Does Insecurity Drive Creativity?

I had the pleasure yesterday of seeing a photograph, taken by my daughter, on display at a D.C. art show. Pleasure is an understatement; I was bursting with pride. Both of my children give me reasons to smile. My daughter’s art. My son’s grades. The thoughtfulness and generosity of both.

And yet. As I was driving home from the art show, I found myself wondering if my daughter’s growth as an artist might one day find me feeling proud, yes, but also jealous. Perhaps more jealous than proud.

This is the photo that was on display: “Rib Caged” by Marisa Ross

I’ve never met a creative who didn’t, on some level, suffer from self-doubt. I think that the doubt we carry within us can, at times, drive us to improve our craft. But it can also paralyze us. And it can take us to dark places.

I know a writer who is enormously talented and hugely successful. Yet she has, at times, reacted to the more modest creative successes of her adult child by turning the attention back to herself, seeking assurances that her creative output is unparalleled. Such behavior defies logic, but insecurity isn’t logical. It is a hunger that can never be satisfied; feeding it often makes it more hungry. Is it possible, however, that she needs her insecurity, that she wouldn’t be so successful if she wasn’t consumed with self-doubt?

I’ve heard some creatives say they struggle when a friend or spouse achieves a creative success that has eluded them. A bit of professional envy is natural, and may be intensified when it involves a loved one. But Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne were each other’s editors, cheerleaders, and lovers. Surely there were periods where one was producing more, selling more, inspiring more. And yet their marriage lasted. More than that, it worked.

We never know the future, so I can’t say for sure that I won’t, someday, find myself feeling more envy over my daughter’s creative success than pride. But, speaking as a father, I would love to reach the point where I learn how I will respond. That will mean she has reached the level of success that I can see in her future.

This is one of those silly posts I find myself writing, a post where I have a question but lack an answer. I don’t know to what extent insecurity drives creativity, and when insecurity actually undermines creativity. But I’ll keep reflecting on it, and keep monitoring how my insecurities interact with my muse.

I welcome your thoughts.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

43 Responses to “Does Insecurity Drive Creativity?”

  1. Once when I was running a workshop where a belly dancer was performing, one of the workshop participants could not bear to let the dancer have the limelight. It was highly inappropriate the way she tried to stand in the way and kept pronouncing things like “The body is my language.” It was frustrating, sad and even weirdly comical to see her blocking the real experience (which was about receiving) with a display of her own insecurities. Others noticed her behavior and complained to me about it. I did not begin to know what to say to her to get her to behave like a regular participant. A very weird situation that stands out in my mind even many years later.

  2. What a great, honest post. My children haven’t even reached school-age yet, so I haven’t had this experience yet. (Although I’m very proud of the crayola picture my three-year-old drew yesterday!) I do have a cousin who has now writes her own songs and performs professionally. I truly am thrilled to see her success, but sometimes I feel like stomping my foot and declaring that I’m supposed to be the writer in the family. It’s irrational and I hope the jealousy goes away. As kids and work crowd in, the jealousy does nothing to motivate me. It only disturbs my sense of well-being. I think if – when! – I publish, it will be in spite of the negativity and insecurity, not because of it.

    • Hi Nicole, good to see you back! What a great insight you have on yourself, that jealousy is not a motivator but an obstacle to well-being. And yes, the answer is when you publish!

  3. I hate it when that green monstor raises it’s head no matter how far down I’ve stomped him in the past. The most important step is in recognizing it for what it is – insecurity – and doing the things that help us recognize our own value. Not easy by a long shot but God has lots to say about it so scripture is a great place to go for confirmation. Thanks for the post.

  4. “I don’t know to what extent insecurity drives creativity, and when insecurity actually undermines creativity.”

    I think you’re right, Patrick; there may be no one answer for this question, but it’s a good one. Maybe insecurity can go either way, depending on where we are at a given moment. But insecurity can so easily morph into jealousy, and jealousy is not pretty. Insecurity motivates me to “get better” as a writer, and I know my need for affirmation drives me. Insecurity is paralyzing if/when I give in to rejection or let my perfectionism convince me that no matter what I do, I’ll never be good enough! I think a little jealousy is normal, but when a writer-friend succeeds, I try to shake it off and participate in the joy, knowing how much her support would mean to me if I were in her place.

    Bottom line: it’s important to believe in ourselves as writers and have a balanced view of who/where we are. Any extreme–insecurity or pride–can get in the way and hurt not only ourselves but others.

    Interesting question. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • Thank you for a thought-provoking answer, Gerry! You have me thinking about jealousy and insecurity. Perhaps jealousy is a negative extreme of insecurity, an unproductive one, so when the insecurity does morph (great word choice, by the way) then we know it is now undermining things.

      • Patrick, you started me thinking about perfectionism, which I believe is closely linked to insecurity (my own, at least!). I just posted about it on my blog. Still mulling these topics over, though. Fascinating.

  5. I have found myself, at moments, jealous of the creativity of those around me. But for me, it fuels my creativity. Jealousy becomes a sort of healthy competition to me. (Oh, she got a piece published in X? Maybe I should submit to X!)

    • Hi Anjali,

      OK, here I tell Gerry that maybe jealousy is the point where it’s unproductive, and here it’s a motivator! Maybe it’s just how we make use of our emotions, not the emotions themselves, taht matter. Kudos for your use!

  6. Wow, your daughter is very talented! That’s a gorgeous photo.

    This is a tough question, but one worth thinking about. I don’t have an answer. I don’t have children, so I can’t quite imagine the many different layers of emotion that come with parenting, but of course I’ve experienced insecurity and jealousy in regard to my creativity. Even when I logically don’t want to be jealous, sometimes I just am. Emotions can’t really be controlled. The actions from them can, but the emotions themselves are mostly beyond our control, if we’re really honest.

    So I do think envy and the following insecurity are natural. But I also think they can be unhealthy, so I try to release them once they come. I respect the writers who are able to turn it into motivation and/or healthy competition, but I need to motivate myself from within – not from without. So yes, for me, it’s best to step away from those situations when possible. Great topic.

    • Yes, emotions happen, it’s our reaction that matters. And if we didn’t occasionally feel jealousy, that probably means we aren’t putting value on our own creativity; it’s only when we value it that we are worried about external threats to it.

      “I need to motivate myself from within – not from without.” I like this, Annie. I hadn’t really articulated it in my mind, but I would have to say the same is true for me.

  7. Ah, Patrick, you strike a resonant chord again! I’m really appreciative how you’ve put yourself ‘out there’ with this thought-provoking post. I think if we as artists can stay at the admiration/envy status, this seems to drive and inspire (well me, anyway) to commit more passionately to my creative endeavours.

    Where I get tripped up is when I start to compare myself to that artist I so admire, and let my inner critic have a field day with a litany of what I ‘should’ have done, ‘could’ have done, ‘would’ have done (if I were more talented…disciplined…etc). Listening to the comparison monster can really make me feel completely insecure and tangled in my overthinking, and can sometimes render me so doubtful with my writing that my delete and backspace keys cry out for mercy!😀

    • Hi Carole Jane! Go easy on those delete and backspace keys! (Well, use them but don’t abuse them… )

      Your comment about comparing yourself too much to a time in 2004 when I started a new job with a boss who was my age. I was worried at first, that it would be too difficult to follow him, knowing that we started at the same point but he was “ahead” of me. But once I started the job I realized there was so much I could learn from him, so I opened myself up to wisdom, and it came flowing in. I think I realized that the life choices I had made to get me to where I was may not have gotten me “as far” as him, but they had still made me, and if I was okay with that, then there was no reason to look back, only ahead.

      Ah, an insight! How fun!

  8. Courageous, honest post. Thank you for your willingness to reflect and monitor insecurity — something we’d all do well to practice. Great photo, too! With my daughter (a talented singer/actress), I’ve not felt jealousy. But, the green monster has certainly raised its head elsewhere. And insecurity? It seems to be part of the human condition — let alone the artist’s. You’ve got me thinking now … does it ever help my work? Hmmm. I remember a photographic workshop, years back, wherein I was left out of a clique of “cool”/wealthy artists. I decided, at the workshop, not to try to “fit in” … but to work hard … and let my work speak for itself. So, maybe, in that instance, insecurity pushed me in a positive direction.

    • Yea! Another green monster reference! I do love Othello.

      You know, I’m going to make sure my daughter reads your experience with the photographic workshop; she may find herself in a similar situation someday, and you handled it well. And I will take it into account for myself, too.

  9. I don’t feel that insucurity is helpful to anyone. It’s nice to receive the validation of being published, or recognized in some other way, but the appreciation doesn’t have to be the result of insecurity. We all experience moments of insecurity, when we are feeling low, or weak. But the best comes forth when we are poised and strong.

    I do see the kind of behavior you describe in others occasionally, and it sometimes makes my heart squeeze with pity for them; what a terrible thing to feel so unworthy that another’s success makes us respond with this kind of destructive envy…that truly is the ‘green eyed monster’. At these times it may be helpful to remember there is an abundance of goodness to go around (an endless supply, really), and we never need to concern ourselves with others achieving their dreams. It takes nothing away from us.

    For a writer suffering insecurity I would recommend a lot of reading and study of craft.

    For a person suffering an unfriendly envy (the toxic kind) I would suggest some spiritual practice such as meditation, to bring the focus back where it belongs, and calm the mind.

    Excellent post, Patrick.

    • Pity is the emotion that comes to mind with the writer I mentioned, but that is the last thing she wishes extended to her, at least in that situation.

      “At these times it may be helpful to remember there is an abundance of goodness to go around (an endless supply, really), and we never need to concern ourselves with others achieving their dreams. It takes nothing away from us.” Perfect.

      And yea, another Othello reference, this time officially quoted!

  10. I don’t think your post was silly at all. Reminded me of a Pearl Buck quote which I’ll try to find before i end my reactions or perceptions. I often think of life within the psyche, without, wherever, as a tension of the opposites, and it was a phrase used by Linda Leonard, a Jungian analyst, in her book Addiction to the fire or something like that. I don’t think the self-doubt ever ends, that dendrite-hanging out sensitivity to the world, those momentary slides of ego, feeling less than, oh, I’d like to have an MFA type of thing as I experienced yesterday running into a recent MFA grad friend.

    I think it’s the range of emotions we experience, the gradations, and I decided a long time ago, that a lot of writers are jealous, but I feel we are entering a new era of cooperation, and I wasn’t going to have jealousy as a dance partner of mine, nup, nope. Still, doubt, like darkened colors on a canvass, sometimes appear.

    At the moment, I have confused or disappointed someone who is very structured, and thrown if a shred of change appears – inside i feel frightened, edgy, sad. I genuinely am a vibrant being who senses the inner stuff with people – empathic, someone said, and yet I cannot please everyone. So maybe it’s a “seesaw Marjorie Daw” type of thing – balance, play, light notes cavorting with basson notes; qui sait; just blew this out. Glad you posted! best wishes

    • “I wasn’t going to have jealousy as a dance partner of mine, nup, nope. Still, doubt, like darkened colors on a canvass, sometimes appear.” Wise, and beautifully written.

      Best wishes to you as well, and best of luck with your latest instance of encounter with the challenge of being empathetic yet unable to please everyone.

  11.  The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this:
    >
    > A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him … a
    > touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy
    > is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is
    > death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering
    > necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating
    > of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his
    > very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out
    > creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really
    > alive unless he is creating. ~ Pearl S. Buck, novelist, Nobel
    > laureate (1892-1973)

  12. sorrygnat, thank you. Beautiful quote from Buck.

  13. I believe T.S. Eliot’s mom was a bit jealous of him early on. He kinda grew in, and, later, outgrew her shadow.

    I live with what you would wonderfully term a fellow ‘creative’ and I believe that our artistic relationship, like our love one, relies on being able to grow from one another. Sometimes that involves that dark side – jealousy, competitiveness. But if at the end of the day both of us are still creating, not stifled, not crushed, then things are ok.

    I guess, to answer your question, the insecurity pointed at – whether borne out of a close relationship or not – is always your own, it is always you that lies on the wrong end of the binoculars, you know, where you flip them and find things on the other side made smaller. And like all creative endeavors, you must do what it takes to see yourself clearer again.

    • Thank you for the anecdote about T.S. Eliot. I need to learn more about that.

      I like how you conflate the idea of growing together–a cornerstone of a long relationship, be it romantic or friend–with the idea of creative growth. That would seem a perfect embodiment of what Joan Didion had with her husband.

      The binoculars metaphor is a powerful one. I’m going to carry that with me. Thank you, Jose.

  14. This is a great post! I’ve finally got my book self published and everyone around me is congratulating me on it. But…I still won’t let close friends or family read a copy. Because I am hugely insecure that what I’ve written is terrible. And even if said close friends and family say it’s good, what if they’re just being nice? Silly I know, but this post really hit home that it’s not just me that has these worries!

    • Hi David, congratulations on publishing your book, which is in itself an act of bravery. I will admit that I haven’t shared some of my writing with my wife until after it’s been published by a press, when one would assume it’s not terrible because an editor chose to print it. That said, the fault there is on me, not her. She will happily read whatever I give here whenever I give it to her, and if she isn’t the most objective, that’s okay. It’s her job to be supportive. I can look elsewhere for an honest critique.

  15. I love these questions. And, asking them doesn’t really mean that there even are answers. Maybe there are many answers. Looking behind what drives our behaviors is a fascinating experience. And using our human experience – whether it’s insecurities, fears, joys or aspirations – to create, design and celebrate this life – what could be better?

    • Thank you, Lori. “Maybe there are many answers.” Ah, doesn’t life always seem that way? I like your take on it, however, not as a problem but as a possibility.

  16. dignitarysretreat Reply May 23, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Love this post, Patrick! It’s so universal. My response to it is that, absent megalomaniac tendencies, everyone experiences the pain of insecurity and most often creative types do since they’re putting their work “out there” to be seen and evaluated by a ledger audience than most. I liken an artist’s overcoming insecurity as feeling the fear and having the courage to do something, anyway. So, so many people stop at the fear point because the perceived impact of others’ disapproval is enormous. I know, because I have to wrestle with this on a daily basis, too.

  17. There is so much competition in the art world and very few make it so it’s not unnatural that artists feel insecure, envious and negative towards another person’s success. I am an artist myself and so many of my colleagues have nothing positive to say about another artist. No other artist’s work is resolved except, of course their own. They will prevent others to succeed and are unable to give you friendly support and instead will hide opportunities from you. Being around these people drains you both physically and mentally but it is also natural that when people are antagonized, they create better work. It’s in fact the STRUGGLE that makes artists succeed and closer to a big break-through in their work.

    • We all have insecurities, but I decided quite a bit ago that I would watch any envy or jealousy on my part. In the 20s many writers wrote, drank, and were viciously insecure – Hemingway and Fitzgerald I think were competitive. I feel this is a new era – that of the ingathering of humankind, where everyone is recognized for their qualities. If one artist or writer succeeds, then I do also.

      • Esther, I totally agree with you that success is not a zero-sum game, and I’d love to think we are in this new era you suggest. But as Di suggests above, I don’t believe all creatives share your perspective, nor do I believe it comes naturally. I think it comes from a more enlightened place in us; our reptilian brain operates in a zero-sum environment.

    • Love this insight, Di: “It’s in fact the STRUGGLE that makes artists succeed and closer to a big break-through in their work.” Thank you for sharing that.

  18. Hello,

    I read your post and liked it as well, and I wish you the best for the self assessment journey.
    Here’s the point that I’d love to make it here, that insecure thinking pattern makes ourself unaware about our own potential. There are a few reason that any Individual may get in -secured due to progressive action taken by the surrounded people. But insecure thoughts never reflects the creativity of your mind since it generates through irrational and unwanted thought process, generated through circumstantial standards. Somehow it helps to degrade your own thinking pattern, which is quiet unique to you. If you feel in near future, you may feel insecure or jealous due to success gathered by your daughter, then let me tell you, that insecurity is the byproduct of unwanted thinking. And wherever there is love harboring, you would hardly be affected by the success that respective individual get.
    (remember the author couple mentioned in your post) Since success is a mere reflection of materialistic convenience.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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