Learning to like your own work doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it can be a very long process of self-loathing before you get to the stage of self-love and not caring whether others like your work or not. And by ‘very long process’, I by no exaggeration mean years.
I’ll mainly be talking from the perspective of being a creative/artist, but feel free to adapt to your own situation. You could be a student, or in a high-stress job or are just a stressful person in general – we’re only human after all.
I’ll start by talking about my own experiences first leading up to my present and then I’ll offer some tips on how to reach your highest self when it comes to personal acceptance that your work is good (enough) and that you are good (enough).
I think I first started feeling the stress shortly after finishing high school and proceeding on to study A-levels (equivalent to senior year in high school for other countries). Whilst my parents were not the strictest, being raised in an Asian family, I felt and was very aware of the pressure that my culture commands – which I later found out, was pressure that I had instilled onto myself unnecessarily. Learnt behaviour perhaps? Getting a grade B for example, is almost automatically seen as not good enough (in Asian cultures) and whilst my parents never said I had to get straight A’s, I was keen to impress and the standards I’d set for myself would be high to the point that I left myself very little room to breathe.
Of course, there is no problem with aiming high. But it does make the fall harder. Your pride also gets bigger in the sense that you cannot allow yourself to fail. This is the part, which I realise now, is the hardest to overcome. You have to get over yourself. That is the first hurdle. Rome wasn’t built in a day and you have to be realistic. Don’t cloud your judgement.
I firmly remember crying over a Grade B. I also remember crying over other silly grades during the first year of university, sobbing to my best friend on the phone or to my mother at a later stage, thinking how I had let her down. It was hard to take that I had tried so hard on something but the results were not rendering. For me, it was grade A or nothing. In retrospect, I know how incredibly stupid that sounds but it was my reality at the time.
At some point, I stopped enjoying myself, limited my social hours and probably became blind to how it was affecting me, my mental health and relationships with other people.
During this time, art was becoming a larger part of my life. In essence, it was the bane of my life whilst also saving me. I would spend a great deal of time in the art room during my A-levels. When it was exam time, my lunch times were spent there, painting away. Actually, it was great to lose myself to painting because I felt like I had found my own language, my own peace but socially, I think this was the beginning of something else.
I had always been a somewhat modest and low-key person. Quiet. But as my standards got higher, my actual enjoyment became less and was purely based on a stupid number, a grade. Now, when you put a number next to something entirely subjective (Art, in this case), it doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand but how else are you going to mark one’s work, right? The problem with subjectivity though, when it comes to any work (student work, professional, casual – doesn’t matter), it can get personal. So when even your own standard is not reached, your ego is damaged from the beginning. Depending on others’ compliments (or lack of) can also result in a further emotional descent. Why? Because when you don’t like your work, when you don’t think your work is good enough, the compliments almost mean nothing and that was what I was feeling. I was finding it hard to acknowledge my own efforts.
I was always that one person who would accept compliments awkwardly. It’s not that I didn’t want to seem grateful or that I was miserable – it really just comes down the lack of self-love for the work because it was produced almost for the sake of producing it. Making work just to seek approval doesn’t quite cut it either. In a way I was lost, and whilst I knew perfection didn’t exist, I think in some ways, I was always looking for it because I didn’t reach a point with my work back then that I felt truly proud of to call my own.
As some of you may know, most recently I got back into making art again during the pandemic (see my instagram here). It’s been a bit of a funny journey but I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason and eventually everything comes full circle. This is that.
I don’t know if the big break in-between those years benefited me or chilled me out, or whether it’s age-related; but as I began making art again, all the good old feelings came rushing back. A bit like an old friend that never left, a conversation that never died. I always wanted to make art again and for the first time in years, I felt like I had time. There is argument that time is a value that’s part of an illusion and therefore what we make of it – and I think that is true. I know now more than ever that we have to make time to do the things we love.
Because eventually it runs out.
Two things are guaranteed in life: birth and death.
But we can decide the main body of it.
Within this (long) journey of learning to like my own work, mindfulness and living in the present became a huge part of it. Once I started practicing it more, I just found myself loving my art because I fell in love with the process of it all. The colours. How the materials feel in my hand. The feeling of being understood. The feeling of making something because no other structure in the world suits you. All this whilst releasing all pressures; past, future, daily, societal worries.
When I was making art, it was just me and my art. No one else. No distractions. It felt great. Then I started sharing my process and outcomes casually on Instagram with no expectations. I shared my art the same way I would if I took a nice photograph from a walk outside. But things change and develop. The kind compliments fuelled me to make more art and here I am, with an Instagram that became an Artgram.
The journey has been hard, long, sometimes frustrating; but it might just be starting to feel sweet now.
Below are just some headline tips that helped me on my journey and can simultaneously help you:
Loving what you do is half the battle
I wouldn’t return to art if I didn’t love it. When you have a passion, you naturally want to learn everything about it and overall, just get better everyday. If you find yourself feeling this way, it’s really a great fuel for motivation. Just remember to take it easy and be kind to yourself on days when you might not be liking your work or rhythm. Cue next point.
Allow yourself to fail. Do it! Then repeat
I used to be so evasive of failure in general! I had to annoyingly give myself the challenge of doing exceptionally well in everything so when I eventually tripped, it was a harder pill to swallow. We’re only human though. After the first fall, you won’t be so scared the next time, and the time after that. Each failure has made me stronger and just preps me to be better for the next time round. Learning is not failing. Remember that.
Stop asking for permission! Trust yourself
Being a creative, you make a lot of decisions along the way. I remember when I used to be so indecisive that I’d ask for a second and maybe even third opinion. Asking for a second opinion is not a problem, but when you know the answer already, don’t ask the question. Learn to trust your intuition and be in tune with your heart. It’s okay to take a risk as long as you’re not hurting anyone.
I came to the realisation some time ago on how sad it was that so many people trusted me and my work yet I didn’t trust myself. I therefore had to change my entire mindset which has helped hugely. Speaking of mindsets, it was also really important to not try and please everyone because that is impossible.
If you take the long route, be prepared to lose yourself before you find yourself
I used to be so fixated on trying to find my own style. I felt like I didn’t have one and at some point, was just trying so hard to find it. One time, I even based a final project on ‘identity’. Chances are, you have to copy a lot or practice a lot of techniques before you arrive at your own – which is completely fine! In the creative world, being ‘original’ is very debatable so don’t aim to be some sort of pioneer. Just enjoy the journey that you’re on and the rest will come naturally!
The thing about being on a journey is you have to embrace every moment, all the bad with all the good. You can’t actually get to the good without experiencing some bad. The more art I made, the more I realised that I just had to stick with it to get better at it. I had to make bad art first before I could make good art!
Please celebrate every milestone, however small
Those of us who are very hard on ourselves almost never celebrate the work that we put out. That’s when you need to ask the question what’s the point? if you don’t celebrate some aspects of your work. It also majorly takes the enjoyment out of what you do. Even if work is ‘work’, you should ought to celebrate each little milestone.
Don’t worry so much about the numbers. Worry about your own targets such as exploring a new subject, a submission a local magazine/gallery or tackling a new technique. You’re running a marathon, not a sprint and each small milestone will help you reach your (ever-changing) destination!
Share your work – even if you think it’s not finished
I never used to share my work openly. In fact, I would hide it because I didn’t reach a stage where I felt comfortable sharing until recently. Admittedly, Instagram and the digital world in general has made it so much easier now to share work more than ever.
I think a lot of artists have this syndrome of not sharing work until it’s ‘fully finished’, ‘perfected’, but if you keep doing that, you’ll never share your work or reach that level of finish – even if you were given a lifetime to do it! By sharing your work, you might just learn a thing or two. Plus it’s a free ticket to gaining some confidence and honest feedback about your work. Once you release that ego of yours, you’ll find a lot more freedom in the things that you can create and do.
A slightly different post today! It’s quite personal so it took a bit longer to write this time round. I hope it’s not too hard-hitting to read? I’m hoping it will enlighten someone out there because I know how hard of a journey it can be. My best advice is to take it one step at a time, one day at a time.
Thanks for reading!
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