Learning to Enjoy Life through Craft
Embrace the healing powers of creativity.
It used to be that when I started a new work of art, the earlier process would frustrate me as the image under my hands failed to match the idea that I had floating in my head. I would layer on more paint with the ideas of This is no good or Why even bother? in my mind, carried into the forefront of my vision by little monsters in a meanness parade, dancing through my consciousness with giant banners adorned with limiting beliefs. They would stand tall and demand attention, blocking the sun and denying access to my reservoir of self-motivation.
With each negative thought came a tight sensation in my chest, a drop in my stomach, my body seeming to whisper back Your thoughts are correct, validating and energizing that bitter morsel of self-doubt with the feeling of anxiety, thus sending signals back upstairs to my brain for more, more, more negativity.
The thing is, as time would pass and I would get closer to some semblance of an image, or rather, my goal, I would be exactly that: Closer to my goal. I almost always would become more satisfied at this point and decide “Yes, now I’m working on something,” and yet still I would continue onward with a critical mindset prone to beating myself up.
Although art-making had been (and continues to be) my personal form of therapy, and although it helped me get into the present and occasionally shake off those pesky little monsters, I would still go through periods where I struggled to feel much joy in my creation.
Where is the fun in that?
— — -
What purpose does any negativity towards the self serve? Certainly an outsider’s perspective, even some constructive criticism, can be an excellent vehicle for growth. Unfortunately for many of us, criticism can be difficult to take when you identify strongly with your craft. And when said criticism is coming from yourself? Game over. You’ll never make it, says the mind, You’re the worst. And you’ll believe it, because it’s coming from you.
Condescension towards oneself is a quick way to solidify “reasons” for low self-esteem. Looking at your life in any given moment and telling yourself something along the lines of You are no good is a far-too-common, mislead attempt to “turn it all around.” But an action driven by self-hatred will only continue the spiral of negativity. In this mindset, whatever you do in response to the idea I am not good enough will not extinguish this painful belief; quite the opposite, it will strengthen it, as you’ve just given the thought so much of your energy by honoring the idea as true.
The idea of needing/allowing your work to define who you are, as opposed to the idea that your work is something you do- is the discernment that needs to be made, or at least the one that I needed to make to help myself along my path.
The more you identify with some idea- that is, the more you garner your sense of “I am” through something that is bound to change- the more you struggle. Identifying too strongly with any given idea is not only the key to an anxious mind, but it is futile. The truth is, all things change. As my mother would always say in my younger bouts of depression, transmuting the wisdom she gained on a 60 year (and counting, thankfully) journey, “This, too, shall pass.” And she was right.
To touch upon the ideas of Eckhart Tolle- A young man identifies as a strong, successful athlete. It is who he is. Then one day, he is injured. He can no longer work his body as he used to. He is no longer an athlete. But that’s who he was- an athlete. Who is he then?
The way I see it now, we are all the same, really, in essence. None of us chose the bodies we were to inhabit. Our parents had a role, but they didn’t choose their bodies, either. We are all the same energy experiencing life in the bodies we were given.
Just consider that. It’s astonishing, really, the intricacies that fuel this powerful machine, the way our brains can process information, the way our hands, arms, legs can work instantaneously with that magnificent bundle of thoughts, memories, hopes and dreams. I dare say, it’s beautiful, all of it.
Here’s where that beauty fails to sustain you. When you allow negativity to coat your mind with sludge, your thoughts are tainted with it. You become less hopeful, less open, less close to the chance of feeling freedom and gratitude. As you act on these thoughts, more negativity manifests in your life. You attract negative situations, or you are unable to appreciate positive ones. You are trapped by your mind, and when you believe the thoughts you tell yourself, it can feel as if there’s no way out. Anxiety, panic, dismay…. Wouldn’t you rather feel free? Because if you’re reading this, chances are, in a more literal sense, you are free. But your mind is holding your back.
I lived this way for a very long time…. This is what helped me on my path. It wasn’t some “miracle” cure, it wasn’t changing my body is some way, it wasn’t some tea or some cash prize or some drastic relocation. I simply decided to stop using what I did to gather my sense of who I am. I stopped needing to change because I didn’t like myself. I decided I had to change because I loved myself, and I deserved a mindset that treated me better.
Because, here’s the thing: Regardless of how well I did in school, how many friends I had, how much success I had in my art career, it was never enough to make me feel whole, complete, and happy with myself. Why? Because everything I did was powered, in a way, by the thought I am not good enough. And by working towards goals with that negative idea in mind, hoped though I did that the next success would finally end the psychological nightmare, I was never happy with myself. What does any of it matter if you cannot feel happy with yourself?
When we don’t feel happy with ourselves, we reach and yearn for others to tell us who we are, to temporarily mollify the pain around the thought I am not good enough. And for a moment, for a day, for a week even, perhaps the compliments can help. But what does outside adoration matter if it does not resonate with you, if you don’t truly believe it? So again, you try to do something to prove to the world that you can be good enough. Perhaps winning that game, acing that test, finishing that art piece can help. But haven’t you noticed that this feeling eventually goes away? That you’re suddenly not good enough again until you accomplish the next big thing? Until you finish, until you improve, until you win? Until, until, until….
(I don’t think the key to feeling good about yourself lies in not accomplishing anything. Quite the contrary, I believe that when you actually do feel good about yourself, you can accomplish things beyond your wildest dreams, and you’ll enjoy your life in the process.)
So where does this leave us?
Whatever it is you do, it’s time to do it with joy. And for me, the key to this was to stop telling myself I am an artist and thus feel incredibly conflicted whenever an art piece wasn’t going as planned. Instead I shifted my thought process along the lines of I am a person who loves making art. It may seem silly, corny, too simplistic, but it has made a world of difference. Now while I work, I jump into the present moment, I focus on my breathing and the beautiful colors flowing from my brush. I feel the warmth that comes through the window in my studio. I watch as the piece progresses, and I enjoy it every step of the way. I no longer allow the little monsters in my mind to disrupt my process, as I’m enjoying myself too much. Now I work with the belief that we are all good enough, but it is our minds, our negative mental habits, that lead us into trouble. I no longer worry as much about the outcome, about the future, about the what-ifs that are tainted by a troubled mind.
And something funny happened. As I stopped caring so much about the outcome of my art, and instead focused on the joy I felt as I was doing it, the outcomes had improved. My future improved. My world- that around me and that within me- improved.
I love my life now. If you don’t already, I hope you can learn to love yours, too.