17 Aug 2014

Fear of Starting

This post was originally published in my weekly newsletter about art therapy, running a private practice and overall wellness. To receive these post before anyone else subscribe here.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

I am a therapist. I am an artist. I am not a writer.

It’s funny to say that in a piece I’m writing to you now, but it is the truth. Writing is something I have always done (a few angsty teenage poems aside) for a specific purpose or goal such as a thesis, research paper or report. Historically, my writing has been technical and objective. Discharge summaries and treatment plans generally don’t move anyone or leave much of an impact on the reader. And yet I find myself, more and more often, sitting in a coffee shop starring at my computer, and trying to get up the nerve to write something that will do just that.

So why write? Well, I have things to say. I am passionate about people and the work I do. I am excited to talk about emotional health. I want to engage in a conversation about ways to learn, grow, heal, and achieve. And of course, in today’s market writing is the best way to get your voice and your work across. I now have a blog, a newsletter, a twitter account, a Facebook page, an article series, and more in the works. Each of these things needs to be filled with content.

Although I am confident in my abilities as a clinician, those skills do not help me when I am in front of a blank screen. Writing to express myself and share the things I have learned or things I am in the process of learning is new to me. But here I am.

The first thing I learned is that writing is hard. Just because I have a general idea of the content I want to express doesn’t mean I have the ability to express it well. I start and stop, check all of my social media, feed my cats, do the dishes, make a few calls and think of 1,000 things I need to do before I can actually begin. It becomes psychically painful to stare at my computer so I do everything in my power to avoid it. I did this for months. I did not actually finish anything and I briefly considered a career change. But anything that is worth pursuing will probably hurt a little…Right?

Then something happens, and it happens every time I finally fill my blank screen with words. I decide I need to start and get the bad paintings out of the way.

Anyone who is an artist will be familiar with the idea of pushing through to finally produce your good (or better) work. I look back to art school and the lessons I learned that help me in situations when I feel scared to start, or just scared in general. Being at the edge of the pool and deciding when to take that plunge is terrifying. Here’s what I remind myself so I’m capable of making a leap.

No one feels comfortable in those beginning stages. When we are learning something new, we usually make mistakes. In fact, that is the best way to learn. Time and experience makes us more confident. Not confident that we will always get it right, but confident in the process and our ability to correct errors.

We have a million fears about what we want to do but for now, here, I will talk about two big ones:

Fear of legitimacy. – This could also be called fear of being an imposter. (You might say something like: I am not really a writer/artist/insert thing that you need validation with here.)

You have to get over this one. If you love to make art, music, write poems, give people advice on finance, or have a startup idea, own that. You need to believe in what you do (at least most of the time) before you can sell it to someone else. That means right now, today, you have to look at yourself and say, “Yes. I am a/an _________.” Maybe you’re not the most experienced yet, maybe you’re not the best at it, but you are it. And if you love what you’re doing, that will come across.

I almost did not major in art. I was worried I wouldn’t be as good as the other students who were only focused on art whereas I was juggling my interests in both art and psychology. If I loved to make art, that alone was enough to call myself an artist. The rest would come later.

It turned out I was not the best in my class. I also was not the worst. I had some raw ability and learned a lot. I ended up double majoring and went on to graduate school to study Art Therapy. I have faced the challenge of validation many times since, but when I remember my decision to sign up for that first art class I’m reminded of what a positive impact a bold move can make.

Fear of starting (at the beginning).

Unfortunately we have to start somewhere and it is probably not (or hopefully not) exactly where we want to end up. We want whatever we are working on to be our masterpiece so we wait and wait until we are ready to produce said masterpiece.

I knew I was an oil painter before I knew how to paint (or at least before I knew what skill level I was at). I loved the smell of paint, the consistency, the way it sounded. I knew the paintings I wanted to create would be big, colorful, beautiful, abstract images that would fill an entire wall and change the way a room felt. I even knew how to draw and by that point a little bit about being an artist.

I still had to start in painting 1. I had to learn how to mix the paint. I had to suffer through hours of studio classes where I painted the half broken dirty objects that had been sitting around the art department since the 70’s. And I had to do it in black and white. I had weekly critiques where my peers looked at my overly washed out (too much liquin) muddy images and I had to listen to their feedback. Learning is a humbling experience.

When I finally progressed to having an independent study in painting I was elated. Now I could make my art. I had at this point learned enough that this course was approved and to mix my palate with confidence. I sat down in front of the canvas and I balked. There was a disconnect between what I saw in my head and what I was making in front of me. The biggest difference was in my head it looked good. Sadly, on the canvas, it did not look good. I spent a rather large amount of time feeling discouraged about this.

But the class was still happening. I still needed to meet with my professor every week to show her what I was working on. So I swallowed my pride and took stock. I had some raw talent, I had the desire to get better, and I loved it. I was still at the beginning. I needed to shift my outlook. Rather than wait for the perfect vision to come to me and try to execute exactly that, I had to start where I was. I loved to paint, I loved color but I needed more practice. I needed to work. I forgot about canvas all together and cut up all of the cardboard boxes I could get my hands on. The first 30 paintings I did in that class were of the exact same chair. I painted the chair every day until I didn’t hate the product anymore. Then I put a plant or some other object on top of the chair and painted the chair and the object over and over again until I didn’t hate those paintings. Eventually this method allowed me to produce work. I saw myself improving, which kept me motivated. A couple years later I was able to have my own show and sell my paintings.

We all get stuck. I know I do. When I do I try to just pause, take stock, and restart without shame. Allow yourself practice. Your skill will improve and you will be motivated by these improvements.

So I will keep up my clumsy attempts at writing and you can see my progress, even in this newsletter. What do you want to begin? What is it that you want to pursue but are not comfortable with yet? Go ahead. Start. Lets practice together and see how it far it gets us to just commit to trying.


Jennifer Byxbee

I am an art therapist and creative arts therapies supervisor in New York City. I have worked as an art therapist for over 9 years with children and adults in a variety of settings. Art Therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on the creative process in order to promote self awareness, esteem and insight. I provide long and short term individual therapy, group therapy, and supervision for practicing clinicians at my Manhattan office. I also offer remote services.

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