Put Fear in its Place

Pages from Journal #13, by Jennifer Joanou. Mixed media, 10” x 16”. Copyright © Jennifer Joanou. Used by permission of the artist.

This is a complimentary copy of an article from the June/July 2016 issue. Click here to subscribe toProfessional Artist, the foremost business magazine for visual artists, for as low as $32 a year.

Professional artists have a lot to be afraid of. For starters, there’s fear of public speaking and fear of rejection.

What could I possibly have to say that anyone would be interested in hearing?

What if I forget what to say — or worse, say something stupid?

What if nobody likes my new work?

What if I never get in a gallery?

Another common fear is that friends and family won’t take you seriously, and that there will be repercussions if you try to set boundaries and assert your professionalism.

What will they think when I tell them I can’t pick up the kids after school because I’ll be in the studio?

Who am I to ask my family to change their plans?

Will he still be my friend if I can’t keep our golf date every week?

Here’s a big one: imposter syndrome. This is the fear that people will find out that you don’t know what you’re doing.

What if they discover that I can’t draw?

What if they see that she’s better than me?

A problem that every other artist would love to have, but is still a problem when it happens, is the fear of being overwhelmed by too much success.

What if I can’t keep up?

How will I balance my personal time?

And then there are fears around your daily actions.

What if I send too many emails?

Why would anyone enroll in my class?

What if nobody comes to my opening?

Name your fear.

For 14 years, as I’ve coached artists dealing with big and small fears, I’ve learned that to move beyond fear, you must first name it and then own it. Fears left unidentified or disowned can manifest as excuses.

I don’t have enough time.

I have no idea where to begin.

I don’t want to bother people.

I’m an introvert. I’m not ready.

I don’t know enough.

I need to wait [until I retire, until the kids are grown, until I finish the laundry].

I don’t want to look stupid.

As a result, you avoid action, experience paralysis or sabotage progress. Any way you look at them, fears hold you back. And most of us experience these throughout our careers. Fear keeps us safe. It will always be here to remind you that the unknown is scary, so you better learn to deal with it if you want a successful art career.

Motive is stronger than fear.

Fear has the advantage when motivation isn’t present. When the motive is strong enough, you do whatever it takes to reach your goal — you take more classes, hire a coach, stay up late or get up early.

Most importantly, you reach beyond your comfort zone when you have strong motives. You go to art openings and introduce yourself to people, apply to new shows (or curate your own) and invite feedback in order to grow.

Why do you want a successful art career? This is your motive, so it’s worth taking the time to dig deep. Some of the motives for artists on the career track are:

Money. Most artists know better than to seek the life of a professional artist for money alone because money isn’t usually the only motive — but the need for it can be a powerful trigger.

Freedom. You can choose your own hours, what to make, where to live and when to work. (This is a blessing and a curse, as you might have discovered.)

Connection. Your art connects you to the bigger world. It’s the way you communicate and bond with humanity.

Personal fulfillment. Some people have a kind of cosmic gene that compels them to continually evolve and better themselves.

Recognition. You’ve done a lot of work on your own and it’s nice when others appreciate your accomplishments. This is a strong motivator for me.

What motivates you? Is your motivation stronger than your fears and excuses for not doing the work? Here’s the thing: Nobody else can motivate you. They can inspire you, but they can’t give you the spark that sets your art career in motion. Motivation must come from within you. If you aren’t motivated to do the work, it doesn’t matter how many books you read or classes you take. Motivation is the elixir to swallow when fear is pounding on the door.

7 Steps to Put Fear in its Place

1. Seek clarity. The first step to handling fear is getting clear on your motive, which is something many of my clients struggle with. Nobody has ever asked them why they want an art career, so it takes a while to articulate a vision. You might be in the same boat, so it’s worth investing time in this exercise. Write out your motive and turn it into a mantra. Make it a screen saver, put it in the front of your journal, and do whatever it takes to keep it in mind. These are the magic words that go with your elixir — the incantation to your potion.  When you have the motive, you can face the other five steps.

2. Commit to the work. Fear says, Let’s watch Oprah reruns this afternoon. Let’s see what my old high school pals are up to on Facebook. Without the commitment, you listen to fear because those things are fun and easy. (We always look for easy — so beware.)

Sure, you could spend an hour or so doing these things, which doesn’t seem that harmful until they start adding up. Or, you could use that time to make art or network or write.

3. See a clear path. Motive is one thing, but knowing the path is quite another. Muddy goals are a breeding ground for fear.

Fear says: This person doesn’t know what she wants, so I’d better step in and tell her what would be more fun and easier than working on that big project.

To set goals, start with the motive and fill in the steps between that end goal and where you are now. You can never be 100 percent certain that the path will lead you there, but making this path will keep you moving forward. You can always adjust.

4. Set boundaries with people. Our buddy fear wants to see if you really mean what you say, so it sends you testers. These are people who push your buttons, looking for signs of weakness. They ask things like, What’s your real job? and Can you take care of my kids after school?

The testers need a talking-to. They need to know that you are serious and committed. Remember: We teach other people how to treat us. If you want to be taken seriously, you must first take yourself seriously. If you’re squishy on the boundaries, people will keep asking silly questions and making unreasonable requests that test your resolve.

5. Seek nurturing relationships. Avoid poisonous, negative people — you need positive relationships that sustain you. Become a member of an artist group that is full of ambitious artists who support one another.

I personally prefer live, in-person relationships, but you might also find helpful online groups. It’s such a joy to watch the artists in my online programs helping each other and celebrating their wins together.

6. Listen to yourself. I’m so bad at marketing. I’m terrible at following up. I can never remember people’s names. If you’ve ever uttered these words, you’re in good company. It’s just loud-mouthed fear spouting off again by making excuses.

Fear loves recognizing these self-criticisms and signs of giving up. It’s the perfect opportunity for it to step in and take the wheel.

Become vigilant about the words you use toward yourself, whether in person or in writing. Instead of saying I’m bad at…, opt for I’m getting better at… This shows you are committed to making progress.

7. Take action and keep taking action. Don’t be idle long enough for fear to take hold. Fear doesn’t like to put in a lot of effort, and catching up to your ambitions is probably a bit too much for fear.

Your biggest fear of all should be the fear of not taking action toward your dreams. You can heal from rejection.

You can learn strategies to deal with criticism, the unknown, family obligations and imposter syndrome.

But you will never recover from not going for your dreams. Wouldn’t you rather regret something you’ve done than something you never even tried?

Alyson B. Stanfield is an artist mentor and coach and author of I’d Rather Be in the Studio: The Artist’s No-Excuse Guide to Self-Promotion. Follow her at ArtBizCoach.com to nail your motive and show fear the door.