Face the Fear

Stein hentes ut av fjell og hamres til pukk og singel for hånd

I am sitting here at my computer feeling paralyzed. I have some ideas about what I want to write, but I can’t get them expressed in my head, through my fingers and the keyboard and onto the screen. I am suffering from performance anxiety. It’s one of my best ideas for a theme to write about in a long time, so I want it to be perfect – or near perfect at least – all for you my dear readers of this blog. Thus I have set myself up for a big trap: Too high expectations, which inevitably will lead to my failure – which means I’d rather not try.

So I am thinking why not write about this thing instead, the reason for performance anxiety which is something all artists experience every so often or once in while throughout their career at least. Performance anxiety – or its cause; pure fear – is responsible for many artists in the making giving up on the way and why a lot of art is never made. This fear comes in many shapes and forms, but at the bottom of it all lays the all-embracing fear that says our art is not good enough. Solely by recognizing this fear, we might get around it, though, or even use it creatively to our advantage.

Some time ago the blogger Gwynne Jackson recommended a book called Art & Fear in a comment she wrote on this blog. The book is written by David Bayles and Ted Orland for artists who are struggling to put their work out there – which basically means all artists. In Art & Fear the two photographers explore the way art gets made, the reason it often doesn’t get made, and the nature of the difficulties that cause so many artists to give up along the way.

As the title suggests much is caused by this fear I am talking about. And basically artists are dealing with two kinds of fears when it comes to their art making; fears about themselves and fears about how others think about their art. Bayles and Orland has this to say about it: «In a general way, fears about yourself prevent you from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work.»

I think this brings light to what often obstructs us from realizing our full potential as artists. It has nothing to do with the quality of our work, or skills we lack, or not enough talent or not having luck, but only fearing this. Haven’t you often noticed when you fear something, that fear turns into reality. Like when you go downhill skiing. You see a big bump down somewhere on the run – you want to avoid it, but fear for the opposite. And what happens nine times out ten? So in art. So instead being paralyzed by this fear, know that you have everything that is needed for you to do your work today. Nobody else will do your work, and it won’t help to postpone it to another day. You are not good enough, you say? You are as good as is necessary for the work at this stage. With more practise of course you will become better, but first you have to start with where you are today. The thing to realize is that you make good work by making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good and the parts that aren’t yours (yes, we all copy or take after our heroes in the art world). It’s called doing your work. After all, someone has to do your work, and you are the closest person around.

We all want acceptance and approval for our work, but if the fear for not getting it or the fear of what others might think about our art makes us cater to this fear, we will never find our own voice. Likewise, if we fear we are only pretending to be artists, we don’t have the talent it takes, the result is not perfect (as I feared in the beginning of this post), we can’t find the flow or we are afraid of hitting the wall as in writer’s block, we hold ourselves back from doing our best. And doing our best is all we can and should do. The fear won’t go away, but instead of becoming pray to it, try to see it as something that pushes you to do better. Don’t let it discourage you, because if nothing really mattered the fear would be gone – but so also the desire to create. It’s a delicate balance, but by facing the inherent fear that comes with making art, we can fully bloom and make art that is genuinely ours.

All this said now, I guess I am should be ready to start the process I discouraged myself from doing in the beginning of this post…

101 thoughts on “Face the Fear

  1. ah yes, I know this fear very well! whenever a piece fails, which is often, I face the wall of fear that I will never produce anything of value, ever again. Thank you for encouraging me through it!

  2. Very good post and how true. I think this fear is not limit to doing art work but probably everything we have to produce work that other people will see.

  3. Starting where we are today…I think that’s something really good to remember. We can’t jump ahead and be where we want to be in our mind’s eye….we have to do the work. Every day; to practice, and put out what is our best work today. And tell our fears to take a hike.

  4. I could totally relate. For the past few weeks it’s been hard for me to write something (whether it’s a poem or a blog) I felt like I was stuck in a rut. Thank you so much for this wonderful blog that you made & thank you so much for mentioning Art & Fear, I will read that book as soon as possible & I will start writing again, no matter what it takes, past the negative thoughts & whatever comes to mind. Thank you so much! Keep safe & stay awesome! 🙂

  5. Great post. I always love your posts on your blog, your photography and words. Always inspires me. I never seem to feel fear when I’m blogging however I do have an overall fear of failure when it comes to writing a book. Before I began my blog, I spent a year working on a fiction novel and wrote a few hours each day on it. I got to four chapters and 100 pages. Not too impressive but it was my first attempt ever to write a book and my kids were only 2 and 4 at the time. I gave up on the novel out of frustration and lack of faith in myself that I would be able to ever publish it. I realized how much time it was going to take to write it and it may never ever get published or sold. So I quit it. It still lays there in folders in my desk. I had thought I’d come back to it once my kids were in school but now I have changed and don’t think it is the kind of book I’d like to write. I think I’d do better at non-fiction. Anyway, I agree we all face fear of failure and yes it probably does stop us from doing things. I feel good about my decision now to stop the book but who knows, maybe it would have been great. Maybe I will try again…

    1. I have had the same experience as you – but that was 30 years ago. I did start my first novel somewhere around then and wrote maybe 50 or 60 pages. Just like you I gave up and left it to itself. Now I have matured and probably have more patience. But I haven’t pick up the old novel either, but rather started something completely new. Thanks for sharing your experience. Give it try at least…

  6. ‘Fear’, like all negative emotions, is purely a figment of your own Mind. As you control your own Mind, then you should understand that you control your own Fear. Learning to let go of negative emotions is hard work, but once done, you understand how easy it really was.

    Having said that, I’m my own worst critic and I still think my own photos are not ‘good enough’.

    But what am I comparing them to? Professional Photographers who have had years of experience and have a good understanding of the technical aspects of their camera gear, photography & photo editing software, that’s who. Once I start surfing ordinary amateurs with minimal experience & lack of technical knowledge, I see that I’ve come a long way in 3 years and I’m more than satisfied with my progress.

    It’s all a matter of perspective.

    Understanding that you are unique (as is every human being in this world) and your Art is YOUR artistic vision, not someone else’s also comes into play. Once again it’s all about Mind.

    Training by others and experience (with practice) will help you ‘develop’ your creative vision, but ultimately it’s your Mind and your Creative Vision that results in your Artwork being complete.

    If you sketch the outline of a Landscape and paint half of it, then what’s done is done. Even if you never fill the other half with paint, who’s to say it’s not complete? If you say it is done and finished, then it is. If someone else says it’s only half done, then that is their opinion and vision (not yours).

    1. You are so right, it’s all about of minds. But sometimes it takes a lifetime or more to learn how to control you mind, doesn’t it… Besides I agree with you, everything has to been seen in perspective. As I see it fear is not necessarily bad, only if you let it take control of you. For me fear is something that spurs me to do even better and try to do more. If it doesn’t paralyze me. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Victoria!

  7. Dear Otto,
    the photo is an eyecatcher with a beautiful setting. i think we all experience something similar and you do us all a favour putting it into words. To know that even you feel like this takes a burden off my shoulders, thanks! Your blog is outstanding in more than one aspect and this post underlines it. Great job!

  8. I’m not good enough. I often say this to myself. It’s perfectionism. But must we contend with it? I can’t contend with my perfectionism. I tried to contend but it is more than I can stand.

    1. There are two sides to perfectionism, isn’t there. One that makes you better and one that never makes you feel you never achieve what you want or aspire to. As long as it doesn’t stop, you do need to contend with perfectionism. No? Thanks for you thoughts, Irina!

  9. Very nice and motivational! Thank you for putting it down to words!

    I don’t believe in making art. I believe in working your thing and if what goes out is declared art, it’s for the best. I rarely am sure about the result, ( I mean to be above solid, to be unique) but i find myself expressing me, when I work without strings attached. It is only then that I do my own thing. Of course since it is not a commission / contract / paid work, it means I have to find alternative ways to promote it / sell it, so most of the work sits idly on my shelves.

    But I do appreciate work commissions with lots of artistic freedom and hints of what the general direction of the outcome should be. It help me focus but also do my thing as well and in the end this blend is preferred by the customer.

    I have always been fond of the Beatles example and their co-operation with the producer
    George Martin. No matter how good their songs were, without Martin they would probably have less depth and focus. That is why a “producer” is needed, if you haven’t developed a small producer in you.

    Again thank you!

    1. I am not sure I necessarily agree with you about believing in making art. I think it really comes down to demagogy or definition of words. But as long as you create I don’t care what the end result is called. Your example with the Beatles and George Martin is good, we should learn to think more like a producer, too. Thanks for you valuable input, Vassilis!

  10. Great post and so true!! I’ve just started to do more drawing but feel indeed the fear of not being good enough. But i’ve decided that I am just going to draw anyway because I have fun with it. That’s is the most important thing for me, as a photographer and artist (funny, I never call myself an artist).

  11. I’m about to start on a new project and I’m slightly fearful. Why? It’s going to push me out of my comfort zone in all sorts of different areas. There are things that I want to do that I have no idea of how I will do it, and lots of new things to learn. But I look on it as a way to grow.

    in his book ‘Warrior’, the writer Geoff Thompson talks about doing difficult things and how they are essential for growth. before moving into writing and flimmaking, his background is martial arts, and he talks about how bodybuilders thrive on the discomfort of lifting heavy weights and ‘being in the burn’ i.e. where there muscles are burning at the end of a set of weights. He states that he can create anything, provided he can endure the creative burn that is the necessary precursor to any manifestation.

    I think having fear is an indication that you are on the right path, you are doing something that will lead to further creative growth.

    1. Getting out of the comfort zone is a necessity for any artist. It’s only then you really start to grow and develop yourself. In this respect fear is surely an indication that you are on the right track. Good luck with your new project, and thank you for sharing your thoughts, Andy!

  12. I read an interesting book called “Choke” by Sian Beilock, and while she was writing about performance anxiety (sports, exams, interviews, etc) her point about fear causing worry which then in turn locks up our brain functions struck a chord with me. She maintains that the way to conquer your performance anxiety is to do whatever you are trying to accomplish over and over again in situations like those that cause the anxiety in the first place. Exposure reduces the worry level. I think this might apply to art too–just get in there and keep doing it no matter what your brain is telling you about what might go wrong. As competence inevitably evolves out of practice, the worries will diminish over time. Inaction is the worst case scenario for banishing fear.

    1. Experience surely will lessen the fear of whatever you are fighting with. But to keep developing you need constantly to amp up the level, so in a way it’s a never ending circle. I will have to look into “Choke”, sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the feedback, Alli!

  13. Excellent post, and one I’m sure we can all identify with. Add to the list of reasons why not to create is when I don’t want to waste perfectly good art supplies when I’m “not feeling it”. The best thing to do is to do it anyway, and hopefully the feeling will come along during the process. If nothing else, we learn to push past some of our internal blocks even when we make bad art.

    1. I agree with you; do it anyway. That’s often how I start my photo projects – although I don’t necessarily risk wasting good art supplies, only my time. Thank you for your thoughts, Linda!

  14. Sometime the fear or anxiety can be catalysts for new horizons. How to move beyond the feelings are the hardest. I play the distraction game. Walk away and release the emotions through a walk or reading or… Your image is an example of your gifts.

  15. Great post Otto. I don’t know sometimes I think you can read my mind 🙂 As I launch a new business there are times when the fear of failing, the fear that others won’t like my work is ever present. I have to be careful that it doesn’t overcome my ability to do what I need to do so I just push it aside but I know its there. Maybe fear is just what we need so we don’t become to complacent and over confident.

    1. I am an experience mind reader… Just kidding. Launching a new business is always worrisome, so yes, it’s not strange if you may feel some fear when you do. As mentioned in other comments, I do believe fear is good motivator for getting better – if you don’t let it stop you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Edith!

  16. When my goal is to do something interesting i know I have to take a “certain” amount of risk. Therefore a “certain” amount of fear is inevitable. But only after, maybe during I have done something I can evaluate if it is up to my expectations, if the goal has been reached or not. So the key is even if fearing we have to work, possibly hard in order to get a result. Of course having a personal vision of our work helps to “forget” the fear when working. In the old film times it happened me that the best photo in a roll were the last 4 or 5 I made just because I had to finish the film, and I was relaxed with less pressure on myself.

    1. Yes, the only thing we can do and should do is keeping working despite the fear trying to stop us from doing it. It takes some courage though, at least sometimes. It’s fun, I have had the same experience as you back when I used film. It’s for the same reason I keep shooting longer than I think is enough today.

  17. Oh, I relate! So much of the fear is the expectation and thinking too far ahead to the end product.False Evidence Appearing Real.I like the books “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.” by Natalie Goldberg and ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” by Susan Jeffers which address some of these issues.But most importantly, thank you for sharing your experience and process. Well expressed.

    1. We so want to arrive at the result, don’t we, instead of trying to enjoy the creative journey getting there. I will have to check out both “Writing Down the Bones” and “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway”. Thank you for sharing Jane!

  18. Ahh fear… the what if disease. As always your thoughts resinate deeply. Years ago my business was growing beyond my wildest dreams. One day the telephone rang and I could not answer the call. It was my first panic attack, fear overwhelmed me, what if I can’t produce the work this client wants….. fortunately I survived the attack and am able to share that awful moment.

  19. I love this post, Otto. If we don’t at least try to challenge ourselves, we’ll never know if we can succeed. That success doesn’t have to be measured by anyone else’s standards, but since we’re always our own worst critics, our own standards tend to be impossibly high. It’s a vicious cycle. The only way to break out of it is by… breaking out of it, which always requires a leap of faith.

  20. To cite a non-photographer (F.D. Roosevelt in his first inaugural speech)):”… the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself ”
    It goes for photography too. maybe that is why I can’t become an artist – I’m to afraid.

  21. But you Do end up having to go foward, at the end of things, don’t you? The only other option is to give up, which occcasionally might feel as if it’s going to be a relief from the kind of anxietites you’re describing here, Otto, but then if you (or I, or any of us) gave up, we’d have have that creative hole, and would end up miserable! So we’re eventually forced into action. At least this has been my experience.

  22. This turned out to be a great topic, Otto. I think we all have at least occasional bouts of fear that what we have to offer isn’t good enough! There is a lot of talent to admire out there, but I am more accepting of my own abilities if I don’t give in to the temptation of comparing myself to others. Sometimes I can be inspired to work harder, though, simply by admiring what others do. And when I really hit a wall, I usually figure out I’m mostly fatigued, which directly affects my ability to be objective. Sometimes a little fear can be a healthy motivator to try harder or do something differently! 🙂

    1. Comparison with others is never good – and completely unnecessary. We better use ourselves as a yard stick. And do the work as you say. And I agree fear can be a motivator if we don’t let it stop us. Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts, Debra!

  23. Yes, our own expectations are usually the highest, sometimes they can block us, other times they allow us to exceed what we believed was possible. At the end, I think it matters more what we feel about it and whether we’re really into and happy with it. At least that’s how it should be though for some it might be more important how it is received by others.

    I’d still truggle to call myself an artist, maybe because creating feels more like playing to me than working, something that just happens. What drives me to sit down and write or to go out and take pictures is not only the fact that I enjoy the process itself a lot but also the fear to fall back to the life before. These things keep me going even, or especially, when I don’t want to and feel the need to retreat once again. Maybe it’s more a form of therapy and like one of my favourite artists, Fin DAC, described it: ‘I create my art to keep myself happy. If others like it, then that’s a great by-product.’

    1. There is indeed two sides of our fear, isn’t there!? And I agree if we are engaged with what we do, most other thoughts don’t matter, but working. Other than that I don’t think there is a conflict between being an artist and being creative. In the end, though it doesn’t matter what we call us, as long as we do want we want. Thank you for your elaborate thoughts, Viola!

  24. You definitely have me curious as to the post you wanted to do.
    I am always terrified when I write something that it will be disappointing. You wait for people to read and comment…to validate you…to let you know you didn’t let them down. There is comfort in knowing that the truly great ones (like yourself) also struggle with this

  25. Sometimes it takes the most courage to say, “I’m afraid, what can I do about it?,” or “I’m afraid, let’s talk about it.” You took a lump of fear, Otto, and fashioned a gem of a post.

  26. Wonderful image, Otto. As for fear, I know it all too well. A friend recently recommended I read Art & Fear, and now you write about it here. I’m going to take that as a sign that it’s time to get a copy and read it. I like how you turned your fear into something else. 🙂

  27. Otto-this is a terrific post-thank you so much. I was thinking the other day how I still battle the fear in my photography-it just gets so easy to push it to the side because after all, who am I? But starting from where you are at this moment, this day and just moving forward soon can lead to a small body of work. I agree with another poster here-you took your fear and you created something quite wonderful-

  28. Otto, thanks for a wonderful post. I’ve read Art and Fear, a valuable book. When I teach young people story writing, I often tell them that a way that I get past writer’s block is to draw. (I just wrote about this in my blog today). When we draw, we use the right side of the brain. The right brain offers a rest, a vacation, a happy excursion away from the over programmed left brain.

    1. I think that’s a marvelous idea. And I guess it could work the other way as well. If you are a visual artist you could sit down and write, to deflect your right brain. Thank you for a great comment, Margaret!

  29. very easy to relate to this idea that our fears, if we allow them to flourish, keeps us from doing our work. your words, “know that you have everything that is needed for you to do your work today…” a thought to remember and say often as a reminder. thank you!

  30. I marveled that you have moments of self doubt, but then i looked inward and remembered those times when i had similar qualms. i’m lucky that life presented some unique hurdles that helped form me into a stronger person, one who rarely has moments of self doubt any more. i ask myself, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ -(and the odds are that that would not happen!)

    reading this propelled me a fortnight of years in the past, when i was ‘hobbled’ to someone who was often highly critical of most anything that i did… i realized (now) that those seeds of doubt are sometimes hard to eradicate, and the negative words still echo… it is a very delicate balance, and it can indeed rob you of your joy of creating.

    thanks for reminding us that we all face doubts and that we should stay true to – and believe in ourselves…

    1. You have obviously come to a safe place artistically speaking, where you know yourself and know what you do. And blossom! But yes, it can be hard to get over harsh critique from others, although quite often I find myself to be the worst… Thanks for sharing your immense experience, Lisa! I hope your work is going well for you. Have a nice weekend!

  31. Another excellent piece of writing, Otto. I have faced this contradiction in my ‘Art’. Whether to produce work to suit the Judge or the Exhibition world or to score points at the camera club, or, whether to produce work that is the product of my own Seeing Eye. I think we all crave acceptance and recognition and want to be ‘liked’. Those are all natural instincts and they make us feel good about ourselves. As I’ve matured (in age) and also in skills I am now entirely happy in my own skin and I now shoot what I want to shoot – driven by my Eye. If someone likes what I shoot then that is a bonus, if they don’t then I no longer worry. As a result I’m in a far happier place. The fear is no longer there. I think for me this is something about getting a little older, I do not feel the need to compete: I’ve done that, now’s the time to enjoy what I am doing.

    1. It’s is part of all artists to crave acceptance and recognition. And even if I, like you, have matured and feel quite comfortable in my own shoes, I still want others to see my work. I care less whether they like it or not, as long as they see it and get some reaction to it.

  32. Face the fear…so timely, so real in every sense of the word. Everyday, there is something that triggers our fear. Health, relationships, work, the world around us, the inability to succeed and move forward. It helps to have friends and family to help us in our struggles so are reading from other experiences and triumphs in overcoming similar fears. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  33. I always enjoy your posts not only for the good sense and encouragement they contain but also for your generosity in drawing attention to the writings of others. On several occasions I have followed up your advice and have found it most helpful and beneficial.

  34. I’ve lived most of my life in this kind of fear. A few weeks ago I made a commitment to myself to not let my fear hold me back and to enjoy the hard work and process instead. The funny thing is my fear had me avoiding reading articles like this. Today I sat down to catch up on your blog and was surprised to be reading the very things I’ve needed to help push me over my hump. Thank you Otto!

  35. Fear to put their work out there – which basically means all artists! – it made me laugh when you added that bit.

    My gosh, I really didn’t know others fear to put their work out there. I am struggling literally weekly with writing my story because I think ‘It’s just another life/haven’t expressed it well enough” and ‘will never be published/you’re wasting your time thinking people will read this’. Where DO these thoughts come from? Yet I am continuing because I have to, have to give it a go before I die. Just got to express it.

    I really liked this article, Otto. No. 1, it had me realise I’m not the only, and next, it’s inspiring you said so much, inspired by your own performance anxiety! You worked through it. Great article.

    1. Thank you Noeleen! Yes, I think we all have that anxiety. Sometimes it puts us down, but we still have to overcome it. What you say about having to continue is great. There is only one way, no?

  36. Yes, you’re right, we all fear we’re not good enough. And sometimes we just give up, which is not a good idea. I needed to hear your words of encouragement. Thanks. And thank you for visiting my blog and liking my post.

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