Battling Fear and Self-Doubt as a Creative

 In Philosophy

This month I’m shifting gears to make a post that’s more personal and close to home for me. Fair warning: If you are brimming with confidence in yourself and your abilities, then this is not the article for you.

Let me start by saying that as a shy, introverted person, self-confidence and self-doubt are things I struggle with in all facets of my life – not just my creative practice. Much of this uncertainty stems from being a perfectionist and planner at heart. I love to meticulously plot each and everything I create, or post on social media, or say to others, which when left unchecked can becoming paralyzing.

As an artist, releasing work into the world can be even more terrifying due to what an intimate reflection of yourself it often is. Recently, I’ve begun a pivot in my style as an illustrator and in the types of projects I’m trying to get. Much to my delight, this shift has brought many of my issues with self-doubt back to the surface once again. Given that I regularly see other artists struggle with these same issues, I wanted to share some of my personal experiences and insight into how I try to rise above and still lead a creatively productive life.

Fear doesn’t mean you should stop what you’re doing.

If you think of the realm of your daily life, routine, and typical actions as your comfort zone – think of fear as marking the border of that place. Being scared of doing something doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid it, it just means you’re beginning to step outside the boundaries of your comfortable place. Make the journey outside that border enough, and your comfort zone will start to expand with time.

The greatest achievements you’ll make in your life will be a direct result of leaving your comfort zone, and embracing (or at least coming to terms with) fear. You don’t have to leap off the deep end; that can become outright recklessness. But knowing that each day you’re taking a few steps in your life and career that make you slightly uncomfortable means you’ll keep growing as a person and a professional.

Find motivation from within.

I’m a huge offender on this one. Looking to others for validation is always the easier way out than finding enough fuel inside yourself to push forward. This is an easy trap to fall into online, where likes and comments can feel like a direct representation of how “good” you’re doing.

When you doubt yourself, try and focus on your own goals, the progress you’ve made, and how the work you’re making aligns with those things. If everything is on the up-and-up, trust that you’re right to move onward. Your judgment has gotten you this far, so there’s no reason to stop trusting it now.

Don’t become crippled by analysis paralysis.

Waiting until you really, truly feel 100% ready before doing something means it’ll never get done at all. If you’re a planner like me, learn to get yourself to that 95% mark and then just release your grip on whatever project it is you’re scared about and send it into the wild. Maybe it flops, maybe it goes viral, or maybe it falls somewhere in between. The important thing is that you completed and published the project, and you can move on to the next.

At the end of the day, people will never dissect and criticize your work on the same level that you do. I see too many SUPER talented people never share their work, or never undertake big projects, because it all dies on the drafting table. Especially if you’re trying to build a freelance practice, remaining visible and front-of-mind online is critical to grow your client base.

When you talk about your work, remove qualifiers.

Every week on Twitter, I see artists caption their work with sentences like “I just did this in a few minutes,” or “I hate how this turned out.” Having an inner critic is helpful as an artist, but you don’t need to introduce them to the rest of the world. Saying these kinds of things only serves to devalue your work before someone even has a chance to experience it and react to it themselves. Why should someone even attempt to enjoy the work of an artist who admittedly hates it anyway?

I instinctively write with qualifiers ALL the time. It’s a bad habit. To add more confidence to posts, I write them organically first, then do a second pass to remove qualifiers. Here’s a slightly exaggerated example:

This is a super quick mockup of a client project I’m doing. I just threw it together this morning. Let me know what you think, I might just scrap it and redo…

Versus:

Here’s a mockup of my illustrations for (client)’s new project! I had a great time with these.

If you were a potential client who stumbled upon this Twitter page, which one of these would get you excited about hiring the artist? An argument could be made that qualifiers can add personality and flavor to an otherwise boring text-based communication, but when it really comes down to it I’ve always gotten better reactions when I’m concise and confident.

Learn to be less precious about your work.

Some creatives rarely share their work online, not due to a lack of quality content, but due to a fear that what they’re making isn’t “good enough”. In the age of impermanence on the internet, this is terrible excuse to lean on. Nothing you post on any social media will be stuck there forever. In fact, if you’re focusing on Twitter and Instagram, the reality is that after 2-3 days most people won’t ever see that specific piece again. So why not use these completely free means to promote your work as much as you can?

The way I get over being precious about sharing my work is as follows:

  • Any work I make that I remotely like, I share to my Instagram (staggered so that it’s not 4 posts in a day – try to space stuff out a bit so it all gets the attention it deserves).
  • Every month or two, I go back through my feeds with a set of fresh eyes and “curate out” the stuff that feels out of place in the overall narrative of my work. Instagram has an archive feature built-in that’s perfect for doing this non-destructively. I take the stuff that I liked the most, or that got the best engagement, and see if it’s worth folding into my portfolio website too.

The result is that at any given time, glancing at any of my channels will not only show you a large body of work, but one that’s fairly coherent. It also means my portfolio website remains fresh and displays only the “best hits” version of my overall body of work. The style, tone, and subject matter of your work will always be changing, so don’t get hung up on individual pieces being perfect.

Self-doubt can be healthy. Find a balance.

I’m wary to include this one due to room for misinterpretation, but at the end of the day self-doubt usually comes from a place of good intentions. Eliminating it altogether means you’re no longer critical of the quality of your work, and that can be really bad. Anytime you’re doubting yourself or your work, try to take a step back and think about whether you’re right to question what you’re doing, or if you’re being needlessly hard on yourself.

If you take nothing else from this post, at least remember this one thing: When constructive and pushing you toward your goals, self-doubt is a characteristic of success. When holding you back from progress, self-doubt is toxic. Keep positive with the way you develop your character and your artwork, and you’ll do well.

How have you struggled with self-doubt as a creative? What strategies do you use when you feel your inner critic getting out of hand? I’d love to talk.

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