Building the Confidence Muscle: 7 Exercises for Boosting Inner Strength

It’s that time of year when everyone’s hitting the gym, working on New Year’s resolutions and doing penance for holiday over-indulgences. Depending on your goals for the new year, it’s also the perfect time to build your confidence muscle.

Just as no one comes out of the chute with bulging biceps, very few of us start out with all the confidence we need to journey through this life. If you’re one of the lucky ones who’ve never doubted yourself, you can move along now – there’s nothing more for you to see here. But if you’d like to pump up your self-esteem and your quads, consider adding the following to your daily workout:

1) Flirt with disaster.

At least I tried. Too many people go through life without ever having made an intense enough effort to be called a failure. ~~ Minori Yasui

The first thing to understand is that failure isn’t fatal. In fact, it’s essential for growth. If you insulate yourself from failure by playing it safe, you’ll never develop your strengths. The trick is to move on when you try something and it doesn’t work. Don’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself. Instead, reframe: turn losing into learning.

This is the paradox: unless you’re willing to fail, you can never succeed. But focusing on learning, rather than success, means you can never fail. Life simply becomes a series of lessons to be learned. When you understand that, you stop fearing failure, and your confidence soars.

2) Put one foot in front of the other – again and again.

Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort. ~~ John Ruskin.

Life will present you with lessons, often the same ones repeatedly, until you have mastered whatever it is you need to learn. But you can’t “positive think” your way to mastery. Just as you can’t build strong muscles by being a couch potato, it doesn’t matter how many affirmations you stick on your bathroom mirror, or how many memes you share on Facebook, you can’t build confidence unless you do the work.

Whether you want to learn to play the piano, or meditate, or write a book, repetition is the key. It sounds obvious that the more you practice, the better you’ll get, but you’d be amazed how few take it to heart. Resolve to put in the effort. As you improve you may find that, far from being a chore, your daily practice becomes a pleasure you look forward to.

3) Bust out of your comfort zone. 

Habit with him was all the test of truth,
It must be right: I’ve done it from my youth.
~~ George Crabbe, poet and naturalist

To build your biceps, you start by challenging those muscles, lifting slightly more than they’re used to, then increasing over time. To build your confidence muscle, you challenge yourself with new experiences. This may come as a shock if your life’s goal has been to make it through without ever leaving your comfort zone.

Remember that a rut is actually an open-ended coffin, and that avoiding new experiences – which at first may seem like a rational choice – will only keep you fearful and stuck in neutral. Unless you embrace fresh challenges, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. So the next time an opportunity comes your way – something you’d like to do but would normally be afraid to try – for heaven’s sake, say YES!

4) Make a leap of faith.

The battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself – the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us – that’s where it’s at. ~~ Jesse Owens, four-time Olympic gold medalist

We tend to think that courage belongs to soldiers, mountain climbers, and firefighters – people for whom risk is a life-and-death proposition. But small, calculated risks can get the adrenalin of normal folks pumping just as hard. Even a small risk can feel huge to your nervous system.

Experimenting with calculated risks builds confidence, but just as no bodybuilder would go from lifting 50 pounds to 250 pounds overnight, it’s important to pace yourself. Taking on too much too soon, though exciting at the moment, can actually set you back. Take on a little bit more than you think you can handle – trust me, it will be enough – and increase the demands you make on yourself over time. Then when it’s your turn to leap into the fire, instead of being burned, you’ll come through stronger than you ever thought possible.

5) Unload old baggage.

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. ~~ Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi

Often the weight we need to lose isn’t pounds, it’s excess baggage. Start now shedding whatever is weighing you down: grudges, resentments, regrets, and the like. You don’t need them. Stop wasting your energy on things you can’t control, especially other people’s behavior. All you’ll succeed in doing is weakening your confidence muscle.

In particular, weed out envy. Stop feeling threatened by other peoples’ achievements. If they reached their goals, so can you. Their success is proof that there’s more than enough to go around.

More important, forgive yourself for the times you failed to measure up. Self-forgiveness is the first step in forgiving others, and a vital step toward developing true self-confidence.

6) Sidestep judgment

Contempt is the weapon of the weak and a defense against one’s own despised and unwanted feelings. ~~ Alice Miller, psychologist and author

What we carry inside us colors how we perceive the world. If you’re overly critical of others, is it any wonder you have stage fright? You imagine your audience to be as hyper-critical as you are.

Vow to compete less and collaborate more. Be a mentor, a cheerleader, a reliable source of moral support. Give the support and encouragement you’d like to get. You’ll be surprised how much comes back to you in kind.

7) Pat yourself on the back

I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing. ~~ Hillel the Elder

Make it a point to celebrate every personal milestone, every goal reached, no matter how small. Reward yourself for your efforts, for the fact that you kept going. You challenged yourself, and because of it your confidence muscles are stronger.

Enjoy your victory dance – you’ve earned it – then take a breather and fill your tank. Read a great book, spend time with friends, laugh, get a good night’s sleep.

Because before you know it, you’ll be back out in the world, where new challenges await.

Blocking out the noise: staying artistically sane in an insane world


Why do we care so much about truth? I think one of the reasons we respect it is because of the extraordinarily high signal-to-noise ratio we have here on the planet. ~~ Stephen Gaskin, nonviolent social revolutionary

I’ve tried to wean myself off the things people say that they want, or feel, or will (or won’t) do. Things get clearer when you turn off the sound. ~~ Craig Lucas, playwright


These days I lead a fairly serene life, but there are still times when the noise level gets to me. I’m not talking about trying to hold a conversation in a loud restaurant, though that’s annoying in its own way.

What I’m referring to is the tsunami of opinion, rumor, and histrionics that hits me whenever I log on to Facebook or turn on the TV. I try to be careful about what I let into my space, but the sheer ubiquity of mass and social media makes it increasingly difficult to filter out the junk.

If I want to stay creative and not spend my days drowning in the world’s insanity, I’ve got to mine the gold from the waste stream. Here are some ways you can join me in staying artistically sane:

Limit your exposure to media, social and otherwise.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s 12-week course for creative recovery, she calls for a full week of media deprivation – no newspapers or magazines; no email, texting, or Internet; no radio or TV (I can already feel you squirming). I’ve done it. It was incredibly hard, but I lived. And, magically, it brought on a burst of creative energy.

To be clear: I’m not advocating a head-in-the-sand approach to the world’s troubles. But taking a media vacation, even for a few hours, is good for the soul, spirit, and creative juices. Don’t let the media drown out your creative voice. Turn off the noise.

Separate opinion from truth.

You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts. ~~ Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Log onto any social media site and you’ll be inundated with opinions, even outright lies, masquerading as truth. Step one to unmasking these pseudo-truths is to become intimately acquainted with your own values and motives: not what you’ve been told to believe, not what you think you should believe, but what you actually, deep in your heart and soul, know to be true. (It never hurts to verify your hunches at, either.)

Of course, there’s a lot to be learned from reasoned debate. But you probably won’t find it on social media, and it can be hard not to get sucked into lengthy and heated arguments. When online threads devolve into emotional tirades, grab yourself by the collar and pull yourself away. It’s unlikely you’ll change anyone’s mind, and you’ll only be wasting precious time and energy you could be devoting to your artistic growth.

Moderate your inner voice.

Pay attention to what you tell yourself about yourself. Inner voices can be helpful, but they can also be harmful, especially ones that slip in unnoticed. Chances are, those negative voices are words and phrases you’ve internalized from outside sources. It’s a mystery why artists tend to minimize helpful voices and give power to the negative, but the fact is, we do.

Start this moment turning that trend on its head: catch those negative voices the moment they start; argue with them; call them out; challenge them. Present examples to prove them wrong. When you bust these voices for the criminals they are, you begin to recognize their source, and you can turn down the internal noise. The helpful voices can then be heard; they’re in there, if you’re open to them.

Accept your uniqueness.

When we compare ourselves and our achievements to that of others, we not only dampen our aliveness, we stand in the way of expressing our true selves. We become blocked by self-doubt. We stop trusting ourselves. Just like successful athletes, it’s vital that artists learn to block out what everyone else is doing (and saying), and focus on their own abilities, their own goals.

Your gifts aren’t like anyone else’s, so stop looking over your shoulder at the competition. Keep your eyes forward and celebrate the unique contribution you make, the viewpoint only you can bring to the conversation. Let everyone else be in charge of their own selves and their own art. Because, really, why would you want to be anyone but you? Or do anyone’s art but yours?

No one is walking the same path you are. When you accept that, you become inured to the noise.

Accept that you have no control over what other people think or say.

Artists are acutely sensitive to other people’s opinions. Bad reviews can rock our confidence. And with the explosion of social media, everyone is a critic (too often confusing criticism with criticizing), and the online world becomes awash in hateful comments. It’s easy to lose your way in a maze of judgment.

Let’s face it: even the most well-meaning critics can be heartless and rude. But their behavior is an expression of their reality, not yours. For my part, if I can learn from a comment, I use it. If not, I do my best to move on (though I may spin my wheels a bit first). The ideal outcome is to turn those comments into funny anecdotes I can use to entertain my friends; then I’ve turned the noise into music I can dance to.

Keep it light, keep it fun.

Naysayers hate play. They crank up the noise level because they want you to suffer, just like they do. Sure, making art isn’t a picnic every day, but it’s hardly a one-way trip to Siberia, either.

Drop the notion that work excludes play. Explore and experiment. Mix it up, try something new, change your perspective. When you are truly engaged in play, the naysayers with their negative chatter can’t get to you: you’ve barred the doors, given them no entry. Those judging, conflicting voices – all that noise – will just have to find someone else to torment.


My book is coming!

cover_front cover_full

Dear Readers,

I have been terribly lax about my blog lately, but I have good reason: I’m hard at work getting my novel, The Blue Hour, ready to publish. To whet your appetite, I’m posting pictures of the cover art . I’ll be in touch with more information as soon as I have it.

Best wishes and keep creating!

Art and aging – the painful truth

First you crawl and then you walk,
Pretty soon you start to talk,
Later on you start to stoop,
Getting old is pigeon poop.
~~ seen on a coffee mug

Aging seems to be the only available way to live a long time. ~~ Daniel-Francois- Esprit Auber, composer

No artist wants to retire (we may threaten to quit every other day, but that’s an entirely different matter).  It’s not as if we train for a job that we can work at for forty years so we can retire with a pension and a gold watch.  We do what we do because we love it, or because we’re compelled to, or because we’re not fit to do anything else.  But we do get old, and we do retire – in as many ways and for as many reasons as there are artists.

Some lose their powers.  Opera star Beverly Sills retired at fifty, still in her prime but increasingly aware that her voice was changing.  Knowing that the critics and her fans would soon realize it, too, she walked away at the height of a stellar career.  She went on to a second career as general manager of the New York City Opera, which thrived under her leadership.

Some grow weary of the life and its demands.  After publishing twenty-four novels, numerous non-fiction books, and receiving more awards than I have the space to list here, author Philip Roth retired from fiction writing.  He would still write non-fiction, but at seventy-nine he was unwilling to put himself through the ordeal of publishing another novel.

Some can’t bear the thought of stopping, and plug away despite diminished abilities.  In her eighties and even into her nineties, Georgia O’Keeffe dealt with her failing eye sight by working with an assistant.  There’s been ongoing controversy ever since over how much of her later works are actually hers.

Retirement is a tough call for any artist.  There’s no law that says we have to quit at a certain age.  We can keep working as long as our minds and bodies hold out.  A lot depends on one’s area of expertise.  Orchestra conductors are legendary for working into their nineties, but dancers are often washed up by the time they’re thirty.

Then there are those who stay in the field, but switch uniforms.  That’s me.  And I had to be forced to make the change.

When we’re young we can’t anticipate that what is so matter-of-factly there for us in life is just what we’ll have to struggle to hold on to as we grow older… ~~ E. L. Doctorow

I started my creative life as a classical singer, and I drew my first paycheck for singing at the tender age of sixteen.  I studied voice in college, started teaching privately, and later went back to school to add acting to my resume.  I couldn’t imagine life without singing, acting, and teaching.  I was working as much as was humanly possible, and I loved every minute of it.

Then menopause happened.

Some women breeze through it – but I wasn’t one of them.  Precocious in everything, I started down the road of diminishing hormones at forty-one, and was done by forty-eight.  You’d think it’d be a relief, and for most women it is, but mine was a value-added menopause – one that included disabling migraines.  Usually, migraines vanish with menopause.  But for a small number of us, they get worse.  Much, much worse.

I want to take a moment – for you lucky people who have never had a migraine, or who labor under the illusion that it’s “just a headache” – to paint a picture of a “typical” migraine.  First, think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had – the throbbing head; the super-sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells; the nausea; the pain so bad you can’t move.  Are you with me?  Now multiply that by a factor of ten.  Then add confusion, the inability to retrieve words, dizziness, prickling skin, chills, blurred vision, insomnia, and the disorienting sensation of being out of sync with everything around you.  Now have it last for three to five days – not hours, days.   That’s a migraine.

Migraines turned performing – which up to that point had been a source of satisfaction and joy in my life – into a bona-fide nightmare.  The chaos, the crazy hours, the adrenalin rush, the physical and mental demands – all of it fed the migraine monster.  I’m amazingly strong-willed, and I gutted it out for years, not realizing that this very behavior is what the migraine monster loves.  But what choice did I have?  It wasn’t like I could suddenly turn off the lights and lie down during a scene, or take a personal day during a run.  Performing is hard work, I knew that, and I’d always been able to push through no matter what.  I prided myself on my stamina.  Now suddenly it was gone.

Before you barrage me with emails telling me to try this therapy or that drug, let me assure you that I have tried – and still try – every preventive, preemptive, and prescriptive measure out there, short of brain surgery (and don’t think I haven’t considered that, too).  Most were ineffective, some were even counter-productive.  I saw the top neurologists, but the problem persisted.  Even when medication helped, the moment I stepped back onstage, the migraine monster chased me down again.  Teaching, which I loved, became impossible.  I could no longer tell a student I’d be available at a certain hour on a certain day.  I had become unreliable – something no performer/teacher can afford to be.

My body was telling me it was time to walk away.  It had been telling me for years, but I’d refused to listen, telling myself that it was temporary, that it was just this show, that the next one would be better.  I knew if I could find the right remedy, I’d be fine.  So I hung on, even though I’d always told myself I wasn’t going to be one of those sopranos – you know the type, the ones who sing long past their pull date.  But my voice was fine.  I still had the goods.  It was my central nervous system that was letting me down.  Besides, my entire identity was tied up in performing.  Who was I if I wasn’t onstage, or helping someone else get there?

Then, forty years after I drew that first paycheck, I walked away from singing.  I’d finally gotten it through my thick skull that there was no cure; that migraine is a neurological disease that can only be managed.  Sure, I had drugs I could take when I had an attack, but they wrecked my voice, so I couldn’t take them and perform – your classic Catch-22.  By then, I’d had it with performing through pain, not being able to trust my body to do what it needed to do, and putting all my energy and focus into getting by, with nothing left over for artistry or expression.  Not long after that, I let go of teaching.  Acting was the last to go, and the hardest to give up.  I tried keeping my hand in, taking small parts, doing shows in fits and starts.  But eventually I had to let that go, too.

The years teach much which the days never know. ~~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

There turned out to be a silver lining to all this, one I’d never noticed because I was too busy running around making myself sick.  All my life I’d toyed with writing.  I was the kid in school whose essays were always tacked up on the class bulletin board.  I especially loved creative writing – give me a subject, or a visual prompt, and I’d go to town.  My senior English teacher even gave me compositions from the other classes to grade.  But I never took it seriously.  As far as my family was concerned, my obsession with music was foolish enough.  When I mentioned offhandedly to my mother that I was thinking of double majoring in music and English in college – just testing the waters – her immediate reaction was, “Great, then you’ll have two useless degrees.”

Even so, I wrote secretly for years, mostly in journals, honing my craft without realizing it.  So, in the crazy events following my father’s death, when I saw that the universe had handed me an irresistible plot for a play, I couldn’t not write it.  The play did well, but not well enough, so I wrote more plays – and started winning contests and getting productions.  Then over the course of a year I dashed out a novel, promptly shoved it into a drawer, and headed back to the stage and more migraines.

But when that failed, as it was destined to do, and I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands, what else was there to do but pull that manuscript from where it had been languishing and start revising?  Five years later, with the help of a freelance editor, more drafts than I care to count, and simple bull-headedness, I’m self-publishing my first novel.

All one’s life as a young woman one is on show, a focus of attention, people notice you.  You set yourself up to be noticed and admired.  And then, not expecting it, you become middle-aged and anonymous.  No one notices you.  You achieve a wonderful freedom.  It’s a positive thing.  You can move about unnoticed and invisible. ~~ Doris Lessing, novelist, poet, playwright, Nobel laureate

I’m now comfortable claiming writing as a second career.  I see what led me here, and I see that I wasn’t ready for it when I was younger.  I needed to understand that unless I chose a serene life, I would never be healthy, but I also needed to gather enough life experiences so I’d have something to say.  For a while, the isolation got to me.  I was used to having people around, used to seeing them as a matter of course as I went about my work.  The solitude of writing took some getting used to: it was just me and the page and all my uninvited insecurities camped out on my shoulder.  But the process has made me stronger.  It forces me to be my own best, most honest critic, and my own indefatigable cheerleader, without the crutch of relying on a director or an audience to shore up my confidence.

Then out of isolation grew the freedom to be authentic, to find out what I think, instead of internalizing someone else’s ideas.  Not having to memorize another’s words has freed up my own.  And as much as I loved performing, I’m grateful to be spared its emphasis on appearance, which has the advantage of helping me make peace with getting older.  Doris Lessing was right, it is a positive thing, this ability to pull one’s own strings, to “move about unnoticed and invisible.”  I’ve spent much of my life being on show.  It’s a blessing and a relief to step out of the spotlight.

I have no idea what the future holds, though I’m starting to accept that I won’t live long enough to finish all the projects I have in mind.  I may not be able to keep writing, though that’s my plan.  But if I can’t, I expect I’ll find something just as interesting to do.

As long as I don’t have to act my age.



The Art of Marriage


In a good partnership each is supposed to save the other from his worst instincts. ~~ E. L. Doctorow

Today I’m celebrating 30 years with my husband, Nathan Meyers, which means our marriage has lasted half my life.  I confess I never had those childhood dreams that most girls have of the big wedding and the happily-ever-after marriage.  I never actually wanted to be married.  But I somehow managed to do it twice, and I’ve spent two-thirds of my life with a wedding ring on my finger.  So, this seems an appropriate time to share some of the things I’ve learned.

1) There is no script

Marriage is an extended improvisation involving two people – sometimes with an audience, occasionally even entertaining.  But as the term improvisation implies, no two performances are alike.  Not only that, as your partnership evolves, so will the material.  Even if you’ve been married before, or lived together for years, your program will change the moment you say “I do.”  Everyone brings to their relationships unique expectations, needs, and – dare I say it? – baggage.  Like the best improvisers, you have to stay on your toes and embrace whatever challenges your partner tosses your way.

2) You will marry your opposite

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the universe has a sense of humor.  Are you a neat-nik?  I guarantee you’ll fall in love someone who fails to understand your passion for order.  A night person?  You’re sure to end up with a cheery morning person.  Like to keep to a schedule?  Your partner will most certainly be spontaneous and random.

This is a good thing.  We choose our mates because they complete us: their traits fill in our gaps.  Sure, it’s maddening at times, but it’s nothing you can’t work with.  And since most of us dislike the very traits in others that we dislike in ourselves, if everyone married their twin, we’d depopulate the planet in fairly short order.

3) Focus on the big issues and the small ones will (mostly) take care of themselves

The three issues that sink most marriages are: money, sex, and family.  If you can come to terms with these – hopefully before you tie the knot – you’ll go a long way toward creating marital happiness, if not bliss.  When the big issues are handled, or at least renegotiated on a regular basis, the little ones (see #2) don’t have to be deal-breakers.

4) Talk it out

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your mate wants the same things you want.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t expect your partner to read your mind.  Your partner may be surprised to learn that something they thought was no big deal is a huge deal to you.

But you have to choose your moment: wait until you and your partner are calm and relaxed; try not to pounce the moment they walk in the door.  Then, when you have their full attention, say what’s on your mind, simply and without accusing or blaming.  Because they’ll never know if you don’t tell them, and you’ll never know if you don’t ask.

5) Listen (and don’t be afraid of silence)

When your partner has something to say, whatever it is, give them your complete attention.  Stop what you’re doing, and listen.  The greatest gift you can give your mate is to hear and understand them.  Put aside your own issues for a moment, and focus on your partner.  Your turn will come.

And don’t be afraid of silence.  There’s a lot you can hear just by being with another person in the absence of chatter.

6) Give your partner what they want – but don’t forget to ask for what you want

Before you think I’ve gone all Total Woman on you, let me first say that each person in a marriage is responsible for their own happiness.  But it’s also important to know what makes your partner happy, and to do your level best to provide it.

Green Dragon Tavern

For instance, Nathan and I both need a lot of personal space and alone time.  We’ve figured out over the years that our together time is much more satisfying if we can go off and do our thing without worrying that the other person is okay.  But it took us a while to find the right balance — it didn’t happen magically, and it didn’t happen overnight.  We each had to state our needs and ask for what we wanted.  But once we did, an entire source of relational stress vanished.  Poof!

7) Play to your strengths

Nathan is a terrific strategist: he sees the big picture, and is great at making long-range plans.  My specialty is logistics and details: I can take almost any problem and break it down into manageable steps.  But it’s not set in stone: it helps to stay flexible.  It also helps that we happen to be good at different things in complimentary ways.

Of course, he could get ticked off at me for not seeing the forest for the trees, and I could get on his case for missing all those trees.  But why bother, when it makes more sense to help each other out by playing to our strengths?

8) Have your own interests and your own friends

Don’t rely on your spouse to provide you with a social life, and don’t make them your world.  Yes, it’s important to have shared interests – otherwise it’s hard to maintain a connection – but it’s vital to have your own.  Right now Nathan’s personal obsession is ice skating – a hobby I’m happy to have no part in.  Mine is a literary book group.  Of course, we’ve made friends in our separate endeavors who are now friends of both of us, but we weren’t waiting around to be entertained, either.

As important as learning who you are in the marriage, is learning who you are outside of it.  Strong, independent partners, who are engaged with the world, build strong marriages.

9) Laugh together

When I first met my future father-in-law, Nathan made some kooky remark which made me laugh, and his dad leaned in and said to me, “Don’t encourage him.”

Oh, but I do.  I’m lucky to be married to someone who shares my quirky sense of humor, and who, like me, sees the ridiculous in practically everything.  I love that we’re forever cracking each other up.

Don’t be afraid to laugh in the face of this absurd dance we call Life.  Find a partner who can do the steps with you, then laugh – early and often – as you twirl together to the music.

10) Cheer each other on

Marriage is a cooperative enterprise, and competitiveness has no place in it.  If you’re competing with your partner, you’re undermining the foundation of mutual respect that a good marriage is built on.

During the 20 years I was teaching, Nathan willingly came to every student recital and manned the video camera; he often worked the lighting or sound board when I was performing (if he wasn’t onstage himself because I’d dragged him to auditions); these days he cheers me on when my writing path gets thorny.  It’s now my turn to do the same for him with his skating.

Become each other’s biggest fans.  It’s a tough, critical world out there – be there to cheer your partner on.

11) If you’ve brought childhood issues to your marriage, seek professional help

Your partner is not your therapist.  It is not your partner’s job to undo or make up for any damage done to you in your past.  Your partner is not your mommy, or your daddy, and they can’t make it all right for you.  Only you – with the help of an experienced, knowledgeable therapist – can do that.

So please, if your marriage is sinking under unresolved past issues, find help.  If you can’t afford individual therapy, there are clinics that offer group sessions, or will work with you on a sliding fee scale.  At the very least, find a 12-Step group, which is free.  But don’t look to your partner to fix you.  Don’t put that kind of pressure on your marriage.  All your partner can and should do is listen, support you, and hold you when you cry.

12) Be kind to each other

If you don’t remember anything else from this post, remember this: be kind.  I can’t stress this enough – kindness is the currency of a good marriage.  Give up needing to be right.  Stop trying to control or dominate.  Mutual kindness requires letting go of all that.  You don’t have to give voice to every thought, especially if it’s hurtful to your partner.  When you find yourself arguing just to prove a point, stop and ask yourself it’s worth sacrificing your marriage to be right.  Because that’s what lack of kindness does – it erodes the good will in a relationship.

Being kind doesn’t mean bringing flowers (though it never hurts).  It’s about playing fair, and treating your partner as an equal.  It’s about getting your ego out of the way, and admitting when you’re wrong.  Being kind is humbling, but it’s also empowering – for you and for your partner.  A little honest praise, a compliment, or even simple a thank-you can work wonders.

13) Keep it interesting

One of the great things about being married to Nathan is that he constantly surprises me.  Just when I think there’s nothing more to know about him, he does or says something completely out-of-the-box.

A marriage is a living thing, and it has to be fed new experiences or it will stagnate.  So, try a new restaurant, visit a new place, meet new people, but break up the routine.  Even a small change of scenery can bring a fresh perspective, and up the excitement level – which will hopefully remind you why you fell in love with your partner in the first place.

So, please join me as I raise a glass to my best friend, my partner-in-crime, and my comic relief – and let’s drink a toast to the words of author Mark Helprin: Marriage is, among other things, having someone deeply and unreasonably on your side.

Here’s to the next 30 years.


8 Brave Truths about Fear

Fear is good because it makes every sense sharper.  Your mind works faster and better.  Nothing is wrong with fear unless it rules you. ~~ Robert B. Robeson, author and Vietnam veteran

Everyone is afraid of something.  Most of us expend a great deal of energy avoiding the things that make us afraid: public speaking, trips to the dentist, spiders, heights.  I’m sure you can think of a few I missed.

I confess to having spent much of my life being afraid: I worked in the performing arts and had a terrible case of stage fright.  But dealing with my fear also led me to some surprising truths about it.  (And if you think this doesn’t apply to writers and other “non-performing” artists, ask me how I feel when it’s time to hit the “publish” button for this blog.)

Truth #1: Fear can be fooled

My first public performance was at the age of five singing Suzie Snowflake in my kindergarten Christmas program.  But I didn’t experience full-blown stage fright until I slid into the trough of puberty and seemingly overnight became a self-conscious, trembling wreck backstage – flooded with adrenalin and scared out of my wits.

Fortunately, I had a mother who without realizing it gave me my first acting lesson: whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re feeling, for heaven’s sake try to look good doing it.

I took her advice, and – lo and behold – I found that if I could manage to look calm and confident, I could fool the audience every time.  Not only that, the audience felt confident for me, sending that confident energy back to me, which made me feel even more confident, creating a positive feedback loop.  As it says in the song “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I:

Whenever I feel afraid,
I hold my head erect,
And whistle a happy tune,
So no one will suspect I’m afraid.

I suck at whistling, but you get the gist.

Truth #2: Your fear is almost never about what you think it’s about

My mother was more terrified than I was whenever I had a performance.  I eventually figured out that my stage fright was a learned response – that I had internalized her fear.  Once I recognized this, I kindly returned her fear to her with “address unknown” written all over it in bold letters.

It also didn’t escape my notice that, even though I was forever fighting nerves, I never truly failed onstage.  Sure, some gigs went better than others, but I came to understand that what unhinged me wasn’t the fear of being in front of people – it was the waiting.  I died a thousand deaths pacing the green room, or standing in the wings, and the longer I had to wait the more terrified I got, until I was sure I’d pass out.

But when I stepped onstage, I was fine.

Truth #3: New experiences will stir up more fear; familiar ones, less.

You’ll find that as you get comfortable with the venue, the material, or the other performers, your anxiety will decrease.  By the end of a long run you may not experience any nerves at all.  The more you perform (or do any fear-inducing act), the easier it becomes, until it’s just another day at the office.

But expect your nervous system to completely forget all that when you’re in a new situation, trying something new.  Don’t worry if you’re a little – or a lot – more nervous.  Give yourself time to adjust.  Before long even the newest experiences will be old hat.

Truth #4: Fear can be motivating

Since I’m mortally afraid of screwing up and looking like an idiot, I learned to prepare my butt off for any performance, especially for one-shot deals like auditions.

Auditioning is a strange animal: you have one chance to get it right.  It’s nerve-wracking knowing you can’t control the outcome – you can only do your level best at that moment.  The rest is out of your hands.

Yet, this very thing focused my preparation – the one thing I could control – and gave my performance an edge I rarely had at any other time.  It doesn’t mean I wasn’t shaking in my boots, but in a weird way I learned to love auditioning.  I was either going to get the part or I wasn’t, which was strangely freeing.  I had nothing to lose, and it made me (almost) fearless.

Let your fear motivate you to do your homework, then go for it.

Truth #5: Fear of things going wrong is a waste of time  

My entire performing life, my biggest fears were of missing an entrance, forgetting my lines or lyrics, and – the Big Kahuna – falling onstage.

Ironically, what cured me was actually having those things – and many more – go terribly wrong.

Here are some of my more impressive onstage blunders:

  • Spilling an entire glass of “wine” down the front of my elegant costume.
  • Getting my wig caught in a massive flower arrangement.  Twice.  In the same scene.
  • Being attacked by a motorized chicken (no one told me the batteries had been replaced).
  • Slicing my finger open with a prop knife that turned out to be a real knife.

And yes, I once got tangled up in my costume while running offstage, resulting in a spectacular, full-out, Carol Burnett-style belly-flop.  It was the first and only time I’ve ever stopped a show.  But the worst had happened – and I’d survived.  I immediately thought, “Well, I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

It’s when things go wrong that performing gets interesting.  You’re pulled into the moment – forced to call upon your training and your deepest resources to find your way out of the weeds, and perhaps lead everyone else out with you.  And here’s the part no one tells you: that’s also when it gets fun.  It was during those moments that I felt truly alive.

So stop worrying that things will go wrong.  They will.  You’ll learn to improvise, then you’ll have your own stories to tell for years to come.

Truth #6: Fear can be channeled into usable energy

Because of nerves, I once flubbed a solo entrance in the Mozart Solemn Vespers.  I suddenly felt a furious surge of energy.  I knew the piece backwards and forwards!  I was prepared!  And I remember saying to myself: You’re better than this – get with it, girl!  I then proceeded to burn down the house for the rest of the performance, turning what could have been a negative into a positive.

Anger and fear are both emotional energy.  It’s just that fear puts you back on your heels; and anger takes you forward.  I’m not suggesting that you walk around in a perpetual state of anger.  But a strong dose of it now and then will show your fear who’s boss.

Another fear-buster is laughter.  For me, the worse the snafu (see Truth #5), the funnier it is.  When I can laugh at, or laugh off, my mistakes, my fear ceases to have power over me: I’ve channeled it into constructive energy.

Truth #7: A little fear is necessary for a good performance

I know you don’t want to hear this.  But bear with me.

When I was in college, my teacher’s studio was full of singers using beta blockers to quell their nerves.  A beta blocker is a cardiac medication designed to keep the heart from pumping too fast and hard, which inhibits a symptom of stage fright that many performers find unbearable.

I tried it – once.  My conclusion?  It was like making love with my clothes on.  Imagine being in love and not feeling the heart-pounding, nerve-tingling thrill of being near your lover.  If you love your art, the last thing you want is to dampen your ardor.

There’s a big difference between being relaxed and being deadened.  To deliver a top-notch performance, you need to hone your edge, not dull it.  A little bit of nerves – let’s call it excitement – is guaranteed to do just that.  So work on your mental game.  You – not some drug – will be in charge, and the effects don’t wear off.

Truth #8: You can handle your fear

We fear being fearful because we imagine we won’t survive it.  But unless we take a risk, we’ll never know if what we believe is true.

With the hundreds of people I’ve taught, only two students ever melted down in performance from nerves.  They got through it, but they weren’t prepared for the intensity of the adrenalin rush, and were unwilling to experience it again.  I give them full credit for trying.  Most people would never have gone through what they did to find out.

You have to decide if the risk is worth the payoff.  My deep love of music and theatre made it worth confronting my stage fright so I could perform.  But not everyone is cut out for a life upon the wicked stage, just as not everyone (me, for instance) is cut out for mountain climbing or sky diving.

Ultimately, all artists, whatever their field, perform on a public stage.  At some point you’re going to be called on to put your work out there.  You’ll have to address your fear, but you’ll also find you can handle it, even make use of it.  In the process, you’ll learn what you’re made of, and you’ll no doubt discover a few brave truths of your own.

Especially when things go horribly – hilariously – wrong.

Fear not.

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do. ~~ Georgia O’Keeffe, artist

Good, Better, Best – The comparison trap

Use what talent you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.  ~~ Henry Van Dyke, poet

Think about it for a moment: do birds care who among them sings the best?  Birds sing for a variety of reasons: to find a mate, to warn of danger, or to tell where the best berries are (or the best-stocked feeder).  Judging by the goldfinch who sang his entire repertoire the other morning as I stood listening just a few feet away, they also sing for the sheer pleasure of it (I suppose he could have been flirting with me, but it would never have worked out).  I doubt Mr. Goldfinch was concerned that he was the best singer.  He simply sang.

Kids are like that, too.  If they feel like singing, they sing; if they feel like drawing, they draw; if they feel like dancing, they dance.  (The alternate is also true – if kids don’t feel like doing something, good luck getting them to do it.)  But somewhere along the way to becoming responsible, socialized adults, our spontaneity gets lost.  We start looking over our shoulders at what everyone else is doing.  We start judging ourselves, comparing ourselves and our efforts.  We begin to forget that we can do things for the joy of doing them.

I recently took a Shakespeare acting class.  It was geared for adults, but there was also a ten-year-old girl in the class.  At first, I thought: Great, another child actor.  But she was great.  Not only did she act circles around us adults, she genuinely enjoyed the process.  She wasn’t concerned with being the best; she was there to learn and have fun.  She never took offense at a correction: she simply tried again.  Her joy in the work was infectious.  She reminded me why we call it a “play.”

It’s when we start comparing ourselves to others – comparing our talent, our output, our success – that we get into trouble.  But it’s hard to avoid the comparison trap: we learn by watching others, and our first attempts at art-making are often out-and-out copies of work we admire.  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it also sets us up to be measured by the wrong yardstick – one that’s too big, too soon.  Originality comes much later, if at all.  No art form is immune.  Whatever your creative milieu, someone will always be better than you, so you might as well get used to it.  The best you can do is be good at the things you’re good at, and work on the rest.

Teaching voice showed me how unfairly talent can be distributed: one student might have a fabulous voice, but a tin ear; another might have a fantastic ear, but no sense of rhythm; and someone else might have a great sense of rhythm and an excellent ear, but no voice.  For any one singer to have the entire package is rare.  I did my best to help everyone capitalize on their strengths and improve on their weaknesses.  I also tried very hard to keep them from comparing their singing to that of the other students.  But it was a challenge, especially when auditions and competitions rolled around.  I can’t tell you the number of times a student said to me, “I can’t sing such-and-such song or aria because so-and-so sang it.”  As if thousands hadn’t been singing that song or aria for centuries.  This is comparison taken to an absurd level, but it exists, and it’s the devil to convince people otherwise.

But competition also has its uses: it raises our game, gives us goals, focuses our intent.  I sought out opportunities for my students to compete, but I also tried to keep them from judging themselves, because once they started down that road, a nasty case of performance anxiety often followed.  I wanted to keep them focused on the work, encouraging them to be inspired, not intimidated, by the other singers’ progress.  Easier said than done, I’ll admit, especially when they found themselves in a roomful of competitors.  Even Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized the problem:

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Emerson understood that engaging in constant comparison can stifle our innate talents and unique qualities, and prune back any budding skills we might have before they have a chance to bloom.  As a young performer, I fell into the comparison trap over and over; it was years before I was able to recognize the strengths I bring to the artistic table.  It would have served me better in those early years to focus on my native abilities, instead of beating myself up over my perceived inadequacies.

Yet we can’t deny that we live in a competitive society.  Our lives are saturated with competition.  Even if we don’t participate in sports, just flick on the TV, and there will inevitably be some kind of pitched battle going on.  Don’t care for sports?  Maybe you obsess over American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance? or Chopped.  If you can’t – or don’t want to – wean yourself off the competition shows, at least remind yourself that the contestants are doing their best.  Everyone has an off day; no one sets out to be bad.

The best advice I received when I started adjudicating vocal competitions was to give the competitors credit for trying, no matter how they performed.  Of course we each had our personal criteria about what constitutes good singing, or we wouldn’t have been selected as judges.  But it was good to be reminded that we also had no idea where these students had started or how far they’d come.  It’s something I try to keep in mind when I find myself getting overly picky about someone’s performance.  Because ultimately, the more harshly you judge others, the more harshly the voices in your head will judge you.  If you cut people a little slack, your inner judges will do the same for you.  Even in the 19th century, long before America’s Next Top Model, Mr. Emerson understood this:

A man cannot speak but he judges himself…Every opinion reacts on him who utters it.

Of course, perfectionism plays a role, too.  Going back to the start of this post, I doubt if birds care whether their singing is perfect (I suppose a potential mate might care, but that’s not our focus here).  I have a hard time imagining a coyote thinking some other coyote’s howl is more perfect, or that a trumpeting bull elephant is judging his performance against some elephantine standard of perfection.  When put in those terms, the ridiculousness of the comparison trap becomes clear.

In the end, we’re all just muddling through.  Some just muddle through a little more gracefully than the rest of us.

In Praise of Perfectionism: 10 traits that set perfectionists apart (and 8 pitfalls to avoid)

In Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, Joseph Grand is trying to write a book, but he’s having trouble getting past the first sentence.  He makes endless rewrites in search of the perfect beginning.  He believes that until he comes up with the perfect words, in the perfect order, he can’t move forward.

As a recovering perfectionist, I’m familiar with the problem.

Perfectionism has at times been the bane of my life.  At its worst, it froze me in place, sowing the seeds of deep-seated fear of failure, which started me bashing myself with criticism and negativity, and which ultimately prevented me from achieving my goals.  It set me on a downward, self-perpetuating spiral as I tried the same useless tactics over and over, spinning my wheels like Monsieur Grand as I failed to measure up to my own impossible standards.  I ended up doggedly pursuing my goals without satisfaction, as my self-esteem plummeted, and I sank into depression.

Okay – that’s the dark side.

But there’s a silver lining to all this.  With the help of a gifted therapist – who pegged me within the first few minutes of meeting me – I learned through cognitive therapy to honor my perfectionism, yet keep it in line so I could stay sane.  As I brought my trait into balance, I began to see that perfectionism gets a bad rap.  True, it can take the form of neurotic obsession, creating misery not only for the perfectionist, but for her friends and loved ones as well.  Yet it can also be the fuel that drives us to pursue, and ultimately achieve, our highest ambitions, whether we follow in the footsteps of Michelangelo or Martha Stewart.

So if you’re someone – like me – who’s been told a thousand times to “lower your standards” or to “stop caring so much” or to “just relax,” I’m here to tell you what’s good about perfectionism, so you can take full – and healthy – advantage of your trait.  You’re not alone, but you’re far from the norm.

10 things that set perfectionists apart:

1) Your work ethic is unsurpassed.  You love your work and will push yourself long past the point when others stop.

2) You are orderly and organized.  You don’t start a project until you’ve thought it through and have a good idea of where you’re headed.  You don’t waste time flailing.  Your work space supports your thinking.

3) Your focus is intense.  You stay on task.  You don’t distract easily.

4) You strive for excellence.  You set the bar high for yourself and inspire those around you to do the same.

5) You are conscientious and pay close attention to detail.  You often catch your mistakes without needing to have them pointed out to you.  You correct your mistakes quickly and seldom make them a second time.

6) You know how to motivate yourself.  You’re a self-starter.  You don’t need much, if any, prodding to get going on a project.

7) You commit to your goals completely.  You don’t stop until you’ve achieved your aims or have gone as far as it’s possible for you to go.

8) You are tenacious and persistent.  You keep going in the face of repeated failure and rejection.

9) You don’t procrastinate.  Your motto is: “Get it done – Now.”

10) Your “good” will often be better than most people’s “best.”  Your personal standards are so high that even on a bad day you’ll put in good work.

Are you beginning to appreciate, if not out-and-out admire, your trait?  You might as well embrace it, since it’s doubtful you can change it.  But there are pitfalls – booby traps successful perfectionists learn to avoid, or at least manage.  I’ve listed the worst of the lot, along with strategies to help you rein in those defeating tendencies.

8 perfectionistic pitfalls to look out for:

1) Negative self-talk and self-criticism.  Many perfectionists have a constant monologue of self-judgment running through their heads.  Learn to thank your inner voices for sharing, then ignore them.  As it is, you’ll get all the criticism you can stand from outside sources.

2) Isolation.  Because we often feel misunderstood, it’s tempting for perfectionists to go it alone.  But every artist needs a support system.  It might be a fellow creative walking a similar path, a spouse who believes in you utterly, or a friend who is willing to listen to you whine, then kick your artistic butt.  Have at least one person in your life who can give you a hug and a reality check – not necessarily in that order.

3) Working too hard.  Learn to balance all that striving with down time.  Even the Energizer Bunny needs a recharge.

4) Listening to too many opinions.  Decide whose advice is valuable to you and whose isn’t.  Learn who has your best interests at heart.  If someone is merely telling you what they would do in the same situation, graciously tell them to go do it.

5) Low self-esteem.  Accept that it’s YOUR job to build your self-esteem.  No one can do it for you.  Take the long view – recognize that big successes come from achieving many small goals.  Celebrate every victory, no matter how small.  Every achievement builds confidence, which builds self-esteem, which will keep you sane as well as in the game.

6) Unwillingness to make mistakes.  Give yourself permission to make mistakes – lots of them – in public and in private.  It can be painful, but it’s the only way to learn.  If you can’t allow yourself to fail, you will never succeed as an artist or anything else, because you will never allow yourself to try.  Mistakes aren’t fatal; they are, in fact, necessary for growth.

7) Focusing on results.  It’s fine to have goals, but obsessing over the end product will block your progress.  Vow to transform yourself from a perfectionist into a “betterist.”  Improvement – lots of tiny little advances and corrections – is what drives progress, not mania for some imagined perfect ending.

8) Dogged persistence.  Know when to quit and walk away.  Learn to recognize when you’ve done all you can, then move on to the next project with joy and eagerness, and without second guessing yourself.  Take from the experience what you can and build on it.  That’s the definition of success.

I’ll now leave you with two perfect quotes:

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.  ~~ George Bernard Shaw

Mistakes are part of the dues that one pays for a full life.  ~~ Sophia Loren

Reciprocity – or – Who hid the tally sheet?

When I am prepared to accept my lack of control, I am more apt to tap into a power, into some measure of freedom from fear…Willy Loman sets his faith in a reward most surely awaiting him for having worked so long and so hard in order to be well-liked. 

~~ Craig Lucas, playwright

My mother believed in reciprocity.  She taught me that if you are good enough, generous enough, or helpful enough, the world will reward you.  Her guiding principle was this: don’t just do unto others as you would have them do unto you; go above and beyond.  The expectation was clear: be extra nice, and people will be extra nice right back.  Be extra generous, and people will stake you generously when you need a loan.  Give people extra help when they’re in trouble, and they’ll come running when you need a helping hand.

In other words, my mother believed that the world is fair.

I think we all agree that it’s important to be kind and helpful.  It’s one of the many things we can do to make the world a better place.  But as my mother interpreted it, it’s a terrible lesson to teach your children.  In the first place, you may have noticed that the world isn’t fair.  Sometimes niceness is greeted with a sneer.  Loans are never paid back.  When you need help, your friend is nowhere to be found.  These things happen; it’s part of life.  There could be any number of reasons for someone’s failure to reciprocate, including personal or financial difficulties.  But if you’ve been taught that your behavior can control the actions of others, and they fail to respond in kind, you can begin to believe that what you gave them wasn’t enough.  So you try harder, give more time, more money, more kindness – and end up tapping yourself out in the process.  But the alternative, you’ve been led to believe, is to fail at life.

Now, my mother really was a very kind and generous person.  She could at times be ferocious in her caring.  But she also believed in a universal tally sheet where her generosity was recorded, and that her actions constituted a quid pro quo with the people she was helping.  None of this was ever expressed.  It was up to the person she was helping to understand her expectation of reciprocity.

As an over-achiever by nature, I took up her standard and marched forth into my creative life, flag flying high.  Since I’m also ambitious and a fiend for learning, I was a perfect candidate for burn-out.  And indeed, I’ve experienced it many times.

But during one of my burn-out phases, when I was trying to figure out what went wrong, it dawned on me that the world didn’t care how much extra-credit work I did.  If I felt driven to do extra preparation for a performance, that was fine, as long as I didn’t expect anyone to pat me on the head for it, or even remember me at the next audition.  Coming early to the theatre to help set up for rehearsal or memorizing my lines before the deadline rarely landed me better parts. What got me the part was being right for the role.  No one said to themselves, “Gee, Vicki is working really hard. Let’s reward her.”  Because no one was keeping score.  The work was expected; the reward was the job I was doing right then.  Besides, everyone was working just as hard, and also not being noticed.

This is where freedom comes in.  When I learned to detach the strings from my actions, to stop trying to impress, I freed myself to act in the interest of whatever is meaningful to me, without worrying about payback.  If I decide something is worth my time, I can either accept the terms implicit in the work, or I can negotiate different terms.

Ultimately, I’m only required to work on the things I can do something about, and the last time I looked other people’s actions don’t fall into that category.  People will respond in kind or they won’t, but it’s not under my control.  Once I realized that, I was able to lavish my time and energy on the things that feed me as an artist, in an environment free of score-keeping, and ultimately free of disappointment and burn-out.

It’s something of a Zen problem: in order to get what we want, we have to stop trying so hard to get it.  It means we have to focus on the process and let the results take care of themselves.  If my mother had thrown away the tally sheet, the reciprocity she sought would probably have come to her many times over.  I see now that — like Willy Loman, the central character in Death of a Salesman — she failed to understand one of the basic rules of life: that rewards are more likely to come to us when we let go of the need to control how they find us.

If you insist on wanting to know that everything will come out all right…you give up the freedom to affect the outcome.

~~ Stephen Gaskin, nonviolent social revolutionary

The 25% — Addressing the Doubters

I have spent a good many years…being ashamed about what I write.  I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.  If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. ~~ Stephen King, best-selling author

My miracle is not that you can’t knock me down; my miracle is that I know how to get up. ~~ Stephen Gaskin, nonviolent social revolutionary


I just finished a novel.  (I’ll wait for the applause to die down.)

I can tell you that I’ve never worked so hard – or long – on anything in my life.  What began as an idea in 1999 became an opening chapter in 2000, which became six months of research, which resulted in a year of writing and a 300-page draft – which sat in a drawer for eight years while I worked up the nerve to dive in and wrestle with revisions.  That process took another five years, which included an additional year of research, multiple drafts, a developmental edit, a year of queries to nearly fifty literary agents (three of whom read the manuscript and had positive feedback but ultimately declined the project), nights of lost sleep, and many, many trips to Staples for printer ink and paper.

But – if I’d listened to the woman who ran the writer’s workshop I attended in 2002, I’d never have completed the first draft.  At the beginning of the first class, we went around the room and talked about our current projects and long-term goals, so I mentioned that I’d written a full-length play and was currently working on a novel.  At the end of the session, the workshop leader pulled me aside and said, “I think you should consider working on something easier.”

I was too stunned to respond.

And I never went back.

Fortunately, my husband had a comeback of his own: “She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with.”

His words kept me going during all those years of slogging through the initial draft and later revisions.  Sometimes all you need is one person to believe in you.  You can even let them be in charge of believing in you during those times when you no longer do.  Their belief can pick you up until you regain your confidence.

But the workshop leader’s words kept me going, too – if only because I was determined to prove her wrong.  The gauntlet had been thrown down.  I was only too happy to pick it up and tuck it into my vizard.

So by now you’re wondering, what about the 25%?  Let’s just say the workshop leader is a prime example.

The 25% is an idea I picked up years ago at a piano workshop.  The clinician was working with a student who was struggling with debilitating stage fright – which is nothing if not a manifestation of other people’s negativity internalized as self-doubt.

The clinician explained it something like this:

The moment you walk onstage, before you even play a note, before you even sit down at the piano:

25% of the audience will love you instantly – you remind them of their favorite relative or their best friend from high school (or they love what you’re wearing);

25% of the audience will hate you instantly – you remind them of their ex or a despised teacher (or they hate what you’re wearing);

The remaining 50% will neither love nor hate you, but will take you as you are (and probably won’t even notice what you’re wearing).

Which means that a whopping 75% of the audience is with you before you even play a note.  This is good news for creatives of all stripes.

The 25% applies not only at concerts but when someone picks up your book, or sits down to watch your play, or looks at your painting.  Some people, for whatever reason, will dislike you or your work on sight.  They may dislike you for even making the attempt, or they feel threatened by your willingness to take risks.  Some will be failed artists themselves, bitter and jealous of your achievements.  Some will be well-meaning people who have no idea how destructive their comments are.  Some will simply be negative types who love nothing more than undermining the confidence of others.  It’s vital to rein in these doubters before their opinions take up residence in your psyche and cripple you with self-doubt.

What I’ve come to understand is that there will always be people I’m never going to reach, never going to please, and who are never going applaud me or my work.  Remember that doubters come in all shapes and sizes.  There will always be the friend who innocently offers to read your manuscript (so he can tear it apart), or the teacher who relentlessly criticizes you “to make you stronger” (and dismantles your confidence in the process), or the peer who wants to “help” (and boost their own ego), by pointing out your flaws to you.

I’ve also learned that it’s the doubters who like to take me aside when I’m at my most vulnerable (how do they do that?), and insist on giving me their immediate, unsolicited opinion.  It took me a while to recognize that the advice they so freely give is not offered in the spirit of helping me, but constitutes what they would do in a similar circumstance (if they had the guts).  They’re entitled to their opinions, as long as I remember that I neither have to agree with them, nor take their advice.

Which leads me to my second revelation: it’s up to me to decide whose feedback I’m going to listen to.

Here’s my list:

1) My coach/teacher.

2) My husband (who tells me the truth in a clear, supportive way).

3) A trusted friend (one who has my best interests at heart).

Someone who has your best interests at heart will, immediately after your performance (or reading, or gallery opening), hug you and congratulate you on your efforts.  They will not feel threatened as you bask in the adulation of your admirers.  If there is anything to discuss about your work, they will have the good sense to mention it after the adrenalin rush has worn off and you’re ready to hear it.  When that time comes, they will share their thoughts and observations constructively.  They will critique, not criticize – it’s amazing how few understand the difference.

(Conversely, it’s not a good idea to trust someone who only gives you glowing reviews, especially when you know you’re not at your best.  These people can be nice to have around, and a comfort when things aren’t going well, but they won’t help you grow as an artist, either.)

There will still be moments when someone sneaks through your defenses; it’s part of the dues we creative types pay for putting it out there.  For this reason, be wary of anyone who doesn’t want you to enjoy your well-sung recital, your sensitive performance in a play, or your beautiful sculpture.  It might be the significant other who whisks you away immediately after a performance to do “what they want to do,” thereby robbing you of the joy of meeting your supporters at the reception afterwards.  It might be the “friend” who chases you offstage to tell you which notes were flat.  It might be the colleague who tears you down “for your own good.”

These people do not have your best interests at heart.  Worse, they can be toxic to your well-being as an artist.

Refuse to listen to the opinion of anyone you haven’t given permission to critique you.  Give everyone one free pass, but it if happens a second time, find a way to gently but firmly let them know that they don’t have your okay to review your work.  I’ve found this clears up a surprising amount of misunderstanding.

In the end, while it’s a challenge to ignore the doubters, setting firm boundaries goes a long way towards silencing their destructive chatter.  When they figure out they can no longer get to you, they’ll step back and leave you alone.  You’ll then have freed up the energy to cultivate supporters – friends, peers, and instructors whose feedback and encouragement help you grow.  Your supporters will be easy to recognize: they’re the people who are gratified by your progress, the ones who cheer you on, even – and especially – when the going gets rough.  Many will be fellow artists who understand all too well how rough the road can be.

But the surest way to find supporters is to be one yourself.  In the face of optimism, the doubters – that disparaging 25% – lose their power.  They have no choice but to slink away in search of new victims.  And as a bonus, you’ll have opened up space in your life so that helpful and supportive people, those who have an interest and a stake in your growth, can take their place.