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Art Dreams and Obstacles: Fear & Lack of Understanding

Updated: Jun 1, 2018

Savior (detail), Oil, 24x48

In the last blog post I touched upon a lecture I’d been a part of that discussed obstacles and paths to creativity. This will be the first, in a series of posts regarding the obstacles faced by creatives, as well as some solutions. Being an art instructor for many years as well as a life long art student, I’ve witnessed many sides of this battle. It is as if, within many of us, one side ecstatically rejoices and dances in the light of creativity while the other trembles in the shadows of fear of over exposing ones self and their imperfections.

There have been many books written about the fears felt by artists and many ways to push through them. I’ll list some of those books below. But first, I’d like to propose another cause of this fear, and that is, a lack of understanding. We are in an odd time where people spend most of their energy not listening, to understand, but simply to find key points to attack. In lack of understanding, it’s easiest to pay it no mind, give it no more energy because going to the depth to understand is harder than the quick and superficial reaction to misinterpret, disregard and criticize. Now, I’m not saying people must agree, but I do think we all need to try to gain better understanding, and to do so we must listen. Art requires listening as well, but we listen with our eyes, our hearts, our minds.

There is a great tradition of many of the indigenous people, where one may use a sacred object such as a talking stick to symbolize that they have the floor. While this person speaks the others listen attentively and compassionately and only feel the right to the stick and to speak when they have understood. This art of empathetic listening should be cultivated more in all of us.

For the vast majority of artists, our hope is not that others will stand up and cheer at our talents and hard work. Art is our language, we are trying to communicate something to you. We are looking for understanding. We are looking to share something of this human experience with other humans. We hope you can feel and hear us.

Some of our fear is that we will not be understood, or even worse, misunderstood, but also that the language in which we have finally had the courage to utter our deepest thoughts and feelings in, will be criticized. History shows us, when our basic needs have been met, though our abilities might need some improvement, we do what comes next for humans, we express ourselves. So if this creative expression is natural and for many a path to joyful bliss, why should we let any of this stop us from creating?

Why do we care what others think? We care because it is part of the human condition to care.

We care what others think because we have this human thread tying us all together that is the color of understanding. We want to be heard, seen and understood. We yearn to feel connected to one another, to weave together to create something greater.

So what can we do as artists, to make this portion of the creative experience less fear inducing?

#1) Take as much control and responsibility of our talents and abilities as possible. Rejoice in the triumphs! Don’t minimize them, every small step in progress should be celebrated! And on the other side of the coin, notice where improvement is needed, and step up your game. Find online tutorials, online classes, books, classes in your area, even private instruction. If your a writer, you’d be sure to know grammar and language incredibly well, the same should be true with the language of your visual art.

#2) Know that part of the fear, is your inner critic blowing this all way out of proportion! Unfortunately we have been wired to assign greater importance to the negative rather than the positive. The first key to minimizing this internal fear monger, is awareness. One of the biggest critics that needs to be dealt with, is inside of us.

Know that this inner voice is not reality. This voice can be defined and looked at in so many ways that I have to devote the next blog post to it, but one way to look at it, is that this voice is actually a protective mechanism, trying to prevent you from enduring pain. Fear can set in when we are in harms way physically and also emotionally and mentally. But like I stated above we are often wired to blow the negativity into the catastrophic stratosphere while our positivity rocket sputters on the ground. Perhaps our art was teased when we were a kid, and we felt attacked and ashamed, who would want go through such a painful experience again? Certainly not your inner critic. The truth is, those who criticize the most are often in pain and unhappy with themselves. What if a portion of that inner critic is your inner child in disguise who still feels hurt and doesn’t want to get hurt again? I know, that may be a little woo woo, but it also might be true… more explanations to come.

#3) Strike the right balance between caring what others think, and not giving a $#!T!

I have a Tibetan terrier - Lhasa apso mix, he patrols the yard as if it is his job. He barks at lizards on the wall who try to infiltrate our territory, and screams and lunges at groups of birds squawking too loudly while hiding in the bushes, he paces around, sniffs the air, and listens trying to detect intruders. He is a descendant from some of the most ancient dog breeds, who were not only companions but bread as watch dogs and protectors. So it is just simply in his DNA to care about his humans and watch out for intruders.

And It may be in our DNA to care what others think. How would you conduct yourself if your acceptance or expulsion meant safety or serious threat to your life? Not too long ago, your life was dependent on the abilities of the community as a whole to keep you alive and thriving, and it largely still is. In the more obvious circumstances of living in a tribe you would rightfully fear doing something if it could make you an outcast from your community, left alone to fend for yourself. Your likelihood of survival would decrease dramatically. So what if in our DNA there is still a need for acceptance in order to survive? So this need for understanding and fear of being misunderstood might have biological ties to being included and cared for and fearful of ever being outcast. It might be pretty darn difficult to argue with those genes and not care what others think at all!

Really examine what you are afraid of. For most of us, the art we create isn’t usually going to put us in a serious life or death situation, and rejected from the tribe. We need to bring our fears into question, and this deep biological predisposition to fear of rejection, up for review. Could the art we create really put us in a position that could hurt us, do we need to toughen up a little to criticism, might our fears be a bit of disproportionate catastrophic thinking?

Once you've really examined your fears, to see if they are warranted, when they aren't, accept that they are there but try to reframe and channel them into excitement. Try to simply, let the joy found in the creative act supersede its outcome. It will always turn out better if you get out of the way and allow yourself the privilege of getting lost in the process anyway.

Here are some more resources to help tackle more subjects that may be standing in the way of your dreams.

Books about Art & Fear:

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Do The Work by Steven Pressfield

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert


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