The Beauty of Self-Doubt as a Creative

I have a confession to make: I do not have it all together.

Not now, not ever, not ever gonna have it all together. Not even close.

I had plans to write something awesome for you this week, but I’m battling a pretty deep bout of imposter syndrome and struggling big time with self-doubt. So instead, I’m going to share a quintessential truth that all creatives need to hear. It’s something I tweeted a while back, and it resonated with many people:

I think one of the greatest gifts you can give someone is the reassurance that they are not the only one. — Me, Brian Gardner

It’s no secret that I’m an advocate of authenticity, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I share this piece of good news: you are not alone.

Everyone struggles, everyone has self-doubt. But why is it that creatives are singled out more often than not when it comes to depression?

Think about it — some of the greatest writers, musicians, and painters of our time have been labeled this way. And while this might be the case, they have also produced some of the greatest art that our generation has ever seen.

When I was younger, my mother said she thought I was never happy unless I was sad, and although at the time I denied it, I knew deep in my heart she was right. For me, when I was going through difficult times, I sought refuge in art. I was happy, because I was creating — writing poetry, music, and doing design.

As creatives, I think we channel that part of ourselves more than most, and if we’re good at it, we turn that negative energy into something wonderful: art.

The Truth About Self-Doubt

Jeff Goins says something I think we all resonate with:

Most writers struggle with the same thing, one thought that threatens to destroy their message before it ever leaves their fingertips: what I say doesn’t matter.

Obviously you can apply this fear to any type of creative — I know that I struggle with this as a designer. Sometimes I feel that my efforts just aren’t worth it.

But here’s the one thing I know about self-doubt: some of my greatest work as an artist has been created during seasons of it. It is during those times that I am able to dive deep into my heart and emotions and produce nuggets of gold.

Susan Biali, M.D. and author of Prescriptions for Life, thinks creative people have characteristics that make them more vulnerable — and I can’t say that I disagree with her.

She wrote a fantastic piece about a book that most creatives should read: The Creative Brain (affiliate), by neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen.

Susan writes:

According to Andreasen, our openness to new experiences, tolerance for ambiguity, and the way we approach life enables us to perceive things in a fresh and novel way. Less creative types “quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority”, while creatives live in a more fluid and nebulous (read: incredibly stressful) world.

Once again, I can’t say that I disagree with her. Creativity is all about contemplation, so it only makes sense all of that thinking leads to manic episodes of feeling hopeless, alone, or like a failure — e.g. self-doubt.

Self-Doubt and the Music Industry

One of my favorite ways to pass time is listening to music. For me, it’s therapeutic, and often sets the tone during my evening creative sessions.

Last night I was listening to Alanis Morissette’s Unplugged album, and put her song “That I Would Be Good” on repeat for nearly an hour.

The lyrics in that song relate to her intimate feelings about being judged, insecurity and self-doubt, expressing in theme and variation the desire to be sufficient in the face of changing external circumstances.

I thought back to my early days as a creative entrepreneur, long before StudioPress ever became a multi-million dollar line of business. In those days, I judged myself by how many themes I sold, because at the time, it was the only metric I knew. On days I sold very little, that was how I perceived my worth.

The danger in being a creative is that it’s somewhat easy to quantify our output — how many albums we sell, how many books we sell, how many WordPress themes we sell — because it’s just numbers. Black and white.

Another musician I relate to, and often also listen to during late-night creative sessions is Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses. Much like Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, his angst and questioning of life produced some of the greatest music of our time.

Axl’s bandmate and GNR lead guitarist, Slash, says this about him:

As volatile as he is, all the things that you might find complicated or difficult about Axl, is what fuels him to be such an amazing performer and such an amazing songwriter.

Yes, art is complicated. And yes, creatives are complicated.

I can say that, because I am one, and know this to be true. The most difficult part in my creative process is separating my feelings — my seasons of self-doubt — with the art (and perceived value) that I create.

In a candid conversation about singer Lana Del Rey, Pop Trigger host Brett Erlich explains in grave detail the truth about being a creative. It’s something that’s true for me, and probably true for many:

It’s tough when you’re an artist. Because when you’re an artist, your disorders and your dysfunctions sometimes, and frequently, are the catalyst for your artistic endeavors and create this art that people really enjoy because you’re really opening yourself up and showing your side that people can identify with.

He goes on to say:

The problem with that is then, in a way, you feel like you need these dysfunctions, whether that’s true or not, and you might be afraid to move past them because you’ve had so much success with those dysfunctions, you’re afraid what would be on the other side of them.

Years ago when I was in college, I was clinically diagnosed with major depression, admitted into a psychiatric facility, and placed under suicide watch. Trust me, these weren’t my “glory days,” but I learned a lesson back then which has made a world of difference: my imperfections are beautiful.

I slowly found value in who I was — as a person, and as an artist — and begun to understand that happiness is subjective. I am comfortable with my insecurities now, because those insecurities are the catalyst, as Brett speaks of, for something that ends up making me feel secure: my art.

So I wonder, why do we even need to work though them? Why can’t we just embrace who we are and work within that? I really think we should.

I leave you with this: When you are sitting alone in a dark room — as I often do — contemplating your value and self-worth, wondering if what you say matters, it does. Know that you are not just good, you are more than good. You are great.

Keep creating, and keep working through self-doubt. The world needs your art.

Photo credit: By Look Magazine, Photographer (NARA record: 1106476) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published at Authentik.

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