To be completely honest with you, I haven’t picked up a paintbrush in months. Between two different jobs and cities, moving across the country, living near our families for the first time since we got married, and having an hour long commute one-way, I feel like I don’t have time. I know it’s not true, and I have to make the time to paint, but while I’m being completely honest, I’ll confess that part of why I haven’t painted in so long is that I’m uninspired.
I can hear those of you who want to remind me that pursuing your creative passion means having the discipline to continue in it even when you don’t have time or are uninspired. I know you’re right. Sometimes when I see myself divided between sketching out a new project or an extra hour of sleep I hate the part of me that gives in to the bliss of rest. At the same time, I’ve been practicing something kind of controversial amongst artist-types.
I’ve been practicing being kind to myself.
When you flip through an artist dictionary, it seems like an incomprehensible number of well known artists have struggled with depression, low self esteem, anxiety, and a multitude of other mental health issues. I can’t think of many people who are highly creative who don’t struggle with some kind of crisis of identity at different points of their lives. We find almost as varied ways of coping- some more dysfunctional than others.
As I write this, the holidays are in full swing. Unfortunately with the holidays are often conflict-ridden season, rife with uncomfortable gatherings and unrealistic expectations, many of us feel our mental health issues are amplified.
Whether you struggle with a diagnosed condition, or find yourself feeling blue, lonely, or unhappy, know that there are many others who are feeling the same way.
A common misconception is that all of our negative feelings come from negative experiences. In my case I can confidently say that this is not always the case. Sometimes extreme happiness and joy can still leave me feeling tapped out and like I need a nap. Even though most of the events I’m attended are celebrations, I still feel a lot of the time like I need to find a quiet corner and regain my calm.
The first few weeks post-holiday can still feel challenging and exhausting.
Personally, I know I can put a lot of pressure on family gatherings to be sentimental affairs of domesticity. I want everyone to feel like they had a bonding moment with everyone else. When the mashed potatoes have been passed around for the final time and everyone is falling asleep, it’s just not going to happen. My expectations can put an unfair constraint on the people I care most about.
In the midst of the chaos and glitter and twinkle lights it can seem impractical to keep to our normal routines of making; but I think we have to. I can only speak for myself, but I know that my writing projects, collaging in my art journal, the few times I’ve been able to perform music, and baking treats for my coworkers have all helped me keep my head above the water while the societal excitement escalates.
This past season – and into the New Year – I’m committed to keeping to the things that I know work; one of them that I already mentioned is being kind to myself.
Maybe to some this would look like a weak-sauce pansy way of living life, like I’m not pushing myself or working to achieve my goals the way I should. It’s possible they’re right. I just know I can’t drive myself the way I used to and maintain wellness in my mind, spirit and body. I used to be a lot more comparative and take the upcoming new year as an opportunity to fine-tune the list of all the things I had done wrong or not enough of. To see what everyone around me had accomplished and how I fell short.
From a young age, I have had a very loud, bossy critic in my head explaining in minute and sharply accurate detail everything I was failing at. This voice was a fan of cutting down my body image, and telling me exactly how inadequate I was at writing, drawing, painting, singing, or anything else I cared about. I didn’t need anyone around me to tell me what I needed to work on, because I was uncomfortably aware of my shortcomings and how I was “failing everyone”.
It’s probably not a wildly popular idea amongst many of us (for obvious reasons; appearing conceited, lowering your expectations of yourself and accomplishing less, being considered selfish, the list continues) but practicing kindness with yourself is basically second guessing your first reaction and asking if how you’re reacting to yourself is how you would react to a friend you care deeply about. Maybe I’m wrong and this is something that everyone else has been doing for a long time, but it has taken me years to get to this point and sometimes I still feel like I’m so bad at this, so bear with me because it’s worth the reminder.
Some people will hear you saying that you have plans… and when they find out later that your plans were to go back home and stay in your pajamas to watch cartoons and eat mochi, they will judge you. When you are practicing kindness to yourself, a lot of the time it looks like this:
“I should really make that painting I bought this big canvas for.”
But I got five hours of sleep last night and the only ten minutes of that I had to myself were in the shower when I cut myself shaving.
“But it’s taking up space and if you don’t paint today then you won’t paint tomorrow and your paintings will never be seen by anyone who works at MOMA and you’ll cut off your ear and eventually commit suicide but no one in the art world will know, because there won’t be any art for them to critique.”
If I sit down and start this then I’ll be here for at least an hour and it’s already 11:30.
Eventually you have to decide, and while both voices have a point, practicing kindness means taking a step back and saying, “What’s the most rational and fair thing here?” One voice is clearly pushy, not encouraging, and a drama queen. Obviously I want to paint, but rather than sacrifice more of the sweet dream-times that make me functional, why not plan a specific time to paint the next day and listen to that voice that knows what my physical needs are? Win-win! This is living in generosity to ourselves.
This is being kind to ourselves.
I think this time of year focuses on giving to others in part because we understand a general truth about humankind, which is that we get stuck on ourselves and find it hard to break out of the everyday pattern. We need something to shake us up and get us out of the funk we live in a lot of the year, where we cycle around and around thinking about how to make a little more money, be a little more successful or recognized, or even how to create that thing that we know we are meant to make next.
We need a break from all of that, and in a weird twist of fate, I think the first step of being kind to myself is, for me, finding someone near me who needs attention and help more than I do. Getting outside of the endless word-river in my brain can give me chance to shake off my troubles and see how someone else is experiencing the big weird world we live in.
There are always people in need, and it’s a sad fact that most days we’re so busy trying to make the most of our own situations that we can forget. Even if it’s as simple as chatting with a neighbor or learning the names of the people on our block, giving a larger tip to our favorite barista, or sending a gift overseas to a child in need. I know there isn’t enough time to do it all in a day, trust me. But the weird thing is that when I do these practices, putting people first and my schedule second, I always end up having the time after all. Almost always.
We push ourselves so much, further than we know we can go. It’s admirable, sometimes even noble. But I have to think that there are times when all that’s being asked of us is to sit still and be okay, to hear words of love being spoken over us, to experience something beautiful or peaceful or wonderful without guilt.
Let’s practice generosity, to ourselves as well as others, as we welcome in another year of hope and promise. Let’s be our own friend, and help ourselves and those around us to enjoy both in time of celebration, giving, and kindness. And always.
About the Author: Emma Gazley
Emma Gazley is an artist, musician, writer, adventurer and teacher. Born to two adventurous parents, Emma was destined to be an explorer of the world, and from her earliest moments displayed signs of creativity and curiosity. She has spent time in Europe, Asia, Canada, and currently resides in the U.S. She began her journey of discovering her identity as an artist in 2012, after encountering critical health problems that caused her to lose her job and the ability to do most everyday activities. Many of her projects have, as a result of this event and others, a twinge of the painful and tragic aspects of life.
Emma is interested in learning about grief and how to cope with it, as well as passionate about finding joy in the day to day.