“Shame is the birthplace of perfectionism.” Brené Brown
A couple weeks ago, I sent an invite for wine and chat to the ladies who attend my mixed media journaling sessions here at the house. We are just getting to know one another as friends and fellow artists, and I’d hoped they would want to deepen our shared connection as much as I did. And they did! Tuesday evening, we poured glasses of chilled white wine, plated delicious snacks and settled into the backyard. Conversation flowed easily. (We missed those of you who were unavailable.)
Gather a group of artists together and talk is sure to turn to art. We were no exception. There were light-hearted words about the love of expressing ourselves visually, the fun of playing with color and the satisfaction of getting our fingers dirty. But as always happens, and I do mean always, whether it’s here at my house or in the classes I teach through Adult Ed, art talk also raises the specter of shame. For most, the two seem linked together as tight as color is to a crayon.
Put a blank paper in front of someone, encourage them to create and soon the judgments emerge, sometimes with tears.
“I love yours, but mine sucks.”
“At home, I’ll cover this mess and start over.”
“I’m not a real artist.”
Shame is usually on my mind. Before Olivia got sick, I knew shame existed and I knew it was toxic, but I had no idea how deeply its tentacles had burrowed into the core of my being, how it manipulated and controlled. After Olivia got sick and during treatment, shame—hers, mine, Tom’s, our family’s—and its manifestations were regular topics of discussion. Since then learning more about my personal relationship to shame and healing have been a top priority. Shame is what would have caused me to knit-pick away the fun of dancing with abandon (read here.)
Writing last week’s post got me thinking about taking up space, by which I mean being unafraid to express the fullest extent of our authentic selves, to be real and vulnerable. Why do we second-guess or ignore or even suppress our hearts’ desires to dance or perform karaoke or paint crooked rainbows? Why is it so freaking hard to just be ourselves? And when we find a healthier path, why is it so easy to get knocked astray?
The two most important tools I learned to combat shame’s effects came from reading Brené Brown’s work: Don’t talk to myself differently than I would Olivia, and to make meaning I need to make art. Sounded easy enough until I tried it. If Olivia made mistakes I said, “Don’t worry. Everyone makes them.” If I made mistakes, no one on the planet was more stupid than I, as I strove for that impossible standard of perfection. Art wasn’t much different. Everyone else’s art was awesome. Mine was ugly, and its meaning allusive.
I broke shame’s hold on me by being nice to myself. Yes. Nice. Over and over, when I thought something unkind, I countered those thoughts with nicer, gentler ones. You're okay. You're doing your best. You are enough. At first, I felt like an imposter. That shame gremlin laughed in my ear, Nice try, honey. But I didn’t give up, and the kind words eventually came easier and quicker. The near relentless judgments I used to harbor against myself dwindled in frequency and virulence. Trial run after trial run the process of making art presented opportunities to practice self-compassion, notice improvement and accept myself.
Tuesday evening, I looked at the ladies, my friends, women I care about and wanted for them what I want for myself: to love themselves unconditionally and to express that love through art without reservation or judgment. I hope they know how much they deserve it. I hope you do too. If you're struggling, make a mess. Use bright colors. Buy several journals and fill them with your art. Fill your shelves, rooms and whole house with your art. Take up the space. You are the only person in the world who can make art your way, and when your heart is filled with art there's less space for shame.