A reader named Rebecca wrote recently with a terrific question. Rebecca explained that she is the only artist in a “non-artistic” family, and she has finally gotten herself into a position to pursue her artwork full-time. She continues:
I feel like in general our culture views art (and many forms of self-care like meditation, getting enough sleep, setting boundaries on how much you commit to, etc) with disdain. Being able to stay on top of housework, cook more (and not resent it for taking up what little free time I had after work), spend time with my cats and finally make my passion a priority has made me SO happy lately!! …Yet I still feel super self-conscious talking about it with most people (especially family), because if you’re not “contributing to society” -dare I say: economy- it’s viewed as “selfish”, “lazy”, and “unfair” since most people don’t have the privilege or opportunity. And what counts, of course, is those measurable, tangible achievements. Job titles and accomplishments.
How can we keep from being shaken by the world around us that says, “Shame on you! You ought to be doing _____ instead”, and really embrace the value of things like Art and self-care? Naturally, I feel happier when I make art a priority, but inevitably there’s that voice deep down that sneers at me that I’m some kind of leech on society, just fooling around while everyone else works hard. So that’s been a struggle in fully embracing this new life, despite finally “pulling it off”….
So … it strikes me that there are two parts to this question.
The first has to do with how (in many cases) it’s extra challenging to be an artist when we grew up in a situation where our creativity wasn’t supported, or maybe just not understood.
That’s because so much is going on with the development of our brains when we are young and tender. (I can still remember putting on a play when I was about five and being laughed at. I thought I was doing something cool and important, and I was hit with derision. My brain started — at that very young age — to formulate a belief: expressing yourself creatively brings pain. Ouch!)
The second part of this question is about valuing our own creative work (or play, as I prefer to call it!). How do we do that when doing it flies in the face of a culture that values things like being constantly busy and bringing in X amount of dollars? I’ll touch on that part of the question here, but get into it more in depth in my next post.
I’m not going to pretend that I absolutely know the answers here. These inquiries are big, and complex, and important. Those of us who care about creativity and make it a focus in our lives will be working with these issues probably forever.
But I’ll start here.
It’s a universal human need to be seen and validated for being who we are. If we didn’t experience this as we were growing up, we have a sort of “extra hurdle” there, whether we deeply value creativity or not.
Add to that the fact that, yes, our “mainstream world” has typically made it challenging to be a creator (though I believe this is shifting in many ways right now), and salt is definitely sprinkled liberally on the wound that is already there.
Radical self-care is vital to robust creativity
I’m not surprised Rebecca mentioned the de-valuing of self-care in our Western culture as well. It’s fascinating to me that creativity (and the valuing of it) is not-so-loosely connected to self-care (and the valuing of it). (I’ve written tons here on the topic of self-care as it relates to creativity, because the two are so deeply intertwined.)
I’ve noticed over the years, first when I was in grad school pursuing a degree in creative writing, and then, as I started working with life coaching clients back in 2011, that so many of us start out with this very natural creative curiosity and purpose — and then, we start to apply these ideas about “what it takes to make it in the world” to our creativity.
And we can end up very burned out, and, sometimes, very bitter and what I call “creatively confused.” This is where we’re like, “What the heck happened? I used to love [writing, acting, painting] and now I am sick of it. I just want to crawl into a hole.”
The thing is, this is almost always a lie. We’re not sick of whatever our creative thing is — we’re sick of the beliefs and the process that extends from those beliefs that we’ve created around our creative thing.
In other words, we have this tendency to recreate the family members that don’t get it, and the “world out there” which dictates that there isn’t real value or money in our creative work so why do it?, inside ourselves.
It’s kind of like how you might have had a lot of bad bosses when you were an employee, but when you shift to self-employment, if you don’t watch how you’re treating yourself, you can end up being the worst boss you ever had.
So to circle back to Rebecca’s excellent question: we need to commit to giving ourselves the permission, the kindness, the self-care, the encouragement, that we never got (and in many cases are not currently getting) from our families of origin and “the world”.
At a certain point, it is no longer about them — it is about us and the fact that we’ve recreated their lack of understanding and validation inside ourselves. And when we’re not giving it to ourselves, we want it from them (and the world) that much more.
We will feel shaken — and that’s okay
Okay — so, waaayyyy easier said than done, right? Because we are human — we’re vulnerable and fragile, and, as one of my friends says, “I keep getting stronger, but then some days I break all over again.” Yes. We do. We all do, some days.
So, we will be shaken by the world around us that does not seem to value our creative work, our need for self-care, and who we essentially are — on some days. It will happen.
Recognizing that it’s going to happen is important. Because then when it happens, we don’t have to be all appalled and frightened. In other words, we don’t have to be shaken about being shaken. We can just be like, “Oh — I’m noticing it’s happening again.”
Exquisite support: share deeply only with those who really get it
So that’s when we turn to our support systems — inner and outer. This is how we create for ourselves the world we want to live in.
This is when we turn to radical self-care, and to exquisite support — the people who really do get it.
We are enormously blessed in this day and age that technology allows us to connect with people who get it, who get us. (I was curious about a line in a song on Tori Amos’s gorgeous new album recently and I asked the members of a Tori Facebook group what they thought it meant, and I received some beautifully detailed responses from people who’d also been pondering this same line in this same song literally within minutes.)
For many of us, this support must come from outside of our family of origin.
I don’t mean that we shouldn’t work to heal from the past — we can and often must — but when we try to receive the exquisite support we require from the source of the original wounding (or simply lack of understanding), we are actually recreating our pain. (Or just banging our head against the wall. You may have heard the phrase “Don’t go to the hardware store for milk.” It applies here.)
I am very careful about what I share with family members about my creative work. Because I value emotional connection so much, it’s easy for me to “overshare”, so I am mindful here.
Giving ourselves permission to be selective about who we share with is fundamental to self-care in this way. Notice who deeply sees and supports you, and who seems to stir up negative stuff for you. You can love people and still limit your discussions on certain topics with them.
(Note that your capacity to share with certain people may change from month to month, year to year, depending on where you are and what you’re going through — and vice versa.)
The other thing, which is foundational, is to remind yourself regularly of your why? Why is what you’re creating important to you? When you are deeply in touch with your “why”, your creative purpose has strong roots and you are not as easily shaken.
Surround yourself with the conditions — as much as you can — that remind you of your why and validate it, that help you remember it is important, it is worthwhile.
(In a future post, we’ll get into what to do when you’ve lost touch with your “why.” Edit: Find that post here.)
There is so much more here. For now, I’ll let you take the wheel. What do you think? How do you reaffirm your belief in your creativity and support yourself in making it a focus? I’d love to hear from you. And huge thanks to Rebecca for this excellent inquiry.