Slaying the Self Sabotage Voice

Over the years I’ve been painting I have definitely struggled with  confidence, I never think anything I make is quite good enough. This is despite many many people saying they love my art.

I’ve often found myself desperate for external validation. You know what that’s like right? You finish something you’re working on, you take a photograph, you share it on Instagram then spend the rest of the day checking in to see if you’ve had any likes. I can’t be alone in this?
And the irony is that even when I get the likes and receive the validation, I don’t believe it. I just think people are absentmindedly clicking the heart, or being kind, or it’s only family. So it fails to convince me that what I’ve produced is any good.
This – shall I call it neediness? – about my art has led to some arguments with my husband. It usually goes as follows. I show him a piece, he says he loves it. I immediately start listing everything that’s wrong with it. He reiterates his love of the piece.  I carry on listing the negatives. Finally exasperated he asks, “Why do you even ask me, you don’t listen to anything I say!” He takes my negativity personally, as if I’m saying his opinion isn’t valid or valuable. But of course it’s not about that at all (although I understand him feeling that way). It’s the fact I’m lacking in confidence and so I’m listing all the faults I can see before anyone else can, some sort of self preservation instinct I think. I do it sometimes in my Instagram captions too.
And sometimes the criticism is valid. Even though I might have loved the piece when I first completed it I find that even a moment later my feelings can change. Sometimes this happens when I take a photo – the photo seems to show up all the awkward bits that my naked eye failed to spot. Or it happens when I leave it for an hour and then return to look at it. I see that unresolved spot bottom right or the jarring bit top left, something that unsettles the piece and I know I have to fix it. I think this is normal, part of developing as an artist, and part of getting your art to the very best state you can make it, the goal of all artists surely. And the more we do this, the better our eye becomes so we can spot these issues earlier and know what we need to do to fix the painting (I have ruined many a piece trying to fix something but ending up making everything worse!). This is all part of becoming more experienced in what you are doing.
Sometimes I find I also lack confidence if I’m trying to work in an area I don’t enjoy. I’m all for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone but if it’s something that you don’t enjoy then it maybe a sign that it’s not for you. I’m a bit like that with collage. I love the work so many artists produce using collage, it’s amazing, but I just cant get into it, I don’t enjoy doing it and whenever I use it in a piece I either end up painting over it completely or throwing the piece away because I know its something I’d never show anyone. Perhaps I could get more confident in this area if I enjoyed it more and did it more but I don’t so I won’t!
So confidence can definitely come from doing what you love. When I love what I’m painting, when I’m in the flow and time just melts away, those paintings are usually the ones I’m most confident about. Those are the ones where I’m  excitedly shouting down to my husband and daughter to come and see what I’ve done. They are the pieces that come from a deeper part of myself, the part that knows what it wants to do rather than what it thinks it should do. Those paintings reflect something about me and my take on the world, and at least when I first finish painting those are the ones I’m most confident about. So enjoying the process is key. If you’re enjoying it your work will reflect a confidence and you in turn will feel more confident about it.
I think the subject is important too. Invariably when I’m painting the landscape I feel connected and invested in my piece. It is expressing something important to me, my love of the natural beauty that surrounds us, a beauty that takes many different forms. I’m drawn to the shapes, colours, the way it looks at different times of day, what you see close up compared to how it looks from afar etc. When I work on a subject matter I love I feel more confident and it shows in my work.
I should also say I think it’s natural to lack confidence when you are still relatively new to art or to a new art medium and you are still getting to grips with it. It’s natural when learning not to be confident about what you are doing because – well – you are learning. The way to overcome this is to keep on learning, keep practicing, and not give up at the first hurdle. As your skills grow so should your confidence. But note I’ve said should because I know it’s not always as straightforward as that. More on this below.
So it’s important to nail down where the lack of confidence is coming from. Is it because this is a new area of work for you so you are still learning? Is it because you just don’t enjoy the process and deep down know it’s not for you? Is it because you have looked at a piece with fresh eyes and can see that a certain section needs fixing? It’s natural to lack confidence because of all of these things and there are actions you can take to resolve these things, i.e.  practice more, stop doing what you don’t love, fix that jarring area. But if your lack of confidence is manifesting as continuous negative self talk despite resolving all of the above – then that needs addressing. And you know the self talk I mean –  I’m useless, I’ll never get this right, why did I post it, no one likes it, they’re just being kind etc. This self talk is not helpful. I know it, I’ve done it, but it does not help.
So what do we do? Well we need to recognise that voice for what it is – it’s the Self Sabotage Voice – and it is not our friend and it does not speak the truth. That voice is not an expert in your art, it’s not an expert in any art, it knows nothing. So when you hear it put it in its place. In  the words of Ygritte to Jon Snow tell it, “You know nothing!” and then release it. You don’t need its input. You need to listen to the real expert – you – the person who was so happy painting that piece an hour ago and so excited to show it when it was finished. That’s the person you should listen to because that person is right. You are amazing. We all are. And it’s time to start believing it.