Confidence or Consequence

How do you see yourself? How do others see you? Are you confident, poised, and ready to tackle life’s challenges? Or do you second-guess your efforts believing you don’t measure up? Perhaps you feel as if you’re only as good as your last job (or painting).

The latter is an all too familiar trait in artists regardless of their talent or career achievements. It’s not just an art thing, it’s a people thing. This feeling of self-depreciation and self-doubt can hit anybody anytime and anywhere deflecting the best of intentions or aspirations. The reality is perplexing considering the brilliant careers artists have gained then lost in a pool of self-doubt. And even worse, many have cut their lives short, not believing in themselves or their work. The list astounds: Vincent Van Gogh, Diane Arbus, Arshille Gorky, Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko, and most recently, Mike Kelley whose pre-emptive sacrifice deprived the world of so much more.

Evelyn Kalinosky points out in Forbes that despite praise and promotions, many accomplished professionals suffer from deep self-doubt. She also writes of the phenomenon: Impostor Syndrome. Research that began in 1978 with the work of psychotherapists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes found that many women with notable achievements also had high levels of self-doubt. This deep lack of confidence–which couldn’t be equated with anxiety or other disorders–appeared to involve a deep sense of inauthenticity and an inability to internalize their successes.[1]

My doctoral research in the social and material conditions of artist emergence revealed self-doubt as a common narrative, which existed in the majority of artists whom I interviewed. No matter how many accolades, NEA Grants, Guggenheim Fellowships, international exhibitions, collector sales, museum acquisitions, or critical praise artists received throughout their illustrious careers, the consensus experienced feelings of “If only. . . .” However, in every case, this was offset by a passion in the creative process, which led to self-awareness, self-confidence, and ultimately success for those in my study. [In Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualization is at the peak referencing the desire for self-fulfillment or reaching one’s potential, as it appeared many did.] 

Self-confidence is a key variable that significantly contributes to an artist’s professional acumen and career success. It works similar to the way optimism stimulates well-being in the healing process. The word aligns with the term self-esteem.

Self-confidence is defined as: confidence in oneself and in one’s powers and abilities. Synonyms include: assurance, self-assurance, self-esteem and self-trust. Antonyms include: insecurity, self-distrust, and self-doubt. 

Self-esteem is: a confidence and satisfaction in oneself: self-respect; and self-conceit. Synonyms include: ego, pridefulness, self-regard, and self-respect. Antonyms include: humbleness, humility, and modesty.

The first known use of the term “Self-confidence” emerged in 1609, and in 1657, “Self-esteem” was added to the vocabulary. In an Art Historical trajectory, these terms date back to Post Renaissance Art (c.1600-1850) when prominent movements such as: Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and Realism reflected societal change following the European revival of Fine Art during the Renaissance (c.1300-1620).

Oddly enough, in 1667, around the time these terms appeared in the lexicon, it is noted that Italian architect Francesco Borromini took his own life. He was a chief formulator of Baroque architectural style and designed San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane church in Rome. Borromini was also a contemporary of Gian Lorenzo Bernini who dominated the Roman art world of the seventeenth century, flourishing under the patronage of its cardinals and popes while also challenging contemporary artistic traditions.[2] Was Borromini’s early demise the result of peer rivalry or financial setbacks the project incurred?

[Some of Bernini’s works include: “Apollo and Daphne,” (1622–24), Galleria Borghese, Rome; and “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,” (1647–52), Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome (shown at left); and for Borromini, the Church of Saint Charles at the Four Fountains, all of which I was privileged to experience many years ago during a post-graduate study in Italy.]

Creativity beyond doubt

Psychologist Douglas Eby, M.A. is a writer and researcher on the psychology of creative expression and personal growth, especially for high ability adults. He is publisher of the Talent Development Resources, a series of sites offering information on personal growth, inspiration, and creativity research from psychologists, coaches, entrepreneurs, and artists. Articles, interviews, and resources cover topics such as: Developing Creativity and Innovation, Psychology, Achievement, Anxiety/Stress, Career, Courage/Confidence, Depression, Growth/Change, Mental Health, Developing Creativity and Innovation, Nurturing Talent, Eccentricity, Entrepreneur, Achievement, Passion, Purpose, Self-criticism, Self-esteem, and more. [See: www.talentdevelop.com]

John Lennon once said,“Part of me suspects that I’m a loser,                                                    and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.”

Building Self-confidence – reducing our need for approval

In his article, “Would you like to stop worrying about what others think?” Morty Lefkoe explains some of the psychodynamics of low self-regard, our need for approval, and how his program can eliminate “I’m not good enough” beliefs. If we don’t experience being good enough the way we are and we need something outside ourselves to become good enough, how often would we want that outside something to occur? All the time! “As a result, the need to have others think well of us is experienced like a drug addiction by many people.” (Eby 2009)[3]

In my December 19, 2011 post, “Constructs of Emergence,” I blogged about tenacity, grit, success, and overcoming obstacles.

Here are “5 Great Ways to Conquer Self-Doubt,” by Alexandra Levit, career advice columnist for the Wall Street Journal:

1. Go back in time: The first step to overcoming self doubt is to recognize that it’s there in the first place. Think about the circumstances that are leading you to feel insecure, and see if you notice any patterns. Are there particular situations (for example, dealing with a new boss, speaking in public) that prompt you to feel this way? Make a note of times in the past when you doubted yourself but ended up coming through with flying colors. Knowledge and recognition of your past successes will bolster your courage regarding what you can achieve in the future.

2. Defeat the doubtful thoughts: In one column, write a doubtful thought, and in the opposite column, write facts that dispute that doubtful thought. For instance, suppose you are afraid to invite a new colleague to lunch because you’re afraid you won’t have anything to talk about and she won’t like me. Statements that refute that thought might be: “We can spend at least an hour talking about the office culture here and what she did before this” and “She will like me because I’ve made a sincere overture to get to know her better.”

3. Keep an event journal: If you are a person who experiences a lot of self doubt, then it’s time for a test. In the course of a single day, write down all of the things – simple and complex – that you accomplished without a hitch. These can be things like “ran productive staff meeting” or “had great talk with Brandon over coffee.” Then, write down the things that didn’t go so well. You will inevitably notice that the list of things that went well far outweighs the list of things that didn’t, and this will hopefully allow you to see your doubt in a different light.

4. Call on your cheerleaders: Often, our loved ones can see our lives much more objectively than we can. Being a natural introvert, I sometimes doubt my interpersonal skills, and when someone doesn’t respond to me in the way that I expect, I occasionally get paranoid. It always helps to call one of my best friends so that she can assure me that I do in fact have a lot of wonderful relationships in my life.

5. Celebrate your successes: When a situation in which you doubted yourself turns out better than you expected, don’t just nod and smile and move immediately on to the next thing. Take a moment and reward yourself for a positive outcome. Do something you enjoy like going to your favorite restaurant or eating a delectable dessert. Taking the time to cement positive emotions in your mind will hopefully make the doubt disappear more quickly next time.

Quotes on the topic …

“Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” Voltaire

“If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.” Oscar Wilde

“Pessimism of the spirit; optimism of the will.”        Antonio Gramsci

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.” Helen Keller

“For myself I am an optimist––it does not seem to be much use being anything else.” Winston Churchill

“Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.”                        Dalai Lama XIV

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” Noam Chomsky

“The knowledge that we consider knowledge proves itself in action. What we now mean by knowledge is information in action, information focused on results.” Peter F. Drucker

“Thou hast seen nothing yet.” Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

You are what you believe

For me, to step away from the source of frustration or an environment that informs self-doubt is essential to quiet my mind and regain a positive mental attitude. Meditation, going for a walk, talking with friends, or enjoying the panoramic vistas of a nearby canyon and lake seem to do the trick. Of course, experiencing art always motivates, inspires, and brings me back to center. Whatever gives you pause, take a moment and know that you are an integral part of the whole. And, a creative one at that.


[1] Kalinosky, Evelyn. ForbesWoman Views. “Feeling Like A Fraud: Living With Impostor Syndrome,” (Feb. 22, 2012). 28 Feb. 2012 <http://www.forbes.com/2010/02/22/imposter-syndrome-professional-fraud-forbes-woman-leadership-psychology.html&gt;.

[2] Otto, Christian F. “Francesco Borromini.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 Feb. 2012 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/74478/Francesco-Borromini&gt;.

[3] Eby, Douglas. Talent Development Resources. (May 19, 2009). 28 February 2012 <http://talentdevelop.com /1315/building-self-confidence-reducing-our-need-for-approval/>.

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2 thoughts on “Confidence or Consequence

  1. Good morning, Jill.
    I found your article incisive, relevant, and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing this. I have always considered you to be an inspirational light for those of us who wish to live artistically. Excellent work! Jim

  2. Jill,
    Enjoyed this read. The thoughts and facts flowed with a study I am doing. My question of the week is “Who am I?” When we realise the answer to that question it will claifiy what we do and why we do it. Which in turn will help us remove the self doubt. We will have to discuss this over breakfast. I found your words very relevant. And they will give me another dimesion to consider when searching for the answer to my question.

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