Self Doubt: Friend or Foe? < Deep Thought Thursday

Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration.
It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it.

If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), ” . . .  Am I really an artist?” chances are you are.
The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident.
The real one is scared to death.

Steven Pressfield, from The War of Art, page 39.

What do you think? Is self-doubt a friend or foe for you or other artists you know?
How much doubt should an artist have?

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27 thoughts on “Self Doubt: Friend or Foe? < Deep Thought Thursday”

  1. I get that it can be a powerful motivator, but most of the time I find my self doubt is so crippling that I stop dead in my career tracks. I don’t put myself forward or try the painting in my head or work on that gallery because I am too riddled with doubt to take the first step.
    I’m working on it. getting self doubt to a healthy and motivating place would be a wonderful thing and on my good days I can see what that would be like – it’s a wonderful thing.

  2. Ann Marie Scott

    Foe, definitely a foe. I get the shivvers when I even think about it. But it is necessary, I wouldn’t trust an artist that never experiences it. While I rarely doubt my identity as an artist but when I do it’s terrifying and usually happens in union w some other event like when most of my galleries closed due to the economy crash – that stopped me for quite a while, it was awful. More often I have crippling self doubt over a painting or series of work. When that happens I have to step away, end that painting or series, have a little panic, chill out for a bit, go look at a lot of art, draw and get back on the art horse. It sure can be painful.

  3. I just wrote an article on my other blog Is your Desire Stronger than Your Doubt? Desire carries an undeniable YES, even if doubt is clutching at your ankles as you move forward. If Desire and Doubt are grappling with each other, how can I feed my desire to give it the upper hand? What is the value of doubt in strengthening desire? Surely it is Desire that has us suffer through the periods of doubt; otherwise we’d find ease by chucking this artist delusion and getting a real life!
    Nobody reading this blog has taken that easy road!
    Amy and Jennie, I am grateful for your frank responses. In the big picture, my desire has won over doubt, which used to cripple me periodically. This deep thought Thursday motivates me to apply the desire/doubt question to my art. Doubt is insidious, and may be sneaking up on Desire. Today is a very good day for that inquiry.

  4. Alyson,
    Good question! Self doubt comes and goes. It happens mostly when I’m tired. In the morning, when I’m wide awake, I feel like I can conquer the world, but by the time my energy has been spent, doubt creeps in.
    For myself, I’ve found that having an accurate assessment of my strengths and weaknesses is helpful. If I want to take on a new project that is important, it’s useful to take into account how my strengths will enable me to reach the goal. Then I take a look at what personality traits are likely to slow my progress down — along with which skills I might lack and will need to complete my goals.
    Then I sift through which roadblocks to ignore and work through the ones that need to be addressed. As I work through my personal weaknesses, one by one, as I work daily on my goal, I naturally add to my skill set and reduce the number of items that will prevent me from reaching my goals.
    Since I’m working on a project right now, I guess I’d better start ascertaining what’s likely to hold me up. Thanks again for asking!

  5. I am finding tons of comfort in this brief post. I like the idea that “I doubt, therefore I am.”
    Knowing that doubt will be my lifetime companion, I try to gain confidence in areas I know I can control-strengthening my technical skills, for example. That dulls some of the edge of bigger doubts I can’t control, like whether anyone else will like what I create.

  6. I think that probably all artists have self doubt at one time or another. I do often, for me it’s my friend. That is what keeps me going and creating. I also believe that we create our own doubts and inabilities. We are constantly questioning ourselves and who we are. Isn’t that what life is all about?
    For me, the best method to end self doubt is to take a risk and try something different/new in my art. It helps to visualize the success you want to achieve. I am a dreamer and visualize a lot. It is very helpful.
    Thanks Alyson for your thought provoking questions!

  7. This is a great question! One that I have very stront feelings about. I think it’s absolutely necessary to question oneself as an artist. Self doubt is what keeps us asking “what am I doing?” “why am I doing this?” and most especially “what is the point?” Of course it’s not the questioning that is important, it’s the answering. The act of questioning yourself and forcing yourself to find the answers within reconfirms your goals as an artist and solidifies your conviction in your work. If your self doubt is so crippling that that you stop at the questioning and you’re unable to answer the questions, then it becomes a bad thing.
    I really believe that a little self-doubt is a positive thing; it’s what keeps us moving forward. Artists who never question themselves rarely progress. They are comfortable to stay in their niche without ever wondering if what they’re doing is still vaild.

  8. We don’t have all the answers. We never will. We must live the questions… and trust that life will give us the answers when we are ready. We must be true to ourselves and not let anything get in the way between us and our art. Our planning and goal-making is a living process that is like a flexible structure to help us stay focused. What really guides us must have space to come to the surface of our minds, we must be open for this to happen. We must trust that our innermost desire to make art is enough.
    How much doubt should an artist have? Just enough to stay humble and true to ourselves. Not so much as to have to look for validation from outside.

  9. Alyson, You always have the deep and penetrating questions…Self doubt can be crippling or be a negative motivator. I think that all artists feel self doubt at one time or another. The last time it happened to me I worked through it with a simple drawing, realizing that my block was totally about how I was feeling about myself and not my work. Feelings are neither good or bad… they just exist but never the less the feelings are emotionally draining. I suppose its a matter of redirecting those negative feelings in a positive way (thus being the negative motivator) towards your art.

  10. This question comes at a really good time for me. I am in the process of stepping up to the next level with my art and have had to really look deep inside myself. I feel so much better for it! I believe we all have some tiny sense of self doubt, thank goodness. It is our job to persevere, get over the hump and get on with it. Having a good network around you helps enormously too. As others have said, I don’t think I’d trust someone who never had doubts. They’re likely to be crazy!

  11. For me, the self-doubt thing is absolutely suffocating. Only when I can hack my way past it do I make things I feel are worthwhile. On the wall in my little basement corner I have posted a sign:
    Because really, sometimes, I’m going to make bad art. I need to remember that this will not in fact kill me.
    And on that note, I must make myself a cup of afternoon tea, put some music on, and go finish the nifty salvaged-object piece that’s waiting for me in the basement.
    Said basement, by the way, is a Very Bad place for me to work; I hate isolation and need lots of light. So I’ve taken charge. Next week I’m moving into a small but bright studio space with other artists. Even at just $60/mo it’s a stretch for my budget, but I think the stretch is overdue and will lead to a ton of growth that hasn’t been happening with me trying to work — that is, mostly NOT working — in a hole in the ground.

  12. Cindy @ the glass chick

    The first time someone introduced me as an artist it struck terror in me. My successes have helped displace the doubt but I’ll always battle with it. Having called the process a “battle”, doubt feels more like a foe than a friend. The song “To Dream the Impossible Dream” implies that fighting unbeatable foes inspires people to be better than what they thought they could be. Maybe doubt is useful to spur on my aspirations but if you ask any horse they’ll tell you that spurs are a pain in the butt.

  13. I’ve had a lot of self-doubt recently.I’m getting ready to make a portfolio and really start selling myself, and I’m trying not to let it affect me! I keep reading local art reviews and my work seems so not what people do… I don’t know. Anyway, I keep trying to tell myself that what I am creating right now is what I’m meant to be creating, and what other people create is their thing, and just to keep on plugging away.

  14. I think the benefit of not believing in yourself was discussed in
    Tillie Olsen’s wonderful, and terrible book Silences. There is
    an out-of-date theory in art schools that not being confident
    is good for an artist. Why would that be true? We not only
    have to paint, we have to be good with people, we have to
    be business people, and we have to have shows and be open
    to listening to the public’s ideas about art in general, and ours
    in particular. How does self doubt help with that?
    If on the other hand you’re talking about the doubt that makes
    us take a second and third look at a painting, and adjust it until
    we know it’s what we were trying to achieve. That might be
    Great topic.

    1. I was so intrigued by the book you mentioned I went in search for it and bought it! Thanks for your post I loved what you wrote!

  15. I have been told by many people that I have a lot of talent as an artist, yet I gave up on an art career after graduating with a fine art degree, due to so much self doubt. For over twenty odd years I hardly picked up a brush.
    Despite having two works chosen for the student year end exhibition(only a few lucky ones got this honour) and also winning a merit award in a national competition, I did not believe I could make it as an artist.
    So I gave up on it and pursued other things. I have much more confidence now in myself and in my art, but now I regret all the lost years.
    There are so many paintings in my head waiting to come out and it’s like I am trying to make up for lost time. I am much happier now that I am painting again.

    1. Karen, you and I are exactly in the same place! I’ve struggled for years with that same paralyzing lack of belief that I could make it as an artist. It’s really just a lack of belief in myself, and all it’s done is make me miserable and rip my life apart. I’m finally leaning to own my power and am working on getting up a website (it’s in progress right now) and developing a marketing system. Like you, I regret the lost time but am feeling so much happier and more balanced to be painting again!

  16. If self-doubt is that little shiver of fear and anticipation you feel as you step out of your comfort zone, then it’s both the prod that keeps me going and the barrier that could hold me back. Years and experience have taught me that it is important to acknowledge the feeling, and then do whatever I need to to move past it. After all, even the best actors and musicians feel it – if it does not stop them working, why should it stop me?

  17. As an accomplished portrait artist friend of mine once said: “I can’t wait until I’m so good that I can have an ego!” A little humility and a tiny bit of self-doubt can go a long way, but too much makes the people around you doubt you too.

  18. Pingback: An Artist's Doubt | Learn to... Art!

  19. I tend to either be totally sure of my talent and thrilled with something I have just created – or down in the dumps and plagued with the feeling that a piece just doesn’t work. I believe doubt can nurture an artist’s talent, provided she/he doesn’t allow it to stifle creativity – and I am confident that a little doubt is better than pure, unadulterated (and blind) confidence.
    This question reminded me of a favorite quote I discovered on Robert Genn’s Painter’s Keys … “Creativity requires introspection, self-examination, and a willingness to take risks. Because of this, artists are perhaps more susceptible to self-doubt and despair than those who do not court the creative muses.” (Eric Maisel)

  20. I LOVE the quote that Deb put up here. Thank you for that, it’s getting logged away into my inspiration.
    As far as self-doubt, I’m glad I’m not the only one. In the past 2 years actually I have found that instead of searching for praise from colleagues, I have become more involved, therefore noticed more and I have the guts to ask for suggestions or help from those colleagues.
    I have a hard time pulling myself out of the self-doubt dumps though. So I am happy to have my guilds and art groups that I keep me pushing my work along.

  21. Pingback: Do It So Good That You Don’t Doubt Yourself Anymore — Art Biz Blog

  22. Definitely don’t think there’s any use for self-doubt. I used to think I wasn’t legitimate unless I was constantly editing myself and making sure my art was “ready” to be presented. No one ever saw my work that way though. But recently my friend, Micah, and I produced a mini-series about how to enjoy your self-doubt and depression to the fullest. Clearly a success story because now I’m overcoming my self-doubt by posting the links.
    Here are the first two episodes:

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