Friday Tips: Self-Doubt


Note: This is excerpted from Chapter 8 of the book. 

Every living artist I’ve ever worked with, and every deceased artist I’ve ever studied, have all shared one simple trait: each of them has gone through varying levels of self-doubt; each of them, at different times in their lives, has questioned the worth of their talent.  No one that I know of has ever been exempt from this.  For some, like the poet Sylvia Plath (who was also a talented illustrator), their spells of doubt and depression were mind-numbing, paralyzing, and, in the end, beyond their control.  For others, like Picasso, those spells were nothing more than a minor dip on their emotional graph.

However severe or mild your spells might be, I bring this up to assure you that they are common, and that, after you weather each one, your confidence and perceptions will likely grow— provided that inner growth is a process you embrace, and are willing to struggle toward. 

I feel that spells of self-doubt occur so that we will reassess our lives, and work.  For some, these spells can virtually destroy them if they don’t keep their emotions in check.  But for most artists, the spells serve as a tool for reevaluating their work, and deciding whether they want to continue in the same vein.  In other words, this entire process is a necessary thing and, like most occurrences in life, can have a positive outcome—but only if you decide that it can.

Yes, you’re supposed to enjoy the gift of creation, and create with it what you can.  But if that same gift doesn’t on occasion hurt, if it doesn’t make you howl with self-deprecation and questions of self-worth, if you don’t sometimes wonder whether everything you’ve done up till now is pure crap, then something’s wrong.  You’re supposed to feel these things.  They help keep you on the edge of your passions, your inspiration, and your drive.

However it strikes you, please don’t believe that self-doubt is limited to you.  We all share it, we all struggle with it, we all struggle to overcome it.  Let it serve you in the way that it’s meant to, but always try to stay in control of it.  Like so many powerful emotions, this one too contributes to the energies of creation.  

How do you break free of it?  You can discuss it with friends, you can whisper about it at night with your lover, you can reread this passage, but really there’s only one way that I know of to break out, and that is through work.  Work, and then more work, and yet more work after that.  That is what you’re here to execute, that is what you must continue doing, no matter what it takes, or what it takes out of you.  Besides, the thing it gives back is always far richer than the thing it takes away.

9 thoughts on “Friday Tips: Self-Doubt

  1. Ah! Self doubt! A topic I’m well acquainted with right now as I regroup before approaching galleries in a saturated market. I recently listened to a radio interview with Canadian elder statesman of art, Alex Colville, and he mentioned that along with self-doubt, all artists share a healthy ego. Sounds contradictory but I have to admit that when I’ve faced a string of rejections, I lose confidence but that confidence tends to be in my ability to sell myself, or in my ability to choose a correct fit — or I point my finger directly at the gallerist or current tastes in art or whatever. If I allowed myself to doubt my own ability I wouldn’t be able to carry on. I’ve seen would-be artists enter their first juried exibition, get rejected, then fold up shop and never try again. So along with fear and doubt there needs to be that belief in oneself that keeps us going.

    Excellent topic — glad I found your blog!

  2. I, too, am new to your blog, Paul, and thanks for putting this out there!

    Boy, ask and you shall receive……
    Here I am scrambling to put up a new show in about 72 hours and the fear/self-doubt is settling in. It will be my first exhibit with a relatively new (for me) style and medium. I’m really stoked about some of the results I’ve been getting, but many others are marginal. All of the sudden, I find things around the house that just MUST be done right now, like cleaning the blinds, grooming houseplants, etc. You know, the really important stuff.

    This is a common phenomenom (sp?) for me, and I’ve seen me go through this cycle time and again. Then as the clock ticks by, I have to shake myself and return back to the scene of the risk-taking. I concurr 100%; to break through it I need to step back into the fire and on to the bed of nails.

    In times when I waver from the path, I turn to cool blogs (this was so-o-o-o-o timely!) and quotes that help spur me….
    “To fly we have to have resistance.” – Maya Lin, architect
    “Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” – General George Patton

    Carry on self-doubters!!!!

  3. Self doubt has been the best experience for growth I’ve ever encountered. It usually hits following several successes or achievements. It starts with this feeling of “Damn, I’m good.” Then I start to feel uncomfortable with that thought. I start to compare myself with portrait artists who are much more accomplished than I am. I go from elation to “I really stink at this.” I find the best medicine is to go back in the studio focus on painting until I produce something I’m happy with. Then I settle down and think, “Okay, I’m still learning, but I’m getting there.” It’s exhausting at times, but I think it may be a way to shake me out of complacency and add a little humility back in. Thanks for a great article.

  4. Hi:

    When I have moments of self doubt, the wackiness that is me envisions a comical little stomping green monster blustering out, and just the thought of that usually helps.

  5. I seem to be swimming in self doubt. I am at the point that I am ready to be in galleries. I’ve been visit galleries through out the United States getting a feel for the ones that will work with my style .I want to be in 5 galleries by year end. I speak to the owner; ask if they are accepting new artist, how they like to be approached, what is selling, and all the stuff I need to know. They tell me to send the package. I freeze. I think maybe just one better work in the group maybe more of this or that. I have so much self doubt I don’t make the next step.

  6. Thanks for all your comments. Glad my candid approach is of use. I’ll provide feedback more consistently next week, after our grand opening has passed (unless I do in the meantime).

    Delilah: You must always take the next step, no matter what. You close your eyes to the odds, and to the doubters. If you don’t, nothing changes.

  7. Painters block is Miserable! I think I would rather walk across hot coals than face a canvas on an easel right now.

  8. it’s all so true, I’ve been coming through a particularly rough patch of it lately. there are times when I become actually afraid of my studio and I want to destroy paintings that aren’t ‘good enough’ that’s when it is hardest, I have to make rules not to touch any pieces, not even ‘that little bit there’ – it always ends in disaster when I get back up again.

    to pull myself out I reread the comments on my blog and the letters I receive from happy collectors, daydream, look at artworks that inspire me, draw or try something new and different. The very best thing is to put on some driving music and just let go, just create no matter what, to enjoy the pure pleasure of creating. when I can get to that point, and able to let go, I know I am going to be ok – and that is when my work progresses the most. it often takes a while but the results are always worthwhile.

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