Meditation: On Confidence In

Every so often, I cross paths with artists, musicians, writers, and educators who’re experiencing a crippling loss of confidence. In the vast majority of cases, they’re highly accomplished practitioners who’ve received glowing commendations from colleagues, tutors, critics, friends, family, and the public. Therefore, their failure of faith in themselves (and their work, by implication) is utterly perplexing both to them and others.

There’re a number of reasons why we may feel anxious and insecure about our professional competence. Because:

  • we’re genuinely unable to perform an endeavour adequately and, likely, never will do.
  • we’ve failed in the same endeavour time and again in the past;
  • others insist that we’re not up to the endeavour, and we believe them;
  • we don’t desire success enough;
  • we don’t comprehend the nature of the challenge before us sufficiently;
  • we fear the consequences of failure;
  • we’re scared of other people’s judgement;
  • someone once unfairly criticised our endeavour, and we’ve never quite got over it;
  • we’re not convinced that our endeavour is worthwhile;
  • we suspect that the direction in which we’re heading is wrong;
  • we’re convinced that the quality of our endeavour is below par;
  • we’ve fallen out of love with the fruit of our endeavour;
  • we measure our endeavour against the achievements of those who’re far more experienced;
  • the praise and recognition that we’ve longed for has never been forthcoming;
  • our parents or carers never commended us enough when we were children;
  • it’s in our personality to be negative and pessimistic;
  • we have the lowest opinion of our abilities in general.

Thus, insecurity can either be justifiable (we don’t feel able, because we aren’t) or a mirage, created variously by unrealistic expectations, too great a dependency on the opinions of others, timidity, bad experiences (including poor teaching), the want of external affirmation and encouragement, and low self-esteem. In the first instance, our unconfidence is a guide to direct us away from the lost cause towards something achievable. In the second, it’s an inhibitor that prevents us from not only achieving our potential but also enjoying the process of so doing.

Recovering confidence is rarely as straightforward as ‘claiming the power of positive thinking’. Our rationality requires evidence. Once the mind is persuaded, then, the heart (and, with it, the emotions) will follow. Confidence must have a content; it must be in something. At the School of Art, my advice to fine art students who were flailing around in the cold, dark waters of self-skepticism was this:

  • Lay out the work that you’ve undertaken during the last two years in chronological order. Is there evidence of a movement towards betterment from your earliest to the latest endeavours? (And, invariably, there was.) Is this not grounds for encouragement?
  • When was the latest time you had a conversation about your work with some one other than yourself? Too often we’re locked in a loop of isolated self-referentiality, and don’t avail ourselves of the objectivity, insights, and support of those who know us and our work well. They too may be suffering from a crisis of confidence. Minister to them, just as they minister to you. Together you can lift one another out of your respective quagmires.
  • The spirit of unconfidence descends like a dense and diffuse cloud of uncertainty through which its impossible to see objectively. Therefore, ask yourself: ‘What in particular makes me unconfident about mywork?’ Be very specific. As a consequence of this diagnostic, you’ll discover that very few aspects of your endeavour are at the root of your dis-ease. Having isolated the causes, it’s far easier to see how they can be addressed.

The most confident artists I’ve encountered invariably have either an ego the size of a Pacific walrus or a conspicuously mediocre ability to which they’re oblivious. Superficiality and an absence of self-awareness is their shield against self-doubt and despair. In other words, when confidence deserts you (and it does usually only for a season), console yourselves with the knowledge that this experience is the preserve of the mature, humble, committed, and conscientious artist alone.

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