The vulnerability hangover.
If you're a creative person who makes a habit of digging deep into your heart to find your most authentic truth and then doing your best to transform it into something beautiful and powerful to share with the world, you probably know what I'm talking about.
You spoke your story honestly. You sang your guts out. You hung the self portrait that explores your shadow side right there on the wall where literally anyone passing by could see it.
And maybe you heard…
- “I don't get it.”
- “Why does she turn everything into a big drama?”
- “Just another victim looking for pity.”
- “Keep trying and you'll be good at this someday.”
- Or the dreaded, “It's great, but it's just not what we're looking for.”
And your heart just shattered.
I know that my fear of comments like these kept me from sharing my art for a long, long time.
Quite frankly, I knew I was sensitive, and I didn't think I could handle the embarrassment of having a stranger put down (or just not understand) the poem or song that I had worked so hard to make “just right.” It wasn't until I was well into my 30s that I decided to screw up my courage and listen to the voice inside that told me my creations could possibly be nourishing and uplifting to other people, if only I would stop hiding my light under a bushel.
So I started performing at some local open mic nights. I made some music videos and shared them on social media. I sent my writing out to the magazines that had helped me get through the tough times—the publications I really admired.
Some people said they really liked what I was doing. Some people said I had made their journey a little easier because of what I shared.
And some people said, “Huh?” Some people said, “That's nice, little girl, you'll get there.” Some people said nothing. Some said, “Next…”
And it did hurt.
The Pain of Baring Your Soul & Being Criticized
Once, in the space of a little over a week, I was:
- Summarily dismissed from a piano gig when a more experienced accompanist suddenly became available;
- Scolded by another boss for playing a well-known pop song slower than the famous recorded version; and
- Told by the director of a choir who had commissioned a piece from me that they wanted to change the entire tone of the arrangement, adding a guitar part and a folksy swing to a composition I'd designed as a formal a cappella number.
Gosh, each one of these stung. I felt them like little needles in my heart.
And I was quick to tell myself, “Get over it! You wanted the artist's life, and this is it. Rejection after rejection, with an occasional break hopefully thrown in. Gotta keep that ego strong, not take it personally, roll with the punches, do your thang, let the folks who like you like you, and let the rest go.”
I felt embarrassed for what I saw as my shortcomings, and further embarrassed by my emotional response, and I didn't know how I would ever be able to show my face on a stage again.
Getting Over the Vulnerability & Rejection!
Luckily, I had a wonderful mentor that I could confide in. Even as I was fighting back tears and saying, “…And I know that's just how it goes so I just need to suck it up,” he was jumping in to reassure me that yes, this is part of the path—and yes, it can be painful as all hell.
Because the work we're doing comes from a very tender place. It's rooted in our vulnerability.
What makes our art juicy and captivating and moving is its realness, and that often means that we're letting the public see facets of our souls that would be much more comfortable if they were covered up in a big fluffy quilt and tucked away safely to sleep (forever). We might feel an insistent urge to make something lovely out of all the crap we've gone through, but that doesn't mean we're supposed to hold our nose and ignore all the feelings that float up when we take the lid off the compost bin.
A certain measure of messiness is inevitable when we're excavating our truth. It's not a distraction from the process; it is the process!
And you don't have to be a self-identified “artist” to suffer the heartache of having your sharing judged or misunderstood. Whether you're a creative person who's experienced more rejections than you can count, a dreamer who's just beginning to wonder whether you could even survive a harsh review, or someone who strives for authenticity in your daily life and puts up with pushback for speaking your mind, the following self care tips are for you.
Stash them in a drawer in the back of your mind for the moment when a thoughtless critique shows up feeling like a slap in the face, or an editor's silence has you wondering if your work will ever be worth anything to anybody.
Let these suggestions inspire you to add your own favorite methods for caring for your beautiful, sensitive, courageous creative heart.
10 Tips to Care for Your Vulnerable Creative Heart!
1. Breathe through it
As soon as you become aware that you're having painful feelings, take a big deep breath, and another, and another. Take 5 or 10 breaths, in fact.
Amidst a vulnerability hangover, slow, conscious breathing will help calm your nervous system – which, chances are, has gone into the fight-flight-or-freeze response, because
your brain chemistry responds to anything you experience as a threat to your safety by setting off all the alarms, whether there's really a bear chasing you or you just feel like you could die of mortification. Deep, slow breathing will help you switch off catastrophic thinking, and just might prevent you from smashing your guitar on the nearest rock.
2. Talk to someone who gets it
Community support is utterly indispensable for the long haul. Even renowned artistic recluses like Emily Dickinson developed profound lifelong connections with other writers through her letters. If you don't have any creative friends living nearby, find a group online where you can connect with some other folks who are also striving to bring their ideas to life.
When we don't share the journey with others, we have no one to tell us we're being too hard on ourselves. And if we don't pull the plug on a harsh inner critic, before long, that voice just might convince us to give up entirely. But a simple word of encouragement from someone who has actually been there is potent medicine for the heart that's been hurt.
Don't be embarrassed to share your disappointments with other artists. Chances are, you'll be making someone else feel better – they may have been sitting there thinking they were the only one with these problems, too.
3. Revisit the artists who have inspired you
Reacquaint yourself with the works that first got you excited about creating in this way. Find the writings and the photographs and the songs that held up a mirror in which
you saw something new about yourself. This is not about comparing yourself to those people you idolized. It's about feeding the creative spark in yourself with fuel that you know is nourishing, because it's nourished you before.
4. Press “pause” on revising
When we're still reeling emotionally from feedback that wasn't what we were hoping for, feeling unsettled and vulnerable, that's not always the best time to get out the editing pen. Rejection fears run deep; they often touch into a survival-level panic, and some ancient part of our brain will start freaking out about being cast out from the tribe and dying alone in a blizzard. It probably goes without saying, but we may not make the best editorial decisions when we're in that place. If possible, resist the urge to delete your compositions until you've had a chance to bounce back a bit.
5. Work on something else
Got a few projects in rotation? If one area of your artistic life just took a hit, consider giving some attention to a different piece that you're working on. Shifting your focus to a different creative project can temporarily distract you from your heartache, allowing time to work its magic. And it can also help you quickly reconnect with the inner passions that drive you to create. Pretty soon, you'll be back in the flow, and you just might find yourself getting excited about what you're making. This is an excellent practice for warding off those seductive thoughts about art being far to painful to ever do again.
6. Do something for yourself that feels nurturing and healing
If your heart was hurting from a fight with a loved one or a loss of something you cared about, what would you do to soothe the pangs of sadness? For some people, a massage is a great way to ease that vulnerability, to feel safe and supported without ever having to talk about the things that are challenging to us. For others, a walk in nature, a yoga class, or a hot bath offer that sense of being wrapped in a loving kindness that demands nothing in return.
7. Blow off steam
Big energy can come up when these sensitive areas get triggered. We might be angry at the injustice of it all—or sobbing in a corner. Physical activity can help these emotions run their course. Going for a jog, dancing it out, punching a pillow, or hitting the batting cages are tried-and-true ways to burn up the adrenaline that might be flooding our system. Personally, I find there's nothing more satisfying than smacking a racquetball against the wall when I'm feeling devastated or enraged by a rejection.
8. Keep a sense of perspective
Why is it that one negative comment always seems to carry as much weight as 100 compliments? Nothing can kill my sense of satisfaction in a job well done like someone criticizing something else I did. Suddenly I'm asking myself whether I'll ever create
anything worthwhile, forgetting that five minutes earlier, I was on top of the world.
If you find yourself on this roller coaster a lot, it can help to keep a log of things you felt proud of—times when you could see your work making a difference, or when you achieved a personal milestone. (You can also put “Kept going in spite of disappointment or embarrassment” on this list.) Look over what you've written when you catch yourself wanting to call the whole thing a wash.
9. Know that your work is not you
Your value and lovability as a person does not hinge on your work getting great reviews. The very strong tendency that many artists have to identify with their creations, to see their art as a literal extension of themselves — as real and personal as an arm — makes perceived rejection all the harder to process. When someone doesn't like our short story, we can quickly go to, “I'm no good.” Well, that's a mistake (unless someone is saying it to you; then it's a dirty lie). Your worth as a human being is non-negotiable. If you notice yourself reacting in this way to an unfavorable comment about your work, make a point of telling yourself, specifically and repeatedly, that you are loved. And give yourself a really big, strong hug.
10. Have compassion for yourself
This is the most important practice of all. The work you are doing asks a lot of you; it calls you to be brave and resilient and committed. It takes energy, and you'll probably get tired.
And when we're raw and spent, we can be sensitive. It's just a human thing.
Try not to be upset with yourself for being upset. Even better, sit yourself down and get present with whatever feelings are there. In your vulnerability exists so much beauty, if you are willing to sit with it and see it.
The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh offers a powerful practice for awakening compassion for your hurting self: simply imagine that you are holding your intense feelings in your arms, as you would hold a baby. And sometimes the best medicine of all is a good, cleansing cry.
It can be tough when we've bared our soul to the world and we're feeling all exposed and it just doesn't go over in the way we hoped. So when your heart gets bruised, give yourself time to recover. If you can devote a little attention to self care, you'll find that the clouds begin to disperse before long. Let yourself be drawn back to the joy of creating when you're ready. Let your inspiration lead you, and let your light shine!