Yesterday was one of those days where new thoughts and ideas were brought to my attention. I love those days. I was given an article about an emerging field of study in positive human psychology – self-compassion. What it’s all about is being as kind and understanding to yourself as you would be to any stranger (assuming you have any humanity at all 🙂 )
Here is a link to Dr Kristen Neff’s web site that explains it all:
The three elements of self-compassion are kindness to yourself, common humanity (you’re not the only person that bad things happen to) and mindfulness of never exaggerating or underplaying your negative emotions.
Why does all this matter? It matters because we can become paralysed by the self-harm we do to our own confidence and psyches, if we allow ourselves to be constantly harsh on ourselves and dismissive of ourselves for our own perceived failings. We can begin to believe we are rubbish and that’s the point at which all artistic output can stop dead.
Why are we so harsh on ourselves? We’re taught to be, that’s why. Young children are not very self-critical and they think everyone is just like them. And they’re right. But, through a process of relentless social control, this is gradually “corrected” by the education system, until we see ourselves as inadequate, impotent, powerless, isolated, cogs in the machine. Our imaginative capacities, our creativity, our intrinsic worth as human beings is counted as nothing, compared to the imperative we are all indoctrinated with to compete, to win and to know your place, if you don’t happen to be at the very pinnacle of the pyramid. We’re individualized to the point of existential loneliness.
Who benefits? Those that would seek to remain in power, in charge of everything and taking the lion’s share of the rewards for their position have a vested interest in convincing the rest of humanity that they could never reach the lofty heights of achievement that they themselves have. Making you feel persistently inadequate is also a good business opportunity for those that would seek to sell you the solution (Coca Cola, Wonder-bra, etc., etc.). The worse you feel, the more exercise videos you buy, the more make up you put on, the more fashion you buy, the more cosmetic surgery you have. Men buy faster cars with bigger engines. We must win at all costs, but of course there is always somebody willing to accept those “costs” as income.
I think Capitalism teaches the religion of competition to prevent others from thinking they can reach the top. Often the people at the top did not win on merit. Often, their fortunate position is an accident of birth, serendipity, the result of immoral or dishonest acts or otherwise thrust into their laps without them having to match and conquer all challengers on their way. While they can convince you that you are uniquely lacking in talent and worthiness, they can be assured that you will not take what they have. More than that, if your self-worth is undermined, you will do whatever the powerful say, because you will believe their superior humanity authorizes them to tell you. The truth is different.
The truth is (and research is proving it) that every human being has amazing, untapped resources and potential. We are all capable of producing great art. We can find it within ourselves, so long as we believe that we can do it and put the work in to incrementally perfect our talents.
This is why self-compassion is so important, especially to artists. If you see yourself as uniquely rotten, you’ll never have the courage to continue to put yourself through the pain of having that confirmed in your own mind, each time you “fail” to do something you want to do. On the other hand, if you believe that everybody makes mistakes along the way, that every mistake is a valuable lesson, that we are all amazing, worthwhile beings, that when under stress, we actually haven’t been singled out by the cosmos for special punishment, then we can face the challenges of honing our skills and perfecting our art with clear conscience, peace of mind and the power that comes from self assurance. If we care for ourselves, nurturing and forgiving when necessary, we maintain the strength to realise and actualise our potential.
I was waiting in line at the supermarket yesterday, thumbing though an art instruction magazine that had an article on how to paint the nude, when I got into conversation with the lady waiting ahead of me, who (it transpired) also liked to paint. What struck me was how much she wanted to create, but how intimidated she had become and how constrained she had made her choice of subject matter, to avoid feeling foolish or producing a painting that was less than representative of the standard to which she aspired. She clearly gave herself no room for experiments that might result in failure. I felt a tinge of sadness, but encouraged her to keep painting and to follow her imagination, nevertheless.
If you are wondering how self-compassionate you are, here is a link to a 26 question quiz that gives you an insight:
It’s quite revealing. I bet you are not as self-compassionate as you think or as self-compassionate as you need to be to maintain yourself as a creative being.
Escaping the prevailing paradigm of scourging yourself for your every flaw, competing with everybody else in a fight to the death and isolating yourself from the warmth and encouragement of our fellow human beings is essential to progress as artists. In fact, it has wider implications for the economy and human society. Everything we know about value creation, for example, is based on a sub optimal premise. All that we know of justice and helping our fellow man runs completely counter to our default inner dialogues, taught to us and rehearsed by decades of well-meaning, but equally blinkered teachers.
That’s not to say that being self-compassionate magically transforms our lives into a bed of roses. We will still suffer. We may continue to starve, as artists. But recognising that we all suffer makes it more bearable. We are not alone. We are all trying to do our best, but get frustrated, denied and sidetracked. Accepting that this is how the human condition is and not harshly judging ourselves for being in that condition will result in a longer, more fruitful, healthier, happier life. Dead artists don’t produce wonderful new works.
Before we ask for others to have mercy upon our souls, first we must have mercy upon our own souls. The power to do so is within.