pain

How the art of over-thinking killed my art

Painting by Jonathan Viner

Painting by Jonathan Viner

They say that old habits die hard, and indeed they do. As the title suggests, my aim is to stop over-thinking since this has killed my art once, and yet here I am editing this piece for the 101st time, over-thinking about how good and deep it is. But this piece needed to be done and change is never easy or slow. I take this writing as a confession, an apology, and a promise to myself to start a new page as I end the last page here.

For as long as I can remember, I made sure I could give a certain image about myself, one that almost everyone knew seemed to believe, that I was this strong, brave, confident person who can overcome any problem. Showing weakness to someone was a privilege to be earned by them, and one that was always reacted to with shock. (Although I do regret showing it to some people but anyhow) Today I drop that façade of steel I’ve been parading with this whole time. It may not be wise to expose your weaknesses, but I have reached a point where I need to let them physically out of my body and start fresh. So, I present to you the art of over-thinking. Trust me, it is an art. The more you practice it, the more you master it, at one point it becomes as easy as breathing. And the more you master it, the more you are enslaved by it, at one point it feels like it literally has your mind and your body enchained.

Let’s put it this way: I have been drawing and painting since I was like 6-7 years old (I’m 23 now), and started to learn guitar playing and to write since grade 12 and yet, I am still just adequate at all of them. Shocking, right? I should have been a fucking pro by now. Most of you will attribute this with “lack of talent”, “laziness”, “bad guidance”, etc but that’s not the case. Not to say that I am particularly talented or very hard-working, but I do have an artistic vision, I am creative,  I do tend to obsess over things when I’m really passionate about them, and as cliché as that will sound, my heart beats with music. So, why am I still at this level? “How come you can’t you play like that yet?” “How come your writing is still not finished/ready? It’s been ages since you started!” “How come you couldn’t draw this or that?” are questions among others I heard quite a lot. What I always asked myself was why I can’t overcome the problems standing in my way. But there, I’ll give you the answers first.

I am aware that most if not all artists share similar problems like crippling self-doubt, having no inspiration and/or no motivation, artist’s block, dissatisfaction, being in a bad mood, being too preoccupied and not having time, and the list goes on. Almost every time an artist is trying to create something they have a breakdown in the middle of the process, thinking they are a disgrace to the art world and they should just quit. Works are re-done, unfinished, destroyed, unshared… tossing one’s canvas to the other end of the room, throwing one’s typing machine into a lake, wanting to smash one’s instrument or microphone (or actually doing it), kicking the stereo and ripping apart one’s dancing suit, and just breaking down into tears in a corner or turning into a smashing Hulk are just part of what being an artist is. Okay… some are more emotionally in control than others, but you get the idea. Self-confidence is often something artists struggle with, at least at first. Being overwhelmed and feeling blocked is not uncommon. Never being satisfied because you always want to be better, and think you must be better, because you have to earn the title of “artist” is a frequent internal fight. Of course, there are moments of pride, self-recognition, self-satisfaction, etc. and certainly there are the overly cocky artists who parade around like fucking peacocks, surely not all of them are down to Earth, but I’ll bet my arm that they, too, have their breakdowns behind the curtains. So, yes, it’s only ordinary that I faced some problems trusting myself or went through phases of blockage. What was not ordinary however is letting insecurity and blockage define who I am and get the best of me for such a long time, and not just in art. Insecurity is something I struggled with on several levels. It is my insecurity in general and my tendency to over-think all the time that poisoned the artist in me. I don’t know where  my insecurity originates from, I thought long and hard but I couldn’t locate its roots. I know however the consequences it had on me. It affects my relationships, making me always doubt my importance to my beloveds, it affects how I treat myself, making me drown in self-hate whenever I failed at something, many times it affected my sleep as I sank in dark thoughts on my pillow, it affects my motivation too often making me think “why even bother if I can’t do it”, it has even effects on how I see myself in the mirror and I hate the reflection in it (and that alone can ruin your day-to-day life because your body is literally all you have all the time, and being uncomfortable in your own skin drains your energy and kills you slowly, even if you are working on yourself, it can shatter your spirits until you reach your desired goals, while making the tasks much harder).  Insecurity has taken over a great space in my mind. I don’t know I guess some of us are just made this way, confident or insecure, positive or negative.. I mean I swear I was not abused in any way as a child or something. I actually had a very decent stable life. Most of the shit I went through was mainly mental, all in my head.

I always wondered how all these great artists turned all their pains, suffering, anger and problems into immortal masterpieces. How the fuck were they still motivated, still had the physical energy, still had the inspiration to turn their turmoil into something we would eternally admire? Is there a secret to this? Or is it what is happening to me now? Reaching to a point where you’re feeling literally like your soul is rotting and you need to make something physical out of it? I don’t know why I couldn’t do that before. Did it really need to get to this point? No of course not. A smart person would have came forward with this long ago, or would have had a positive mindset, or would have talked to themselves like they talk to others. But anyhow, here is how the art of over-thinking killed my art.


Drawing was the first type of art I was attracted to. Colours and blacks alike always fascinated me. The ability to project an image from one’s mind onto a paper captivated me. Whenever I saw a painting I would examine the colours, the strokes of the brushes, the possible meanings, the shapes, the style. It was like creating your own physical universe. I always envisioned my home with walls filled with canvases from different artists, each with a story adding life to the cold walls. Drawing has always been my muse. I thought that if I loved drawing enough I would excel at it, or at least score high grades in art class at school. But my works (at home and at school alike) and my grades were always average, my works were often done and redone. I always had a very vivid imagination but when it came down to actually visualizing it I often felt it impossible. I’d lose focus on what I’m working on as my insecurity took its toll on me. “I can’t”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not ready”, “I wish I could”, “I’m not made for this”, “this is beyond what I can ever achieve”, “I have creative ideas but I can’t execute them, someone else should do it” were mantras I always told myself whenever I tried to create something. I redid most of my works because I told myself my work has to be perfect in terms of technicalities and aesthetics, that I must do better – which is something I often regretted because the 2nd try was rarely even good, and so I’d have this long conversation in my mind to punish myself for being a failure, and in most cases I’d end up dropping the damn thing. Many times I felt my hand is cramped, like my negative thoughts have navigated in my bloodstream and resided in my joints. On the other hand, I used to draw on my notebooks in other classes all the time. Whenever I got bored or uninterested or simply inspired I’d start scribbling on my notebooks. I’d actually have scribbles and small drawings or sketches more than writings! And at many times the sketches weren’t bad at all! Now that I look back, I realize I felt more at ease drawing freely than in an art class or at home, where I set expectations. The goal of drawing on my notebooks was to pass time and to allow my mind to wander and put that on paper, whatever it was, however it was done or it looked. The point there was not how good I am, but how I am feeling and what I am thinking. Techniques did not matter, there was no pressure, no stress, no self-evaluation.  It was also good practice, it kept my hand moving. But whenever I drew on a sketchbook or a canvas my insecurity would rise again. I felt I was unable of reproducing the image I have in my mind on a paper, it was just out of my league. And because of that conviction, most of my –finished- works were nothing but a distorted reflection of what I actually wanted to depict. I’d show satisfaction sometimes, but deep down I’d feel disappointment in myself. I used to think I felt so because I couldn’t accomplish the desired image, but now as I look back I know that it was because I could not silence my demons. I doubt anyone ever realized I had all these ideas swirling in my head. I guess I am a natural born actress, making everyone believe I am confident, or that I am satisfied because I tried hard enough, or that I’m fine with just trying another project, or whatever I wanted them to believe. The only thing that I wasn’t able to contain was anger.. well, it still remains the hardest. But I never made it obvious that I was feeling anything beyond what the average artist, amateur or pro, would feel. This habit of self-punishment and self-destruction stuck around all the way to my university years. There was a time I thought of studying art, but I changed my mind claiming that I do love drawing but I wouldn’t love to do it 8 hours a day for the next 50 years, and plus, I’m not that talented, I just like it as a hobby. Bullshit. The real reason was I knew I would fail if I study it with my current mindset, and I would have. If only I could go back and change that… I did take a few art classes though to keep myself motivated and I took part in small projects to use art. I thought these projects would help and this time art classes would be my escape from all the stress of studying and shit, but I ended up being more stressed. “I know shit” “why fucking bother” “oh no, not portraits!” (I have always, always tried to draw portraits in vain so it became a nightmare, and a dream…) “I can never depict that right” “why did I register in this class?” “maybe I should drop out” “WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING?!” “I’m a failure of a human being” (yes, sometimes it was this bad). Well, to sum it up: I did improve of course in terms of techniques and skills, but my mind was fucked-up all the same. Do not make the mistake of underestimating the power of thoughts. Insecurity is toxic and haunting. When I had wasted too much time and energy on thinking and I’m left with nothing to draw, I usually found the “solution” was to punish myself with more negativity for being this negative (does that make sense?)… It was a vicious circle. It was a poison feeding on every bit of last positive thought left. When you deal with art you have to deal with it as if it were a lover. If you don’t trust yourself, if you don’t trust your lover, it will abandon you. It will only give back to you what you offer it and offer to yourself. What I offered was insecurity, negativity, self-judgment which gave back a waste of energy, time and potential.  I did try hard all these years though to alter my thoughts. I tried to lift my self-confidence with sharing my works, even the very, very, bad ones. I guess I figured the harshest comments come from us to ourselves, so how bad can others be? And it actually did turn out to be more positive than I thought it would. However, despite all the improvement and learning and encouragement from others, my insecurities persisted. I tried using my art for projects, making fan art inspired by bands I listen to (I’m a rocker/metalhead by the way), making hand-made gifts, but I still ended up with very average results, unfinished/demolished results, and crafts instead of drawings. I still over-thought whenever I pick up a brush and a canvas. I still obsessed over the idea of not being talented enough. Sometimes this idea went to bed with me. I knew talent is not everything and it really has to do more with practice. But I would think, if I don’t naturally have it in me, how far can I really go? How good can I actually get? Should I even bother? I blame those fucking prodigies and hyper-realistic artists. They fucking depress you and make you feel like crap. Just kidding. They are awesome and can actually be used as inspirations. See what I did there? Perspective. How you look at things and at yourself shapes your life. Of course, I already knew that all along, but I still found myself bound to negativity.

Negativity did not just limit itself to my skills in drawing. Writing was even a bigger issue. Until my late teen-age years, writing meant a nightmare. I didn’t have a way with words. I hated books, reading, literature, “expression écrite” (=written expression), WRITING in any language. I guess it’s because I thought I wasn’t good at it. I don’t know where I got this idea from but I was really convinced that my writing imagination was shit and so it was just adequate. I did like grammar though ‘cause I was really good at it. However something changed inside of me in my last 3 years of school. Books became interesting, authors became some sort of “idols”, writing became fun, and philosophy became a favorite subject. I really do not know what that was about. My style changed and my choice of words expanded and improved, though I still thought I was “bad”. Until a few days ago I had no memory of writing short stories in groups once in French class. I remember now not being so happy with the end result since my group and I wrote a love story. I’m more of a blood, horror and fantasy kind of person. But I guess that was the trigger for my future writings which started in my last year of school. I had this idea of writing my biography. I wrote it times and times and times again and demolished it every time. My senior year was one of my worst academically, during most of the classes I would just write because I was bored in them and I didn’t really find much motivation at home – if any of my former teachers is reading this, it’s nothing personal, it was just a tough phase. At times I’d get to two-sided 50 pages. All gone. It was either a disaster to the world of literature or I decided to write about something else. I mean why the fuck would I write my biography at 18? Who in the hell would want to read that? What am I? Victor fucking Hugo? I mean sure, I’m grateful for my life and all but what it is that is so interesting that happened that I needed to share with the world? I guess I had this idea that unless you were some sort of genius or you had the chance to work with fucking NASA or you had a life of some sort of abuse and recovery then your life is not worth writing about. Note: I don’t have that idea now. I could have made a book, with a sequel now, and another in few years. But nope. Destroy everything after you get to the middle of it or you finish it. Just like the case with drawing. I guess at one point I began to enjoy the demolition more than the work, when the roots of the idea that I am a nothing started growing deeper in my brain. I continued to write after that about life experiences mostly, some of which that I shared with very few people. But I never took it to the end, never finished anything before destroying it. I think I was afraid of verbalizing everything inside me because then I would be too vulnerable. I had to stay in control so that my emotions wouldn’t take their toll on me. I thought if I keep them locked in I can get over them in time, but nothing is buried inside of you forever. All of my negative emotions and all of my insecurity were eating me up alive and using up all of my energy. The effort it takes to think… the consequences it has on your body, your life and your performance… do not underestimate those. I thought if I try and ignore whatever I was going through and heal in time, then I would be able to write after that. But there is no healing without facing the pain and feeling it. There is no healing if you think badly of yourself or if you can’t forgive yourself. I kept on trying to write from time to time and shared some of my work with a couple of very close people. But it was always a painful process. Writing about a heart-break, about body image, about lost friendships, about me… it was like a chemo-therapy to the soul. There were many nights were I would sort of recite in my mind what I want to write the next day, but when the time came my pen would often freeze. But I reached to a point where I can no longer keep things locked in, because that will lead me to crack one day. And I cannot let that happen. And yet I have lost count on how many times did I pause or deleted this very piece. And here I am editing it again. After I promised the 50th time was the last. Arrrggg… It’s a big step, to put myself out there this much. And yes it is painful, but I have to go on with it. Otherwise the words will just keep on haunting me before sleep and rewinding in my head all day. That shit can drive you mad. I guess after taking this step, after finishing and sharing this writing, I would move to another and then another so I can face my insecurities and make the most out of my potentials. You probably think this whole thing doesn’t make sense, that I’m just being a dramatic, but do not underestimate the power of your mind on you, and the power you can have on your mind. You can either discipline it to think straight, positive, and be productive and in control, or you can let it enchain you in dark thoughts until you can’t do anything. I think I can say that when it came to music, insecurity and negativity affected me the most.

Music, I can’t help but wonder how some people can live without it or even not consider it important. I’d flip out if I went on one day without music. I have a theory that such people have a void inside them or have part of their souls unawakened. It is indeed the language of the Universe. You may dislike a beat or a sound but you can still make out most of the time its mood and its feeling, even without lyrics. Whenever there is music in the background, it makes you feel something, be it positive or negative. It has a radical effect on our mood and sometimes on our performance. To me, it is the only thing that is divine next to Nature. Even Nature has music in her! It is the highest form of communication. Many times we find ourselves at a loss of words, and at a certain point images and colours reach their limits, but music is endless and timeless. How many times have you found comfort in a song when you were lonely, or understanding in when you didn’t know how to express how you feel? How many songs have you listened to that made your blood rush and left you exhilarated? How many songs have you listened to that made you feel on top of the world? How many songs have opened your mind or gave you any sort of information? How many songs were the scream of the silent ones? I could go on for hours with this but I’ll just stop here. However allow me say, if no song ever made you feel any of the above, then you may want to reconsider your song choice. Musicians and composers are like healers to the soul, or as I read in a quote “therapists you can party with”. I’m going to skip my lecture on how most modern musicians are a disgrace and jump to the point. So, obviously I love music. I remember the flute was a dream instrument to me as a child –well it sort of still is- but after a few years of being introduced to the world of rock and metal at 13, my dream instrument became the guitar. On my 17th birthday, a few friends of mine and my parents got me my first guitar. Storm, I named him.  Several months after that, I started taking lessons. I was very excited and started off really well, but over the course of these some 5 years  my lessons, my motivation, my practice, and my performance were very, very inconsistent, and of course my insecurity strikes again and again. Toxic thoughts telling me that one is either born with it or not and I am just not, that if there is a need to over think about it that’s just enough proof that I do not have it in me, that I should not even bother, that I’ll only be a sheer replica of other people’s works, that I’ll always need someone next to me to tell me how and what to do. Thoughts like that can really wear you down, it doesn’t only take away your incentive to practice, it affects the quality of your practice when you do. I have switched tutors and with them switched methods several times with quite big gaps in between, I have discontinued my lesson with the same tutors many more times than I can remember, for periods that would vary from a couple of weeks to 6 months. Whenever I’d start with a new tutor I would start over from scratch. During ALL of the gaps I would barely practice on my own, and when I did it wouldn’t be effective. I was always unsure of my outcomes. I did try motivating myself several times though. At one point I figured of starting over with a new style and a totally new method, so I got a classical guitar and decided to learn to read and apply notes (after I was learning with tabs before that) then after 6 months with minimal progress I realized notes are way much harder to grasp (seriously, I couldn’t tell a Do from a Sol) and I felt the classical style has its moments but it does not really ignite my fire that much, so I went back to the old method. I received another guitar as a gift on New Year’s Eve 2015, a Schecter with a roaring sound and a silver matte colour that I had my eyes on for a while; Thunder, I named this one. I had custom-made ring done in the spring of 2013 with the shape of clef de sol and I called it my engagement ring to music –which broke a few days ago, by the way. But I didn’t take my engagement seriously.. or I couldn’t because of my constant negative attitude. I joined the music club at university, but that didn’t do much at all.. I remember at the first meeting for the club where we each introduced ourselves I admitted I have self confidence issues, I don’t know where I found the guts to admit that in front of dozens of people I don’t know but I figured it might help or get me help.. it didn’t really change much. I tried playing songs that have a meaning to me but they often had techniques I have not learned yet, or I simply just cramped and thought it’s useless and moved on to something else. I tried filming songs that I managed to excel to share them and get feedback, but I would always erase it thinking it is way too far from perfect, and I could not share something like that. I don’t know why it was easier with drawing, maybe because I learned it largely on my own. Improvising is a bit of a nightmare when I’m asked to do it. My brain just goes entirely blank, as if no information has ever crossed it, as if I have never played a note, my hands get cramped as if I’m fucking partially paralyzed, I feel too anxious and every negative though swirls in my head. There’s always this thought that one is born an artist and things should just naturally flow from them. It’s like a fucking bug moving around in my head. It’s actually a problem I’m trying to overcome once and for all now. I was actually trying to improvise something just a moment ago. But nothing can help unless I change my mind-set. I know how corny this will sound, but you can achieve nothing if you don’t believe in yourself that you can. No guidance, no instructions, no demonstrations, no inspirational quotes, no self-promises, no amount of practice is enough if the thoughts that accompany you throughout your day and night are destructive.

By now you know I’m deeply insecure about myself and my potential and that affected my artistic performances on too many levels. But it’s not the only thing that was preventing me from developing. I also struggled with a very weak will power. If I was in a bad mood, or angry, sad, whatever, I could not bring myself to do something with my art. Writing was a bit different as I wrote a lot about personal experiences, but it was never easy. However painting in a bad mood was mission impossible. I tried using it as an outlet, but I would just stare or come up with something very poor. Playing guitar in a bad mood needed a miracle. That was a major factor to my discontinuous progress. I figured if I just let myself cool down or change my mood somehow the inspiration would come then and I can create something. But that was not the case, yet every time I would do the same mistake. I’m someone who over-thinks too much and whose emotions are frequently extreme. Something that caused anger or sadness wouldn’t just simply pass without having part of me eaten up. I never found a way to turn obstacles into investments. Days, sometimes weeks, and in a couple of cases months could go by and I wouldn’t touch my brushes or my pick. At one point I would feel unworthy to touch them. If I couldn’t get myself to keep practicing just because I was angry or depressed, then I might as well just quit once and for all. I tried to think of art as a duty, not a hobby, to force myself to work harder. I may not be a prodigy but I was given some potential and I have a responsibility to use them. I tried repeating this mantra whenever my mood got low and I needed a push. But that’s not nearly good enough. So I tried to think of it as therapy. Art has many purposes one of which is being an outlet and a mean of comfort. Art, as I mentioned previously, is your lover that you turn to in your happy and in your sad times. I tried telling art how I felt and why. But the only thing that partially worked was writing. My hands would still cramp sometimes so much I felt pain. It was like my body was rejecting to paint or to play. All the things I tried to beat my insecurity were also ways to strengthen my will, but they failed. There has been some improvement since I started writing this piece though. Writing or even talking about negative past experiences makes you feel down for a while and yet I found myself still motivated to go through with it, I tried drawing something that failed and I did not have a nervous breakdown like usual which was big progress, I practiced guitar almost daily. I guess I really did need to hit rock-bottom to rise again with a stronger will. OK, I had one mini breakdown, this is still progress. My thoughts started to become less destructive. I still get freezes, cramps, blocks, but I’m nicer to me now. I guess after beginning this piece I realized how relieving it is to not conceal one’s emotions, which will break my habit of a bad mood to pass. It does not pass. You either face it or change it. Sometimes I tried breaking things as a stress relief, but I felt guilty after that so nothing changed. Maybe I should keep breakable useless things at hand just in case my mood affected my motivation again. Or maybe just start scribbling/playing random notes/writing random words until I come up with something or at least so I wouldn’t feel that my emotions got the best of me, so I can say that at least I tried. I do like breaking things though so maybe I’ll keep both methods. (Note: I’m not violent).
Anyway, will power does not strengthen if you don’t nourish it with something, anything. Bad mood does not simply pass. And inspiration does not simply come out of the bleu, we are not prophets –not that I believe in prophecies but you know what I mean. I wasted too much energy on emotional hurricanes that uprooted my motivation and my inspiration. I tried hard to aspire from quotes and bigger artists only to feel more helpless and hopeless and a sorry excuse of an “artist”. And maybe I really was so. I always envied people who were strong willed and wished to be like them. I used to think that one is born this way, but I found out that this is not always the case. Sometimes you have to build your will to survive. And here I am building my will so I can recover the aching part in my heart.

Now here is the last obstacle. I don’t usually talk about this, but I do have a tendency for addictions. Chocolate, sugar, coffee are things I just can’t live without. This self-awareness is actually why I keep my alcohol intake as low and as infrequent as possible, although I absolutely love the taste. I basically feel dependant on anything that is pleasurable, and not just physically. Art is one of the things that give me a mental ecstasy. I always wondered, what would happen to me if I give art my all? What would it take me? Is this why I didn’t choose studio arts as a career? Or even music? Maybe that’s why I used to be horrified by writing back in the days? I knew deep down how much I would fall in love with them that they’d consume me? I always envisioned myself as this drunken poor artist who gave everything away in life and let go of many people just to keep her art. I’d relate so much to the stories we hear of artists who lived in the underworld and made all the sacrifices in the world for the sake of their art. What would happen if I just let go of all my anxious thoughts? Would my passion end up killing me instead of insecurity?  Passions can be consuming, obsessing. I let myself be consumed by negativity, insecurity and fear and the consequences were just devastating. Maybe if I let go to passions the absolute opposite would happen. It’s weird how we find ourselves so drawn to negativity even without the slightest bit of effort as opposed to positivity. I guess what I’m afraid of is being consumed again, making tough choices, putting art first. That’s not a bad thing… but I don’t know how well I can pull it off. I’m still not exactly an artist, I need lots and lots and lots of work, I still struggle with myself, and I don’t know how far I can go. I guess in brief, a part of me was afraid of becoming good enough to throw everything else away career-wise. As odd and weird this thought is, it did haunt me enough to contribute to my cramps and blanks.  However, now this thought excites me. My dream now is to write books in the future. My goal in music is to write my own (more improvising nightmares to come, hurray!). My aim in art is to create tributes. And if that is what will become my living, then so be it, then I wouldn’t have to work a day in my life, which is basically everyone’s dream.

So, there, I presented to you the art of over-thinking. I have never thought I would share with the world something so personal. This is something I never even discussed with most of my friends! But I had to externalize this experience. I guess this would be my first, explicit, detailed, shared turmoil that has been turned into a piece of art. I guess I’m also sharing it because what I went through could not be my experience alone. I’m sure a lot of you amateurs and professional artists alike have faced one or more of these issues. So, speak of them, even if you won’t publish them or will do so anonymously. I actually was not sure if I was going to share, but hey, what harm could it do? I take this piece as a transition to a new mindset and a new approach in art, my forever companion that I have not dealt with right for so long. Sorry, art, sorry, self, I will not let you down this time.

Written by Zena Ismail