About ten percent of the general population is supposed to have low self-esteem (LSE). Perhaps the percentage is higher among creative folks. Often generated in early life, the condition can interfere with artistic growth and success, to say nothing of life itself. The difficult-to-shake problem can sometimes be traced back to a disapproving or critical parent. Early peer ridicule or teacher misguidance can also be fingered.
Even though they may be talented, artists who feel bad about themselves or carry feelings of hopelessness and the “Loser Syndrome” have a couple of strokes against them when they step up to the easel. Vital audacity is weakened. Deeming themselves not worthy of success, self-sabotage can win the day. “There, failed again,” they say.
Beating LSE is difficult and time consuming — often a therapist is needed to help edit the negative video the sufferer keeps running. On the other hand, close friendships and the buddy system can be useful. Here are a few ideas:
The LSE sufferer needs to systematically let go of the ingrained negative myths and bad baggage that high-self-esteem people don’t bother with. The original perpetrators ought to be identified and forgiven. The suffering artist needs to embark on a self-managed, measurable course of minor gains and accomplishments. Small paintings finished right down to varnish and signature, for example. Bit by bit, work by work, the sufferer gains tangible evidence that contradicts the ugly message in the old video.
Participating in workshops also is valuable. LSE folks often spend considerable time alone, building a degree of skill they may not be aware of. In a workshop one sees further possibilities and has the warm proximity of fellow travellers. Our world is basically a good spot. Good buddies abound. The LSE sufferer can move through self-doubt to the simple confidence generated by shared studenthood.
Success for LSE artists can be in the form of darned good art, being accepted or even loved by a community, the persistence of green feedback, or other winnings. Most are illusions anyway. Artists are beings of imagination. Failure can well be imagined, but so can success. With the good buddies and a patient, methodical approach, baggage can be laundered and progress made. Evolving art is a stellar route to acceptance, by others and by the self.
PS: “Those with low self-esteem have one thing in common — on some level they share a deep-seated fear that there is something wrong with them and wonder if they may be unlovable or unacceptable.” (Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D.)
Esoterica: Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem by Marilyn J. Sorensen is a good place to start. Some of my troubled friends had cameo appearances on every page. Not specifically aimed at artists, the book has a self-evaluating test so you can get an idea where you stand. Case studies, authoritative observations and practical advice are laid out to set a better path for those who don’t think much of themselves.
Esoterica II: I read all of your proposed forwards for the upcoming book. There were so many good ones it was difficult to properly choose. We ended up knocking it down to 50 finalists, and with the help of wise editors we chose five. The selected forewordists who will be in the book are Fawa Conradie, Robert Fredric Goldberg, Nader Khaghani, Sonja Donnelly and Allan Soffer. All finalists will receive a goodly supply of free books. Thanks so much to everyone who participated. We have also chosen 17 short quotes from 17 other contributors. These will be added to the foreword area and, with your permission, on the dust-jacket of the book. These will also earn a free copy.
More than 800 authors wrote Foreword proposals. I read every one of them. There were many really excellent ones and I thank you very much. The five finalists we are going to use in the book are Fawa Conradie, Robert Fredric Goldberg, Nader Khaghani, Sonja Donnelly and Allan Soffer. These authors will receive a case of (8) books, plus two signed and dedicated copies.
In addition we selected short quotes from 17 other proposals. With your permission, we intend to use these in a double page spread at the beginning of the book as well, and a couple of them on the dust-jacket. We may yet choose more from other authors for this purpose. Each of these authors will receive a free, signed and dedicated copy of the book. Melissa McCracken, Henryk Ptasiewicz, Wayne Claeren, Pam Cunningham, Rebecca Hodge, Faith Puelston, John Burk, Peter W Brown, Elizabeth Austin, Haim Mizrahi, Jonathan Milne, Kathryn Zerler, Don Demers, Terry Wynn, Maggie Ferguson-Dumais and Sheona Hamilton-Grant. Thanks again for all the input, and more than anything for your friendship.
by Kristina Zallinger, Hamden, CT, USA
I love my work and I love doing it! So I guess that means I have High Self Esteem (HSE)!
Robert, your article is timely and effective. Every artist should love themselves. This can be achieved through having healthy self-esteem and an ability to transform this into his/her work. Each can develop this state of mind by loving his/her work and hence loving themselves. Or vice versa. It works both ways. In my case, I am happy, therefore my art is happy!
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Problems with the LSE concept
by Hannah Pazderka, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Okay, I see your point — but this week’s letter should probably come with the caveat that conventional scientific thought is generally counter to claims of low self-esteem. This concept was so bally-hooed in the ’70s and ’80s that kids were taught “you’re super!” in the absence of any real effort or accomplishment. (I’m sure you’ve had other columns making this point as well!) Anyway, this was clearly found to be counterproductive, and potentially problematic in terms of engendering a sense of entitlement.
(RG note) Thanks, Hannah. Not so long ago I wrote a letter discussing the problems with the whole entitlement thing and what it was doing to education, art etc. — just as you point out. However, after reading Marilyn Sorensen’s book and identifying some of my friends as chronic and traumatized LSE sufferers, I’m modifying my views.
LSE an impetus to create
by Phoebe Stone, Middlebury, VT, USA
I disagree with you in a funny way. I know that low self-esteem is a terrible, painful burden, but I also believe it is the great and powerful impetus that drives most artists and writers and musicians to work and work and work, and therefore, in some way to succeed. Those who feel comfortable and confident in youth hardly ever turn to the arts. The graceful self-assured people are too busy enjoying the outer world to ever bother to build the desperate, rich inner world that artists build. We artists are driven inward by our inability to entirely cope with the outside world. This inability is a blessing in disguise. Naturally it is painful, but don’t forget the cliché about an irritating grain of sand in the shell of an oyster making a pearl.
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by Vicki Schroeder, Estes Park, CO, USA
I am one of the 10 percent or more of artists with LSE, due to childhood experiences. Tonight I attended a presentation by quilter Susan Shie. She explained that one of the recurring images in her quilts is the stinkpot. Stinkpots, like compost piles or bins, are places to put your refuse of negative thoughts or blame. There they can transform into something nutrient rich that can help you grow. Robert mentioned that a ‘patient methodical approach’ is needed to make progress. I know that this is where I’ve run into trouble. In my impatience and longing for self-confidence, I routinely mistakenly conclude that I’ve made no improvement. My dear husband provides that validation, when I am blinded by doubt, that I have indeed made progress. The fact that I still have more work to do doesn’t negate all that I’ve accomplished. There’s always more to put into the stinkpot. The good news is that the more garbage you place in the stinkpot, and the worse it smells, the juicier and more lavish will be the bounty of your garden and flower beds!
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It’s stronger than us
by Haim Mizrahi, East Hampton, NY, USA
The only way that one can handle LSE is by playing self-invented head games, which, in any case, will lead one, especially the artist, closer to consider the alternatives. There is no one person in the world that does not suffer from LSE and the sooner one accepts it the sooner one can resume with one’s creative journey. Problems really start when one is forced to believe, as we know society to dictate these motions and turn them into undeniable facts in our lives, that it is an illness and it needs to be treated. Well, I have news for you all, I am the most LSE successful person in the world, carrying with me the burden of a tough childhood with all the ingredients in the world to derail me emotionally. There is no way one can “cure” it, it is a lost battle, these forces are much stronger than us. Now, by understanding and accepting these facts one can use all the energy that otherwise was to be dumped into a lost battle, and put it to use by searching in the realm of abstraction and free-style. We need to take advantage of LSE by finding a new person within ourselves.
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Carrying a sense of inability
by David Oleski, West Chester, PA, USA
There was a point a few years ago that I felt that I was hitting bottom, until I had the revelation that the bottom is an ok place for me, for that time. In humility we approach each blank canvas; we’re wide-eyed students as we strike out across each vast empty plain. I think being ok with our inabilities can be the first step in accepting who we are, and putting away the mirror and facing the task in front of ourselves. The mirror that shows us how sad we are is the product of vanity, while humility has us striving to serve a higher purpose, and understanding the sense of accomplishment and meaning in our efforts. The greatest artists in history have written about finally figuring some things out in their last journal entries. If carrying a sense of inability inspires an artist to push the envelope of comfort for a lifetime, then it’s hard to believe it needs to be fixed. Being ok with the failures we carry in our lives makes us understand that there are no failures, only complex and interconnected experiences that create who we are. The scars and struggles are what make us all so very special.
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Chicken or the egg?
by Jeanette Obbink
LSE is hard to fight and even harder to beat and I’m often wondering if it can be beat at all. For every winning moment, there are always plenty more that bring me down with a big ‘thunk’ at the bottom – yet one more time… only to crawl halfway up the hill again… This year has been tough, with hardly any sales of my work, with galleries that are closing, or galleries that are changing their artist base. Having to earn a living within the graphic design field, I have yet to earn enough from my painting to devote my energy full time to the brush…not helping the doubts I feel about my work to begin with. Chicken or egg… who can tell. No matter how supportive friends, fellow artists, even galleries are, the non selling of work is a sure ‘bring me down’ and an even surer way to make me doubt my abilities.
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Can people change?
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Psychiatrists speak of a ‘script’ that most of us carry around with us. It’s a little story we’ve developed based on our experiences and expectations. If it’s a good one, life is usually good. “Margie is successful at every business idea she comes up with. People are drawn to her creativity and spirit and she is well loved.” Margie comes to believe her story and acts accordingly to achieve the expected results. If it’s a ‘bad script,’ that becomes problematic.” Bill always manages to screw up in the end. His ideas often don’t pan out. Women are attracted to him, but after awhile move on and reject him. He can’t seem to get it together.” Bill is likely going to be unhappy, achieving the results he envisions. I feel that each artist has a script based on his art as well. Life scripts and art scripts can be different in the same individual. I feel quite confident in art making. I believe when doing a demo that the result will turn out successfully. Most of them do turn out all right. In business, though, my script is not so good. My confidence is lacking and I don’t envision great success. My attitude is more of a line like, “If all goes according to plan, I’ll manage to get by and make it through another month!” Naturally my results are not stellar. Hundreds of gurus offer to retool your self-image with dozens of methods. You are taught to visualize your success and say it a hundred times a day like a mantra. Lack a girlfriend? Imagine you are James Bond. Lots of these methods are tricks of self-deception. Artists can try these methods as well. It boils down to a simple idea. Can people change? I believe they can, but it requires a spiritual component, not just alot of self-trickery. You need a big picture, of a benevolent, forgiving God who values each of his creations and a vision of being part of a world of like-minded brothers and sisters. That is why people are drawn to spirituality eventually. If they have trouble valuing themselves, they can fall back on a feeling of being part of something much larger than their own little spin on the mouse cage exercise wheel.
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Are creative people more sensitive?
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
I have wondered if creative people are somehow susceptible to injury by others more than other people. I have seen this in my students, who remember negative comments made by unthinking art teachers years ago that result in their giving up painting. I know of friends who find it impossible to paint while in emotional turmoil. Others, myself included among these, could not paint for a while after having a painting stolen.
The creative process is instead of being a comfort, takes emotional energy. When self-esteem is injured, it is very difficult to be creative, and perhaps creative people are more open to being injured. Others, of course, have self-esteem problems too, I don’t deny that.
Why do I think creative people are more susceptible? When we paint, write, dance or whatever, we put ourselves out there. Our soul is on that paper or that canvas, out for all to see. We are born for a yearning to do this and the world is a mine-field to develop the self-esteem needed to put it out there. Yesterday I met a new student, 80-something, who has always wanted to paint and has been frustrated with her attempts. Fearful of a new start, myself and the class encouraged her, but she may not come back.
Our creative lives involve continually balancing fear of the blank page and busyness of life with the joy of creating.
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Why not be negative?
by Pam Craig, Memphis, TN, USA
Reading your low self-esteem article brought to mind the comment many people say to me. “You are always so negative.”
It is me, why can they not accept it? I find that I can work within this realm. They really do not need to point out this flaw, I am very aware of it.
I look at my work and think, it can be better. I strive very hard to get it right, to try and satisfy myself, to satisfy anyone with something I have completed.
I am aware that I critique my work mainly to point out its faults; I do this to make sure everyone knows that I know it isn’t perfect.
To give a negative critique makes some people think this is a way to garner compliments or praise — it isn’t. It is mainly my way to protect myself from the learned behavior of thinking I am not good enough. When others keep pointing out my flaw of negativity, it makes me dig in deeper and compound the problem by thinking there really must be something wrong with me, I say “see they know it too.”
But then, as you say, there are friends or buddies that can build your confidence. I have several now who look past my low self-esteem, and without pointing to that flaw, manage to hear me, to see me, and to recognize when they can tell me that I have done well. I realize at this point, I have been accepted as I am and it helps me to move on. It helps me to see what they see in my work and that is a good thing.
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Power of the respected friend
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
The most amazing thing happened to me when I was 52. I went to the fabled marble heaven, Pietra Santa, in Italy (after hand-carving for ten years), to study using air tools on marble with a well-loved Maestro. I wasn’t going to bring my portfolio because I didn’t think much of my work, but at the last moment, threw it in with my tools and work clothes. How glad I was that I did! The Maestro and every last one of the people who saw it clapped me on the back and said, “Brava, Angela! Brava! Bellissimo! Beautiful!”
Well, they could all have been blowing hot air up my patootey, but the effect was that my heretofore discouraged, self-critical slump turned into straight-backed strut, and I began to see myself and my work through their eyes.
Not that I shouted, “I’m great!” in the streets, but I felt as if a lifetime of family and gallery scorn, ridicule and criticism had been completely over-ridden and even erased by such enthusiastic compliments from people I loved and deeply respected. I came back to the States feeling like there really was hope, that maybe my work was good.
And when I was invited to do a year and a half artist’s residency in New Zealand, I accepted with ease, rather than shyly refusing as I’d have done before — and kicking myself later that I hadn’t said yes!
Studying with someone you respect — and who you know will be honest and kind to you, and who will shower you enthusiastically with praise when it’s warranted — can do the world of good for a doubtful artist — whether in his own town or another country.
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Willapa Bay Evening
original painting 36 x 30 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Bruce Bundock of USA, who wrote, “There is a saying: no one can make you feel bad without your co-operation.”
And also Rand Teed of Craven, SK, Canada, who sent in this quote by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “He that respects himself is safe from others; he wears a coat of mail that none can pierce.”
And also Lettie McDaniel of Mobile, AL, USA, who quotes Ryan House of NBC, “Success is fleeting… failure lives on and on.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Artists with low self-esteem…