On being overly critical

Walking down the street in Montmartre last week, I found a painting left on the street, leaning against a wall up for grabs. It was a pretty big canvas, something like 120 x 90 cm, and had a  woman’s face on it that looked a bit like Lana del Rey with a cigarette between her lips and a wolf howling at the moon with some streets of Montmartre in the background. 

I felt an instant connection and knew I wanted it hanging in my studio.  Amazed that someone could throw this away, I took it. 

It made me think of an article I had read about the Swiss sculptor, Alberto Giacometti,who would work late into the night and, when dawn would peek through the horizon, he would throw everything in the garbage, angry and unsatisfied, before going to bed Some of his best works today ended up in the garbage and were salvaged by his brother.  

So the question is: “Are we really objective about our own work?" In many cases, I would say probably not. 

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, says that everything is less important than what we think while we are thinking about it. A little imperfection, something potentially invisible to anyone else, may take up extraordinary space in our minds  when we focus all of our attention on it. Don’t get me wrong; a hint of healthy perfectionism is good for anyone, but too much is counterproductive and can sometimes even be self destructive. 

Life is much easier when we fend off excessive self criticism with simple self discipline. When you are getting sucked into the endless perfectionism loop and rage starts to boil inside of you, find the strength to stop and do something else. Empty your head, replenish your energy, and come back later in a different state of mind.If you still think what you did sucks, there is no urgency. You can still throw it away tomorrow. 

Many artists often have nearly boundless compassion for  the world around them, but nearly none for themselves. Everyone, even the best, suck sometimes, and that’s just fine. The problems start when you freak out or go crazy and want to punish yourself. Throwing away, deleting, or burning your work. Loathing yourself. You being unhappy because your reality doesn’t match your mental image of the result and the greatness you want to achieve. You making yourself  miserable in hopes that it will somehow miraculously change everything. All of these reactions are manifestations of your ego talking. It’s your ego getting high on your suffering.   

But it’s quite childish, isn’t it? Cool off. Be kind to yourself. Things are what they are. Even bad work is a record of the path you’re on.  It’s like an old notebook found in the attic revealing the hidden details of the person you were at that moment.  

Being kind and forgiving with yourself is more important than any piece of art you could ever make.   

Remember: if your compassion doesn’t include you, it’s not complete.

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