Confidence vs. Context: An Artist’s Dilemma

Creative Commons by Josefa Holland-Merten
Creative Commons by Josefa Holland-Merten

When I was little, and acting came more easily to me, I was constantly told to make sure it “didn’t go to my head.”  Because I was an anxious child, I immediately tucked this idea up on the shelf with the other “Things to be Super Terrified Of,” and decided that being conceited was one of the worst fates of the artist.  To go a step further, I started to wonder: why are people mentioning it so much?  Has it already happened?

It wasn’t until my teens that I realized I was actually afraid of confidence itself.  My dad, always my strongest supporter, would step in for me when asked what show I was working on–not because he was overbearing, but because I would shut down when someone gave me an open door to celebrate my work.  I started to realize that my fear of big-headedness had ruined my ability to believe in what I was doing.  These fears were confirmed when a bitter acting teacher  in high school announced in front of my class that I “thought I was better than everyone else because of my ‘big, fancy’ professional credits.”  So I shut  my mouth and that was that.

Fast forward fifteen years, and it’s very clear I am not remotely alone in this feeling.

For the past year, I’ve been in a sort of “actor’s-hiatus” from the typical grind of auditioning and freelancing.  The distance from theatre has provided the chance to step back from my career and observe it from afar.

There’s no doubt that a lack of confidence sown in high school has carried into my adult life as an artist.  Not coincidentally, my job offers in theatre also significantly plummeted around the same time.  And so I’ve spent countless emotional nights with my husband having the old “I’m throwing in the towel” talks, usually blaming a few bad teachers or experiences on the downfall of my belief in the art, only to come back around the next morning and hop on the audition train again.  I continue to not get cast, and the cycle continues.

So how do we stop this cycle?  I have a thought: confidence vs. context.

I find that each time I reach a milestone in my life–we pay off a credit card, we move to a nicer neighborhood, I get cast in a show, I get a writing gig–I downplay the achievement by putting myself in the scheme of my “competition.”  Well, I’m still in student debt..we’re no longer in NYC…it’s not Broadway or anything..I am nothing compared to bloggers with a million followers.  Every thought safely places me on a nice, low rung in the scheme of things.

Quite often we are taught that this comparison is healthy, and this is true to a point.  Without the leading teachers in our area of study, how would we know what is possible?  There is also the danger of becoming complacent inside your own bubble.  There is the unfortunate possibility of becoming–a term coined by my husband (edit: not coined by my husband, actually coined by Chekhov.  But Ben appreciated the mixup.)– a “regional celebrity.”  Regional celebrities have the big-fish-small-pond syndrome, landing themselves on the opposites side of the confidence scale that I speak of, yet still falling into the same trap.  Instead of simply having confidence and taking ownership of their work, they compare themselves to others–this time just in a much smaller pond.  And so we are back to where we started–that focusing on the context of our field blinds us from honestly viewing our own faults and progress.

You may refute that: still, if we don’t push ourselves to reach the levels of our idols, how will we know when we’re done working?  Well, there’s issue number two–you never are.  In the arts or in any other field, there is no end to your training, or anyone else’s.  And so we need to try and do three things:

  1. Have confidence in the unique, personalized way we express our particular skill.
  2. Never believe we have reached the end of learning.
  3. Only “compare” ourselves to things and people that inspire and help us to grow.

In theory, these three actions should balance out.  If we feel a lack of confidence when in front of a classroom, an audition table full of directors, or presenting to clients, etc., we head to number one and remember that we are good at what we do.  Simple as that, no comparisons. We–as an island–are good at what we do because we have worked at it.  But when we get too big for our breeches, we remember that we can never stop learning or training.  We then head to number three–seeking out those inspirations and lessons from the positive sources in our lives, those that instead of making us feel small, inspire us to grow larger than we originally thought possible.

Most likely, feeling like a big or small fish will manifest through frustration with our art.  Anger with ourselves after a misstep or letdown in our career, at least for me, often feels like I am somehow “not keeping up with everyone else.”  And yet this is simply either untrue or unimportant.  Focusing on the other runners only makes us faster if we learn from how they are gaining speed.

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