One of the greatest things I get to do is help other people bring their creative projects to life. I do this through one-on-one coaching, Writer’s Workshops, with books like Writing to Find Yourself and my writing course Find Your Voice.
I never expected this work to be some of the most gratifying work I do—but it really is. I get to spend time with the most interesting and inspiring people. Sometimes I leave those meetings feeling like I gained more from our time together than the person who I was coaching.
Still, one thing I’ve learned the hard way in my life is that if we are always helping and never creating, we miss out.
We’re built to be creative.
And remember, by creative I do not necessarily mean artistic. What I mean is that we are made to put our hands to something, to shape it, to bring it from chaos to order. Whether it’s a book or a friendship or a family or a career or our body or lives—the instinct to create is deep inside of us. And yet so many of us forgo the creative seat of our lives to sit in the passenger seat of someone else’s.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you can identify with this in some way.
Maybe one or more of the following feels true to you:
- You find yourself more often than not helping other people do the things that matter to them but it’s difficult to take more time for you.
- You have a hard time saying no—especially to good causes
- When one of your friends or someone in your family has a problem, you feel a sense of personal responsibility to fix it.
- You rarely complain about not having enough time for yourself (although you feel the effects of it in your life)
And the truth is that part of the reason you feel this way about helping your friends and family is because you have a huge heart and a generous spirit. That’s a good thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. At the same time, there’s a reason we must beware of lending all of our creative energies to the projects of others.
Sometimes… it’s an excuse.
Often… we have way more to offer.
And if we don’t get a handle on our tendency to jump in and play the “savior” and the fixer and the intervener, we will miss our highest calling in this world.
Are you holding back your greatest potential for the sake of helping others?
Julia Cameron has a term for people who are denying their own creativity. She calls them Shadow Artists. These are people who find themselves living vicariously through the success and failures and dramas and addictions and energies of others. They get really comfortable playing second-in-command because, if they’re always helping others, they have an excellent excuse for why they can’t give time or energy to their own creative work.
“Shadow artists often choose shadow careers—those close to the desired art, even parallel to it, but not the art itself… Intended fiction writers often go into Newspapering or advertising, where they can use their gift without taking the plunge into their dreamed-of fiction writing career. Intended artists may become artist managers and derive a great deal of secondary pleasure form serving their realm, even at one remove. Carolyn, herself a gifted photographer, made a successful but unhappy career as a photographer’s rep. Jean, who yearned to write feature films, wrote mini movies in her thirty-second commercial spots. Kelly, who wanted to be a writer but feared taking her creativity seriously, made a profitable career out of repping “really” creative people.”
Is there something you’ve been wanting to do—start a business, pick up a paintbrush, write a book, begin a regular writing routine, take a dance class, start a garden, or something else altogether, but you’ve been putting it off, telling yourself it’s just not worth it? Reminding yourself how you’ll never make money from that?
Telling yourself you don’t have the time?
Telling yourself it’s a waste of energy?
What if it is the opposite of a waste of energy? What if that thing you can’t stop thinking about is the most productive, most efficient, most life-altering, world-changing, bang-for-your-buck thing to do?
What if you took just a little more time for you?
My Life as A Shadow Artist
I was talking with a friend the other day who recently quit her full-time job to make more time for her personal writing. I asked her how things were going, and she said for the most part they were great, but she explained how despite the fact she had left her full-time job to create more time for writing, she was spending most of her time writing for other people and not nearly enough time on her own book.
As she was telling me her story, it felt like deja vu. This is what I did six years ago—left my full-time job to make more time for myself and my art, specifically because I had a book I wanted to write. And it wasn’t until nine months after my last day of work—NINE MONTHS—that I realized quitting my job hadn’t helped me get more writing done.
It was the weirdest thing.
I would wake up each morning and do the few hours of work I needed to do for various clients—like a thoughtful, careful, responsible person should—and then by mid-day, when it was time for me to finally transition to working on my book, I would somehow get swept into the problems and needs and the desires of others.
- Someone had a flat tire and needed me to come pick them up.
- Someone had a bad day and needed some ice cream
- Someone was upset with me about the fact I didn’t call more often
- Someone got locked out of the house and needed me to bring the keys
And look. None of these things are bad things. I want to be the kind of friend who is available at a moment’s notice to bring the keys, and call the tow truck, eat ice cream, or just to talk. But the problem comes when our WHOLE lives get arranged around doing things for other people and our creative work suffers—whatever “creative work” looks like for us.
And the truth is, the real reason we are putting off our creative work is not because we so desperately want to help people.
It’s because we’re scared.
We’re scared of:
- Loss of control
- Becoming successful
- Being seen for who we really are
So my friend shared this familiar problem with me. Then she finished by saying, “But I think I have it figured out now. I’ve blocked out all day Friday to work on my own stuff.”
YES, that’s awesome I told her. Except for one thing.
Block out MONDAY.
It’s symbolic. It’s uncomfortable for us Shadow Artists, but it’s important. It’s saying, “I’m not saving the last day of the week for myself—the scraps of the week, whatever is left over when I’ve taken care of everyone else. I’m setting aside the first part of the week for myself, the part of the week when my brain is the sharpest and I have the most to give. That’s how much I value and treasure my creative talents.”
That’s how much I value myself.
That’s how seriously I take myself and my work.
It’s okay to take more time for you.
Overcoming The Shadow Artist In Us
It’s important to remember that the Shadow Artist in us is a terrified artist. So the worst thing we could possibly do is to beat her into submission until she complies. She is like a woodland creature, sensitive to the slightest movement and sound. If we come at her too fast, or with too many demands, she will run in the other direction.
She’s on guard.
So our job is to be kind to her, to draw her out.
As a rule of thumb, shadow artists judge themselves harshly, beating themselves for years over the fact that they have not acted on their dreams. This cruelty only reinforces their status as shadow artists. Remember, it takes nurturing to make an artist. Shadow artists did not receive sufficient nurturing. They blame themselves for not acting fearlessly anyhow. —Julia Cameron
If we can remember how shy our shadow artists are, we can start to be kind to them and learn what it takes to draw them out of their shells.
Here are a few tactics I have used that work well for me.
First, we have to get rid of the “drama people” in our lives.
Or, if not get rid of them, create really firm boundaries to keep them from derailing our creative work. The drama people in your life are the ones who are always creating waves for you, always knocking you off of your creative center. The person who is coming to your mind right now—yes, that one—is your drama person.
Shadow Artists end up with lots of drama people in their lives because, hello, drama goes where it can get attention, and Shadow Artists are great at giving drama attention. It can feel counterintuitive, and even downright wrong, for us, as helpers, to kick drama people out of our lives.
Maybe it helps to be reminded that the drama people are really better off without us, too. They might think they need us, but they are also hiding from something.
We’re all better off facing whatever it is we’re hiding from.
Second, we must go gently and slowly
Again, the scared little hiding artist in you does not need you to push her faster than she is ready to go. Maybe all she is ready for today is going to buy a journal and a new pack of pens, and starting to keep a journal. Maybe she’s ready to pick up a book on gardening, but not to actually put her hands to the soil yet.
Maybe she decides to take a class on starting a business, instead of actually diving in and starting one yet.
Give her lots of credit. Lots of affirmation. Lots of applause, for even the smallest things.
Don’t make her do anything she isn’t ready to do.
Can you feel the sigh of relief?
Third, we must fight our negative beliefs.
We all have them, lingering in our subconscious, and these are the beliefs keeping our inner artist from coming out of her hiding place. I wrote a whole post about fighting negative mindsets, so if you need more support with that, find it here.
But the main idea is this: your inner critic is probably more mean to you than anyone else will be.
Finally, we must notice our criticism of others.
One thing that tends to happen with people who are holding back innate creative talent is they have many harsh judgements of other people. We don’t like to admit this about ourselves. After all, we’re such “nice” people, but do you find yourself regularly thinking to yourself:
- “I can’t believe he would publish that article… how stupid”
- “Those people are just out to get your money…”
- “What a waste of time. That’s never going to amount to anything.”
- “He/she thinks he’s so special…”
Listen. Our criticisms of others are really criticisms of ourselves. So when you find yourself criticizing someone else—even in your own mind—remind yourself the real danger of this is that you’re terrified of your own ability to publish an article others think is dumb, to start a business just for the money, or to waste your time doing something that is never going to amount to anything.
We must learn to notice our criticisms of others and to find forgiveness for the ways we are not perfect and give ourselves permission to create anyway.
Remember, your artist is a child. Find and protect that child. Learning to let yourself create is like learning to walk. The artists child must begin by crawling. Baby steps will flow and there will be falls—yecchy first paintings, beginning films that look like unedited home moives, first poems that would shame a greeting card. Typically, the recovering shadow artist will use these early efforts to discourage continued exploration. —Julia Cameron
Please, whatever you do, give yourself permission to be imperfect. Keep creating. As Marie Forleo would say, the world needs the special gift only YOU have.
A note about helping people.
Just to make sure this came through clearly, I am not saying there is anything wrong with helping people. Again, one of the greatest joys of my life is helping other artists, helping my family members and helping my friends. There are plenty of powerful artists I know personally who are pursuing their creative interests and also give generously to help others.
In fact, I think this is a necessary part of becoming a true artist, and a balanced person.
But for some of us, one of those things is harder than the other. And for Shadow Artists, receiving is the hard part. We need to work on the one that comes the least naturally for us. It’s all part of the creative journey.
I hope this helps you on yours.