I witnessed a pretty cool thing this weekend. My 6-year-old daughter attended a painting party with about 20 other first graders. At the front of the room was an instructor and a completed canvas with a beautiful little owl in a whirly sky with vibrant colors.
Through the course of the party, the instructor guided them through the step-by-step process of creating their own versions of this painting.
Observing this experience through the lens of a psychologist and proud mama, I noticed the pure joy and lack of inhibition these children displayed in the process of painting. I witnessed creative confidence, freedom to deviate from expectations, persistence, and pride in their final products (works of art) as they each held up their completed canvases for a group photo. Observing this experience through the lens of my own insecurities, social comparison, and perfectionism, I was anxiously aware of canvases NOT looking at all like the model, weakly defined lines, and muddy coloring. I appreciate the irony of this internal dichotomy, but I don't think it's unique to me.
As I sit with college-aged and adult clients, or even through the course of casual conversation with peers, I frequently hear comments like "I can't paint" or observers of art saying of the artist "How do they do that?" There is a very powerful self-fulfilling prophecy that takes place with this type of self-talk. Those who think they can't paint, don't paint. Those who don't paint never become better at painting. It's a common tendency to develop a preference for tasks that reinforce our sense of competence and avoid those that frustrate us. And what's so frustrating about putting paint on canvas? I think it's the impact of our powerful awareness of imperfection and our beliefs about how we "measure up" in comparison to others...or worse yet, our comparison to our own expectations of ourselves.
So what's the danger in this? We avoid frustration to protect our sense of self in the moment. If I don't think I can paint and, as a result, I don't paint, I'm spared the reality of evidence that I may not "measure up." The power of avoidance is extraordinary...and can be extraordinarily restricting. While creating a momentary sense of safety, persistently engaging with new experiences in this way will ultimately lead to a very restricted and dull world.
What was powerfully apparent to me in observing this group of first-grade emerging VanGoghs was the absence of social comparison and the amount of frustration tolerance exhibited as they manipulated the paint brushes and worked to blend colors. It's a testament to human development that social comparison develops later than most of our frustrating skill development! Trying something new is a virtual daily experience for my first grader as she connects with the world around her. Her past year has been marked by learning to ride a bike on two wheels, learning to read, learning to tie her shoes, learning to play the piano. Can we imagine how stifled her growth would be if she was painfully aware of her initial inability to do these things? If she continuously noticed how she was doing compared to her peers or adults? Or if she lacked the willingness to persist through these frustrating new endeavors?
Fortunately, in adulthood, these characteristics rarely exist in an "either/or" form. I like to think of them on a continuum. Imagine a volume dial with "avoidance of frustration" on one end and "willingness" on the other; label another dial with "fear of social comparison" and "confidence." Take a moment to reflect on where your dial would be on each continuum. Perhaps it varies from task to task. How does your dial placement impact your own willingness to engage in new or creative endeavors? What if you were asked to paint the owl?
The value of intentionally reflecting on how you tend to exhibit these traits is that it creates an opportunity to challenge them and alter your behavior. Take note of your self-talk and think of what it would sound like to turn the dial further toward willingness and confidence. What's to gain? Well, I wish you could have seen my daughter's expression of joy and pride! When we turn down the volume on our fear of social comparison and avoidance of frustration, we can more clearly connect to the immense pleasure that comes with pursuit of creative endeavors. In a modern world that tends to be rather "cerebral," there is great value in connecting with tasks that engage our sensory experience of the world around us. The sound of brush strokes on canvas, the smells of fabric dyes, the site of vibrant or blended colors, the feel of moldable clay in your hands, or even the taste of a culinary creation. All ground us, center us, and anchor us in the present moment of our experience in a powerful way. The restoration and healing that come with this is immense. That's living artfully.