"Anxiety is Killing My Creativity"

If you Google it, Google might (un)helpfully suggest that anxiety is killing your chickens, but if you've recently thought to yourself, "anxiety is killing my creativity", I'm here to help!

As someone who has struggled in the past with anxiety related to making art, I know exactly how frustrating it can be. I've bought a few self-help books specifically created for artists that promised to deliver anxiety relief and to make me a more prolific artist, and not one of them ever did.

I did all kinds of things to try and relieve my anxiety;

  • I bought new furniture and decorations for my studio, thinking if I made it a more efficient and inspiring space, results would follow. This did not work.
  • I enrolled in art school, thinking it would give me direction. Instead I had panic attacks before and sometimes during classes. This, obviously, did not work.
  • I bought self-help books and took 12-week 12-step programs for artists. This did not work.
  • I tried listening to music or TV shows while I worked. This did not work, either.

Only after I tried all of these "tried and true" methods did I finally discover what worked.

Eventually, I faced my anxiety. I sat down and started a journal on my computer, and every day I wrote down what made me anxious. I made lists and action plans to complete projects and paintings, set deadlines, and kept notes about each painting.

This also became part of my ritual. I really think that having a ritual is essential to get yourself in the mindset to go to work. Especially if you are self-employed, or do not otherwise have a day-job, you need a ritual just like anyone who goes to work every day. My ritual is that I eat pretty much the same breakfast each day (2 eggs, a high-fiber English muffin with Greek yogurt cream cheese spread, a banana or serving of other seasonal fruit, and one cappuccino) after getting up at roughly the same time each day (between 6 and 7, typically). I also try to exercise each morning, as I've found exercise is essential in eliminating anxiety. I shower, brush my teeth, put on lotion, dress in work clothes, and put on comfortable shoes if it's winter time. In the summer, I typically go barefoot everywhere. I fill my water bottle with fresh ice water, I pull my oil palette from the freezer so my paint can warm up, and I write down any notes, anxieties, deadlines or other bits of information at the forefront of my mind.

(This part of this blog entry is going to sound completely insane to anyone who has never dealt with this type of anxiety. Sorry.)

I listen to podcasts and free audiobooks from Librivox.org. Right now, and for the past several months, I have been listening to Conan the Barbarian audiobooks and the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, and Lore whenever new episodes are available. I found that music really didn't help in the long run. I felt that my anxiety was coming from the analytical or "left side" of my brain, as it was always over-analytical in nature ("why did you say that eighteen days ago in the grocery store?" "remember that one time you fell down at your 7th birthday? you're so embarrassing.") and music that I had heard before did not provide an analytical distraction. So everything I listened to had to be new. If I had heard it more than two or three times, it wouldn't give me something else to listen to and "work on" while I painted.

TV shows were too distracting. I kept turning to see what was happening, and if there were subtitles or something, it was completely unlistenable. For this reason, I tend to stick to podcasts and audiobooks these days.

Essentially, I had to drown out any background thought processes by entertaining my entire brain while I worked. I've also known artists who used this time to learn from languages on tape and things like that. Again, this will sound completely insane to a lot of people, but a lot of artists have faced this same conundrum, so I (and you) are not alone.

(The crazy part is probably over. For now.)

I also had to learn to let go of "the perfect time".

This is a fairy tale many artists believe that they need a certain amount of time to work in. I used to think that if I didn't have the entire day to make art, then it wasn't worth even trying. Now I know that I can accomplish a lot in 20 minutes, and if all I get in a day is 20 minutes, at least I am 20 minutes closer to being finished tomorrow. Now that I'm a mother, if I didn't take advantage of every 20 minutes that came my way, and only waited until I had an entire day to work, I would never get anything done.

(On the same note, creating the perfect art studio won't help you, either. Some of the best artists in the history of the world sat on the floor of studios that definitely weren't ripped from the pages of Pottery Barn.)

I had to stop being afraid that I would disappoint myself.

The fear that you aren't good enough can keep you from ever putting pencil to paper. It can be difficult to practice drawing or painting when you're looking at that pristine white sheet and thinking, "I'm just going to mess this up." But you know what will be even more disappointing than ruining a sheet of paper or canvas? Not even trying in the first place.

It's so logical it's stupid, but it's a mantra that I still have to repeat to myself almost every time I start a new painting. Some artists call this "horror vacui", but I call it "art is really *bleeping* hard." And you know what? It's okay that art is still really *bleeping* hard, even if you're 5, 10, or 20 years into your career. But it's not going to get easier if you don't screw up a few pieces of paper.

To that end, there are a lot of exercises you can try. Working on toned paper or cutting paper into smaller pieces has worked for some. But for me, the only way to get over it is to suck it up and start working. It doesn't matter how bad it is, I just have to get that first sketch out each morning. If it's really ugly I can throw it in the garbage and no one ever has to know.

I switched mediums.

This was one of the hardest parts. I had spent almost ten years building my skills as a digital artist, but I wasn't happy. I felt like I had hit a wall. I interpreted this as dissatisfaction with myself and my work, and I went on feeling like this for most of a year. I finally had to be honest with myself and address my feelings and where they came from.

They were actually feelings of anxiety about switching to a new medium. I knew I was done with digital in that capacity, and I knew that a switch to oils was inevitable. But I was worried that I wouldn't be able to create work at the standard that I had before, or that it would take me a long time to build up the necessary skills to create the work I wanted to create. Of course it took time, and after a year and a half of practice, I finally feel fairly proficient with oils. I no longer feel the dread that I used to feel when I got up to work each morning. And if I ever feel like those old anxieties are coming back, I put a brush or pencil in my hand, push those thoughts aside, turn on my podcast, and get my ass to work.

(Now for the mean part. I'm sorry, again.)

In the end, I had to be honest with myself, and be my own drill sergeant.

I spent a lot of time trying to hide from my anxiety, or trying to convince myself that it would be cured by classes or books or anything except for making art. The ONLY cure was to make art. Every single time. Whether you are facing an artistic block or just overwhelming anxiety, the only thing that will make it go away is making art. I had to be mean to myself. I had to cut through my own emotional crap and find the roots. And once I had done that, I had to make myself sit down and do the work, instead of sitting around and wallowing in my frustration.

How many paintings did I lose in all the hours I spent telling myself I couldn't? How much skill would I have now if I had spent that time painting instead? How much money did I waste on school, classes, books, and decorations trying to create the perfect skill set in the perfect environment at the perfect time? How much effort did I waste on this stupid "magical thinking"?

I know, and you know, that art is not magic. It's struggle and blood, sweat, and tears. It's years of sacrifice, having no personal life, no hobbies, no free time. The art will not conjure itself out of thin air just because you wish really hard or followed a book full of artsy-fartsy advice, like taking your imaginary muse on dates. You have to show up and kick your own ass all the way to the finish line, because no one else will do it for you.