Carrie Seid working in her studio.
Carrie Seid is a high-performance coach for creative professionals.
Both the fear of failure and the enormity of what’s possible can cause creative anxiety.
I have been a professional artist for 26 years, but there are still times when I want to run screaming from my studio at top speed — as if repelled by invisible forces.
After merely entering and staring into the abyss of my raw materials, my stomach jumps with anxiety. It's a weird mixture of excitement and dread.
Whether “bad” or “good,” creative anxiety triggers stalling, procrastinating, tortilla chip chomping and wasteful Netflix bingeing.
Anxiety can be broken down into “good” and “bad” anxiety
We’ll start with “bad,” so we can end on a positive note.
Bad news: the brain is wired for negativity. Having this instinct means that about 60% of the time, we see the glass as half-empty and look for confirmation that we suck. We don’t focus on the evidence that we are, in fact, fundamentally okay and overwhelmingly capable of changing the world.
Fear stands for “False Evidence Appearing Real.”
The fear gremlin follows me into the studio every day and taunts me with these questions:
What if I can’t come up with any good ideas?
What if I waste these expensive materials on something that goes nowhere?
What if I spend hours and hours on this thing and nobody wants to show or buy it?
What if I’m just being ridiculous thinking I’m going to sell this piece for thousands of dollars? Like, real dollars?
How can I outdo myself this time?
Why did I buy so many shades of white paint, anyway?
And what’s with all that expensive Japanese rice paper? What could I possibly do to that stuff to improve it?
Even now, the fear gremlin is sitting on my shoulder, trying to get my attention. Fear is relentless with its criticism and disapproving attitude. That’s his job, so I’m told by my therapist friends.
Those negative voices are a part of the brain that’s wired for survival, the part that senses danger and prepares us for tigers who want to eat us. But, the question comes down to: “Is a blank canvas really as perilous as a charging jungle beast?” I say, “Of course not!”
Carrie Seid working in her studio.
Now how do we get our nervous system to know the difference between bad fear and good fear?
When I start to feel creative fear, I get overwhelmed and want to run. But wait, this is my art! The thing I love to do, the thing that’s kept me up into the wee hours … why don’t I even want to start?
As a high-performance coach for creative professionals, I can assure you this is normal.
With even a rudimentary understanding of how we are wired for survival, I get that my amygdala is my brain’s mechanism for signaling danger and that there is a vast difference between a charging tiger and a blank canvas. So, why does a pile of acrylics scare me out of the room and into the comforting arms of my couch ... especially when I enjoy the creative process so much?
Here are some strategies I’ve developed to deal with the kind of creative anxiety that stops you. When your gremlin starts yapping, I propose the following:
Greet your fear warmly, like an old friend.
It’s natural to feel fear and apprehension when you’re staring at a blank canvas and hoping for magic!
Resisting anxiety takes more energy than accepting and working with it.
It may sound silly, but give your gremlin a name. Let’s say, Fred, for instance. Tell Fred: “I hear you. Come on — but, sit over there and be quiet. I have work to do and if it doesn’t come out right the first time, I’ll fix it later.”
Procrastinate with purpose!
Procrastination is just anxiety with a bad rap.
We procrastinate to make space between decisions. When you feel the need to flee, give yourself permission to do so! But, put a time limit on your procrastination so you won’t fall into a deep wave of web surfing or “researching.”
Two minutes of sitting down and deep breathing can work wonders for your productivity. I keep all my favorite art books in my studio so I can turn procrastination breaks into inspiration interludes. Sometimes hitting the books can be a breath of fresh air, but keep it to a minimum so your heart’s song can get sung. This is to give you an energetic supercharge, not necessarily an idea for your project.
Spend only 20 minutes making a decision about what’s next.
I got this great advice from one of my Freshman Foundation professors at RISD, and I’ve used it ever since! It’s easy to make excuses for not moving ahead. Practicing this one builds your “creative risk muscle” and makes taking risks easier over time. This is huge. Start using it today.
Work on multiple projects at once.
If this tip applies to your practice, use it! I find that working on many pieces in round-robin style accomplishes two things: it keeps me productive when I get stuck on a piece or want to postpone a decision (remember the 20-minute rule!), and it focuses me on the process rather than the product.
Working on multiple things at once alleviates any one thing of all the responsibility to be “good.” One gets to be junk, the place where you experiment. Another might be a variation on a theme. This way, you get to consolidate your experimental moves and try many more things than you might if all the pressure was on one piece or project.
By now, it’s a commonly held belief that fear keeps us from taking important risks
Fear of rejection, fear of failing, mediocrity, disappointment, and a fear of going broke from expensive art supplies that yield no profit, keeps us in a holding pattern. You may even have your own version of Japanese rice paper (but remember, it’s important for creative people to collect beautiful things!).
But, there’s another fear at play here: a silent, hidden fear that you may have never even acknowledged in yourself.
The next time you feel the fear forces repelling you away from your own creative work, consider this: you are running from your own potential and success!
I know it sounds ludicrous, but we are actually more terrified of our success than of our failure.
Carrie Seid's artwork at Davis Dominguez Gallery in Tucson, Arizona
Creativity is like that old joke: Adam says to Eve, “Stand back, Eve … I don’t know how big this thing’s going to get!”
Your creative potential is a vast land filled with unknowns, dark corners, exciting spins, and reams of uncertainty. No wonder you’re running towards something (anything!) more dependable!
What if your talent and your drive lead you down a path that is enormously challenging, exciting, and lucrative?
When you become afraid of your own enormous potential, excited by the vast possibilities before you, knowing you’re about to make something that never existed before ... here's my advice:
Breathe it in and acknowledge what is new
Take a deep breath and create a little space for yourself to acknowledge that you’ve just set foot in a new land. Like Dorothy on the yellow brick road, you might see Oz in the distance and be awed by the sight of it, yet frustrated by the awareness that the road is long and winding.
If you’re old enough to get that Beatles reference, you’ll appreciate the idea that process is the key to happiness here; you have to stay on the “road” of the process long enough to see where it can lead you.
Enjoy watching yourself move materials and try to stay present.
Prioritize your next steps
Ask yourself: What about this process do I find the most exciting? Then, attack that one first.
Continue to study your own interest in the process in order to keep prioritizing what the next step is, that you want to try.
Remember you can only do one thing at a time unless you have studio assistants (which I highly recommend.) These can come in the form of paid assistants, bribed children, or unusually kind friends who just think art is cool and want to help you.
Stay open to detours
Along the way, you’ll find your questions giving birth to new questions, and often the pile of “waste” that’s building itself on the side of your work table may prove to be even more fascinating than the project it’s coming from.
Take that pile seriously! Observe that creativity is a living thing. What comes of it also has its own life.
Stay open to rerouting your inquiry as your interests dictate and direct you. It’s important to let your instincts drive your actions.
Above all, listen to your intuition!
Your intuition has a lot to tell you. Trust yourself. It can be scary to take creative risks, but they are worth it only 100% of the time! This is what it takes to truly honor your gifts. The deepest dives make the biggest waves.
Whatever comes of this, recognize that this is one of the best problems you could ever have.
You are an artist, even if you’ve never finished a thing in your life.
The fact that you are struggling with fear means there is something beautiful waiting to be born from you — a call waiting to be answered. Now it’s only a matter of taking action.