Pema Chodron said, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” These are, to put it simply, words to live by. No one ever got much of anywhere by peeping from the sidelines. In order to make forward progress, it is necessary to march forward no matter how frightening it may feel and, well, expose yourself to annihilation.
Annihilation may seem like a strong term to use for such a thing as approaching a gallery or going to a networking event, but when you stop and consider it might also feel like exactly what is going on. It can be extraordinarily intimidating to approach those who are in a position to value and evaluate the work you do. You pour so much of your heart and soul into your art, it can feel like the most personal rejection imaginable when it isn’t wanted.
Approaching fear is a fact of life no matter who you are or what you do. Every day of your life, you face some level of discomfort or fear be it large or small. The mere act of walking out the door every morning takes a certain amount of fortitude. But what about when it comes to bigger things? As a self-employed artist, it is necessary to grapple with fear on a much larger scale than the everyday worries. Being self-represented means that it is up to you to approach those that can help further your career. This means reaching out to curators, gallerists, networking with peers and influencers. This can be overwhelmingly intimidating and can even cause you to freeze up at important moments.
There is only one way to really overcome this fear. That is to follow the advice of Pema and keep exposing yourself again and again to the chance of annihilation. You will not always hear yes. In fact, very often (perhaps more often than not in the beginning) you will hear no. This is completely normal and you must find ways to detach to some extent from the feeling that this is in any way a personal affront.
Your art will not be suited to every situation. Some curators might not connect with your message and some galleries might not have a place for your particular work. You’ll never know unless you ask though, and this requires conquering your fear.
So you’ve done it. You’ve approached. Perhaps the results were positive, perhaps not. Regardless, this is merely step one. After that initial inquiry, the moment when you decided not to be bridled by fear any more, there is only more of the same.
You may be thinking that this sounds like an awful lot of pain. Living in constant fear sounds exhausting and perhaps it would be easier to change course completely. Get yourself a safe little 9-5 where no one can wield the sort of devastating power that can take down your hard work in one fell swoop.
Stop right there.
Here is the secret. And it’s hidden in plain sight if you read the quote above. By constantly exposing yourself to situations that are full of fear you will, eventually, discover the part of you that can walk through fire. Like everything in life, the more you do it the easier it will become. That is not to say that you won’t always experience some level of unease when submitting your work, and of course there will always be disappointment when the answer is no. But it is safe to say, the more you do it the more conditioned you will become.
It really is that simple. Of course is is at the same time the hardest thing imaginable. We are creatures of habit, devoted to finding comfort at all costs. Exposure isn’t really our bag, generally speaking. It’s written into our DNA in a sense, those that lacked caution often didn’t survive. Then again, those that were too cautious were also left to the annals of evolution. Striking a balance is key.
Start small. There’s no reason for you to send your work off to international competitions right away. Of course there is no harm there either and if you are feeling particularly brave then of course aim high. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say. Start locally or regionally, begin to build a rapport with those in your immediate community. While you are busy doing that you will also be building your own confidence in your ability to put yourself out there. You may one day realize that it has become a matter of daily habit, meeting new people, getting your work into galleries, and you may discover that it has been months since you even thought of the fear that was involved when this was a new challenge.
Humans are adaptable. That, in essence, is what has allowed us to thrive. Sure we are programmed to take the path of least resistance, but we are also able to summit Mt. Everest. Consider this your Everest. Face that peak and take it one step at a time. You will be amazed by the view from the top.