Performance Anxiety

Anxiety…it’s a familiar word for many people. I think most people experience it at one time or another, others are constantly plagued by it. I fall into the second category. I won’t bore you with too many details, but when it comes to being an artist anxiety is an interesting thing. On the one hand, it can serve as powerful inspiration. Some of my favorite works of art were born out of my own anxious thoughts or feelings. But on the other hand, anxiety can prevent a person from performing pretty basic tasks that most people find easy, thus making it difficult to be successful long term.

I always thought I was destined to be a successful artist. Maybe not famous, maybe not full time. But I thought I would make a name for myself at least locally, or apply my skills in some profitable way. Funny that never happened.

I think part of my problem is I can’t perform well if I’m feeling pressured to please other people. When I was in school I would occasionally get a request for a drawing or something like that and for whatever reason I just couldn’t do it. I remember being a teenager and my school bus driver asked if I would draw her a picture of a tree so she could make it into a family tree. I happily agreed. Then the anxiety set it.

What kind of tree was she looking for? How big? Using what materials? Color or black and white? Realistic or stylistic? These are some of the questions I had spinning in my mind. I could have asked her but I never did. Instead I got on that bus every day for the rest of the school year empty-handed and feeling guilty. Each time I sat down to draw that tree I decided I was doing something wrong, this couldn’t be what she wanted.

It was just a tree. And yet it defeated me.

Letting go of perfection

I never considered myself a perfectionist, seeing as my life has always been “in shambles” so to speak. I have never been able to keep my living space clean, I got poor grades in school, and my artwork has always been pretty sloppy. In retrospect, however, I’ve accepted the fact that some of these failures stemmed from a desire to be perfect in a way that is not achievable. At least not for me.

I tend to put off cleaning up after myself because I am very particular about how things get put away. I like for every object to have its own home, preferably labelled, and placed neatly there. This is rather time consuming, and as a result my belongings tend to hang out wherever I drop them until that magical day when I will have the time to create the perfect space for them…you see where this is going?

In school, I often gave up on assignments if I couldn’t get them just right, preferring to take a zero rather than reveal to my teacher the sub-par-whatever-it-was that I came up with. It doesn’t make much sense when you actually think about it.

And then of course there is the artwork. I already said it’s usually pretty sloppy. This is because I get frustrated when things don’t go the way I wanted them to go, and then I end up rushing through the rest and giving up. Or just not starting at all. Frustration.

So I am learning to let go of perfection. I keep telling myself it’s ok if I make a mistake, and it’s ok if I’m not using the top quality materials, or if I’m using the “right” techniques or the “right” brushes or whatever…the truth is, I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing most of the time. I just don’t care anymore.