is a choice. “I’m an artist” does not require agreement from the Artists’ Guild of [insert your country’s name here]. When people say, “one day I’d like to create art” what they’re saying is, “I am not an artist—I feel like I have something to say via art but as up to this moment I have not yet been brave enough to even consider beginning”.
The truth—that they want to create art—keeps coming out.
“Oh, my gosh—one day I’ll start painting—but I’m not brave enough, and I think that this other thing’s more important, and I don’t have time, and my day job doesn’t allow for it, and it’s going to be rubbish, anyway.”
All those external loci of control erode their creativity, their own ability to be fulfilled. We set these upper limits of success around identity.
Only you can achieve what you believe you deserve, so if you’re telling yourself, “I’m not good enough,” try, “Until now I haven’t felt good enough.”
See the difference?
Because every time you say, “I’m not good enough,” it’s another brick in the wall shutting off your creativity.
Don’t let fear drive your bus.
“I’m not successful.”
How do you measure success?
When someone is trying to measure the success of a creative endeavour, they must first define what success is. Success can be different for each creative endeavour, and it also changes depending on how one defines it. For example, if the creator of a painting wanted to feel successful, they would be happy if their painting looked good and others liked it.
What is the measure of a successful creative endeavour? Is it an increase in sales? More recognition? The approval of your peers? A rise in innovation and new ideas? The answer, as with any question that seeks a definition for a “one size fits all” answer, is more complex than the question might first appear.
Creativity is an elusive concept, but for many successful creative efforts are measured by the success of the product or idea. Sometimes creativity can be judged on how new an idea is or if the idea had a long-term impact on society.
In the creative world, success ranges from being recognized for an artistic creation to winning a prestigious prize. There are many ways of measuring a creative endeavour’s success and each is based on the specific goal set out by the creator. For example, a painter who wants to be recognized as a fine artist may measure success by their critical reviews and the prestige of the art gallery that they have been able to show in.
Every creative endeavour is different, and therefore the success of one may not be the same as another. Some works are created to inspire people, some are created for the sake of beauty, and others are crafted for commercial purposes. How does one measure the success of something that is so subjective? The answer may vary for each person, but in general, we can say that it has achieved any measurable goal when it reaches its desired outcome.
“Galleries won’t be interested.”
As a book coach, I’m always going to encourage people to publish a great manuscript because their story is so many other people’s story. If the work’s marketable, I’ll encourage them to approach agents. If they’re too scared to go for it, I encourage them to self-publish.
Your art might be the one thing that gives someone a new perspective, so I think it’s selfish not to share it.
Art is like a baby. It starts inside you, and you spend a long time making it. Then somebody says your baby is fat and ugly and looks like a football. (According to my sister, I looked like a pickled onion.) Of course you want to lock yourself away because this thing just came out of you and someone is telling you it is absolutely hideous. Of course you want to lock yourself in a room. I could quote you my one-star reviews word for word. My five-star reviews? Couldn’t quote you a single one.
But you’re doing yourself a disservice. Submitting your work to galleries (please check their submission policies first) is scary, yes, but I encourage you to do it. Rejections are like Velcro. They stick to your brain. If you don’t have a way of being able to notice and describe—adding no judgment—your rejections, they are going to own you and what the world loses, if you give up, is your art. You’re stealing the opportunity for people to grow because you’re giving up.
In conclusion, emotional resilience is an important trait for us to have. It can be used as a tool to help us put our art out into the world.
The more we train ourselves to deal with the inevitable challenges that life throws at us, the less those challenges will wear us down.
I want to encourage you to not give up on your art. The world needs it. You never know who is watching or what they may think, but I believe that there is someone out there waiting for the chance to be inspired by your work.
Stay strong and keep creating.
Book Coach & Author