I want to share this brief excerpt from page 33 of the book 365 Tao: Daily Meditations:
Demons who enter your circle must be pushed out. No matter what world you walk in–office, school, temple, prison, or the streets–there is an underworld populated with demons. These are people who are avaricious, aggressive, sadistic, and cynical. They not only take advantage of others without compunction, they delight in it. They find pleasure in seeing others suffer….you must be prepared. It is best to prepare for conflict by learning as much self-defense as possible. You will not become a bully or a monster, but instead, you will learn that you can respond to any situation.
This got me thinking about the ways that artists are vulnerable to attack. Aside from blatant forms of attack (those who would steal your work and profit from it, for example) there is a far more common and insidious form of attack I have unfortunately encountered many times–the simple words of mean people. Words on the surface don’t have to be powerful, but more often than not, they are. As artists we must prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally for those who might verbally attack us and try to undermine our confidence. We need our confidence to remain intact so we have all our energy to put towards our work.
The very nature of what we do as artists makes us vulnerable (assuming you show your work to anyone who will look, which is necessary as a professional in this field) because it involves putting ourselves out there for literally anyone to review. It takes a measure of courage to put so much of yourself into creative work and then send that work out into the world to be judged willy-nilly.
We should be humble and open to constructive criticism, as artists can always improve. But we need to recognize the difference between criticism that provides a learning opportunity and outright malice only meant to do us harm. I am referring to the type of jerks you find all over the Internet who will seek out people who are bravely putting their art out into the world, only to tell them that they suck, that they don’t have what it takes, and that they are a joke.
Of course for every person that says something mean about me or my work, there are always 99 people who tell me how talented/inspiring/helpful/etc. I am. But if you have experience exposing yourself to the public’s critique in any way, you probably know how much that one hurtful comment out of 100 can stick in your mind and make you doubt yourself.
Here’s the secret to this kind of self-defense: you’ve heard it before. You can’t care what others think of you. This includes the bad and the good–do not allow people’s attacks to tear you down, but don’t let people’s praise boost your ego either. If you give too much validity to other people’s opinions, you open yourself up to those attacks and give them more power over you.
Backyard, Cedar Lee 2005
Your strength and merit as an artist come from within yourself, and have as much to do with where you are going as where you are now. Your strength is in your vision, your potential, and your honest work. Focus on that.