Self-talk and Practicing Your Art

I made an interesting observation in my head yesterday. I’ve been getting really into making planners, planner templates, stickers, and things like that lately. But what I’ve noticed about that is that, other than color scheme, I’ve been making planner pages that haven’t required a lot of drawing or creativity.

Most of the time, I’m measuring out exact rectangles, margins, and stickers to fit pre-determined sizes.

When I was younger, I used to draw all the time. Mostly people and portraits, but also animals, fantasy creatures, landscapes, abstract shapes and puzzles, flowers and plants, and just random doodles that may or may not turn into something cool. Yesterday I caught myself wondering, Is this planner obsession a way for me to be creative while still feeling relatively safe from my own perfectionistic, critical inner voice?

Could be. Or I could be overthinking things. But it seems more than likely that I’m way more comfortable making iterations of crafts that already have a pre-determined set of rules for what is good and what is not, what is useful, pretty, handy, or in vogue. It takes much less risk to create something that way, and it keeps me safe from that voice inside that likes to whisper, “You’re not good enough. This is trash. You’re trash. Stop trying.”

Before I got into grad school, I used to spend hours painting. I would sketch something using a sort of rubric of squares to approximate a model (like a picture of the enterprise, or a woman), then paint over it and add my own style and flair. Before painting I always had to take a minute and remind myself that this is a hobby. It’s for fun. It’s to relax. Nobody has to see it or like it but me, and nobody is going to run in and call me names if it isn’t what I pictured it would be.

This little pep talk was my little way of combating the negative and distorted thinking that, as someone with depression, I struggle with almost daily. It’s become sort of ingrained after so many years of practicing CBT on myself, and when I’m not too out of sorts to remember to use it, it works pretty well.

Without this corrective self talk, my inner dialogue around my art goes something like this:

“God, this is terrible. Why weren’t you more careful?”

“I hate it. Might as well throw it away. I’ll never be good enough.”

“Nobody will ever want to see this. Why do I even try?”

“I’ve been painting for years. Why can’t I be as good as XXX?”

“I need to paint more. I’m so lazy, this is why I’m no good at anything.”

“I don’t know how to do this. Nothing looks right. I can’t do anything right.”

Okay. If you notice, there’s some hallmark distortions of thinking in there. First of all, I take one small perceived mistake and make it a reflection of my worth as a person. “Oops, I screwed up. That means I’m terrible.” What the hell? Where do we learn to do this to ourselves? Also notice that instead of something being temporary and fixable, I tell myself that something is going to last for eternity and is an inherent fact of life. “I’m not as good as I’d like to be right now” turns into “I’m an irredeemably bad artist and I’ll never improve! I’ll be terrible forever.” That’s a pretty huge leap in logic, right? Yeah.

In order to get myself to a healthier place (and shut up that perfectionist who was making me feel like shit) I have to identify those distortions, challenge them, and replace them with more realistic, healthier thinking. For me, that looks something like this:

“I hate it. Might as well throw it away. I’ll never be good enough.”

“Hey now, it’s ok. You’re just warming up. And you don’t hate all of it – you did the eyes really well. If you don’t like that nose, erase and try again.”

“No, it’s no use. I’ll never be a good artist.”

“Good is relative, and you’ve gotten compliments on your art many times before. Everybody needs practice to get better. Not every practice drawing will be good. Besides, I bet even the best artists make drawings they don’t like at first – it’s just that you never see them.”

“I guess…”

“Let’s keep practicing, and it may turn out to be a really good drawing after all. You’re a good artist – you just to give yourself time and space to let go and create!”

And so on. Usually, if I can talk myself into continuing, I either end up being quite proud of what I’ve made, or I say, “Hmm, weird practice.” and throw the doodle away. I call it a warm up and start on something fresh.

And that’s what I recommend others do as well. If you’re struggling with perfectionism and it’s getting in the way of your art, the best thing to do is just practice without any criticism of yourself. Literally imagine yourself throttling that mean voice in your head, or locking it out of your house for an hour. Tell that voice, “For fifteen minutes I’m going to do what I want because it’s fun. I don’t care whether it’s perfect.”

And if you struggle with the type of thinking distortions that I touch on above, it might be worth your time to see a counselor or psychologist, or look into CBT on your own. Keep in mind, things like CBT may not be as effective if you’re doing it by yourself – but in my opinion, giving it a shot on your own (if you don’t have a serious condition like depression) can really improve your day and make your life more positive In the end, that will do worlds for your art.

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