I have been thinking a lot lately about expectations, specifically my own personal expectations about what it means to be an artist.
Perhaps the pandemic has created an environment in which evaluation of our personal expectations is just second nature. When our expectations are not met we feel any number of emotional responses. It really comes as no surprise that the whole world has been on an emotional roller coaster the past two years because when it comes to expectations, there is nothing like a pandemic to throw a wrench in things.
I am no different than anyone else in terms of the reassessments I have had to make to adjust to the increasingly more permanent “new normal”. Over the past several months my own evaluations of my sense of being and role of expectations in my own life have become more and more unavoidable.
For anyone that knows me it is certainly no secret that I have not really created much of anything beyond crafty gifts and pet projects (no “bodies of work” so to speak) since I graduated with my second masters. I have chalked this up to exhaustion (for years) because grad school is a beast. I really didn’t know anyone that was not a bit annihilated by their experiences there so this seemed a an easy excuse when compounded with the pressures of a new tenure track teaching job.
And, like anyone with a lot of responsibilities, it was easy to assume that if “I just had more time” I would be able to get back into the habit of making – that I would feel inspired and filled with the energy necessary to creativity.
When I transitioned from full time to part time collegiate education and moved out of state so that my husband could finally pursue his much earned career goals, I literally had no excuses left to fall back on. I could finally stretch my wings and soar….
Nope. Didn’t happen.
I was stymied by all kinds of self-doubt, overthinking, paralyzing indecision, guilt, loss of self, and my dear old friend – anxiety. I had a mentor provided to me by my husbands company to help me sort through some of these complex emotions but just as I started to really do the work and put myself in a more open mindset I experienced one of the greatest tragedies of my life.
In the subsequent years I have honestly just been trying to keep my head above water. I might present a certain attitude of having it together and share snippets of projects and work via social media that suggest I am actively creating a bit more than I feel that I am, but the truth is I have been in a stagnate head-space where my primary focus has been survival and the needs of others.
I do not resent being in that place, it was truly needed and unavoidable and looking back at the past 4, years I know that I would not do anything differently. Throughout the pandemic closures I have had times to come to (better and still evolving) terms with both the new reality of the world as a whole but also the new reality of the smaller microcosm of my personal universe.
I have been reading a lot more lately and I listen to several podcasts throughout the week as I ferry my kid to and from school. One series that I have only recently gotten into is “Creative Pep Talk” by Andy J. Miller (aka Andy J. Pizza). At first I was resistant to this one because the host’s energy was not aligned with my own most days – it was hard to get into its unique rhythm.
The universe was quite possibly waiting until the host put out his series on “over-over thinking” to push me in this direction because I finally gave him a serious shot when he released the first of a 4 part series that was most surely directed specifically at me… well, not really but, you get the idea*.
Over over thinking. Wow. That’s a pretty nice way to sum things up. I am reminded of the short little poems on the inside of Snapple caps (back in the 90’s?) and feel this would probable be the exact phrase to sum up my life in a nut shell.
Miller explores a lot of ideas in this series of episodes (and lots of other good stuff in hundreds of others) but perhaps the most profound take-away for me personally is that over over thinking is a sign of past trauma – even if it is simply a micro-trauma. We may or may not be aware of what has caused this type of response in ourselves but our psychological (and even physiological) actions such as over analyzing or hyper focus on research or planning can really be more of a reaction to the pain that we (consciously or subconsciously) associate with an activity or subject.
These types of responses prevent me from taking action and provide me with more excuses to avoid placing myself in that place of vulnerability where I might experience pain again.
This highlight on an aspect of my own behavior has led me to start a journey of unpacking a lot of boxes I have stored away in the past 15 or so years. Boxes meticulously labeled with names of people, places, and events. Just acknowledging some of the things that I have lingering trauma from seems like something obvious to do but, in experience, it seldom feels that way.
So many people, myself included, try to exude the confidence or self-awareness we desire to really have in a “fake it ‘till you make it” kind of activity. This is so prevalent that it feels like it is culturally expected of us to do this – especially when it comes to social media. But, I think that over time it will become easier for me to believe the partial truths I tell myself as what is really true, but in practice it only leads me to feel worse. When I act like I am ok when I am not it can help me maintain the things I need to do in order to keep moving forward but it really does not allow me the time or space to heal or process what I have experienced.
So, no, I am not okay – not really. And that is not the end of the world and it is okay to not be okay. So few of us really feel “okay”. Those of us in this cycle may say we are fine while we keep our heads up and laugh and submit to fulfilling the expectations we have of ourselves and the expectations that we think others have of us. In keeping our heads above the waves we sometimes do not realize that we are barely even treading water in the process of doing so.
Getting to “okay” is not something that happens overnight just as no one can snap their fingers or issue a press release and poof make the pandemic magically over. Oh that this would be true, right?
For now, I am tasking myself with acknowledging when I am OVER over-thinking something as a way to avoid action or completion of something. I will ask myself to consider what past pain I have experienced that leads me to believe that the current outcome will be the same.
I will “subtract the fantasy from the reality” (another Miller gem) and attempt to sort out what I know to be true rather than what my anxiety propels me to fantasize as an actual possibility. My expectations can change, just like I can.
*I’m sorry I couldn’t find the specific episodes of Miller’s podcast to link here but past episodes are available on the artist’s website. I’ll update them when I do locate the specific one I reference here.