Guilt and Shame in the path of Artists and Designers

by Atim Annette Oton

“Guilt is anger directed at ourselves – at what we did or did not do. Resentment is anger directed at others – at what they did or did not do.” – Peter McWilliams


In the last few years of working with artists and designers, I have observed how fear has trapped some of them to the point of dysfunctional life and work productivity. And what I have learned about fear is that it has two main ingredients that follow artists and designers and ruin their lives: guilt and shame.

“Hard though it may be to accept, remember that guilt is sometimes a friendly internal voice reminding you that you’re messing up.” – Marge Kennedy

Guilt is an emotion that occurs when a person believes that they have violated a moral standard that they themselves believe in, according to Wikipedia. I think it is wrapped around fear and very rarely talked about in the art and design circles. It begins in childhood and it is about self-guilt about not achieving goals. And when I talk with artists and designers, I ask about the childhood and goals and have found a common thread: “as a child, I want to be a top tier artist or designer but I have not done the work to do so (as an adult)”. Even successful, stable or artist/designer parents do not raise guilt-free children.

Are you guilty? Yes…admit it. You are guilty of spending too much time on your work; of forgetting other people; of abandoning your family for your work or pleasure, and of not planning your time well. Just to name a few things I hear from the creative community. Simply, your guilt is a mirror and a reflection of your bad habits.

I am guilty of telling artists and designers the truth they do not want to hear or admit to themselves. It is my best quality and I do not mince words when I speak the truth. My truth is simple: life is too short to waste it and wasting time is not an option in a productive life. Most people prefer to lie to themselves, I do not. People who do not want to deal with the truth, pile up excuses and walk or run away to hide. Most hide in a place I call a “hole” where guilt begins, and I watch from far as they attempt to bury themselves in that hole, piling up layers to hide their shame and keeping their lies intact. Lies they tell are mirages, fronts that they create to hide the truth not from others but mostly from themselves.

guilt and shame emotions

Guilt tells me that most artists and designers have a front and no back-end. This means they are all about appearances and they have no foundation built. How do I know? I ask them a simple question: Do you as an artist have a year of scheduled exhibitions? 80% do not and cannot give you a schedule beyond 3 months. No back-end or long-term planning. Then ask a fashion designer for a line sheet. 80% do not have one but they want to invite you for a fashion show. Seriously, if you have one of these types as your friend, it’s time to tell them to stop lying to themselves. Fashion Shows are not the core of a fashion business. Guilt keeps them in the cycle of the 80% of their colleagues, following the wrong advice, taking no chances and afraid to step into becoming the 20%…and as one said to me recently, I am not about commerce. Right? My response: so, how do you eat and pay bills? So full of ideology but really, it is fear speaking. They have put no focus on earning money from their craft so to me, it is a hobby.

“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” – Brene Brown

“I just feel compelled to continue to be transparent. It just really levels the playing field and eradicates the shame that I have, or that one might have, about being human. So I’m going to just keep going.” – Alanis Morissette 

The hardest part of fear is shame. It is more silent than guilt and I call it the “slave” weapon of not feeling good enough to admit the truth to yourself. I had a designer refuse to take a job in a bar to pay bills because her friends would see her working there. The implied shame of working in a bar as a designer, in her mind, was stronger than being broke. Huh? Wow, what logic from a declare smart creative person?

shame erases hope

Shame is the mastermind behind fear. It controls the mind, making it illogical and comes up with stupid decisions. Yes, I said it. Fool-hardy choices are part of the shame way of thinking. It frightens the mind into a box that terrifies a creative person and helps them deny and hide the truth. Shame is the reason for mirages, the pretension of keeping a false facade when nothing is going on. It is bold face lying and deceit, ironically not to others but to yourself. One artist I know spends time gallivanting from exhibition to exhibition, mingling and chatting but has not been in an exhibition in more than 7 years. Yikes. Even writing this scares me. Another was so broke he had to move home yet so many of his friends think he is doing well and shame keeps him from telling people where he lives. Wake up. Hiding is not going to help the situation, you need a plan.

Shame is pain, shame is fear. Holding onto it is like bringing poison into your life. So many artists and designers keep guilt and shame as their daily coffee and to release it would be like fighting with a rabid dog. You would have to lose an arm for them to release it. And the sad part is that they try hold onto them both like a comfort blanket. My shame is that as I work with guilt ridden and shame drenched people, I have come to them with guns blazing, and the smart ones respond by dropping their ammunition: guilt and shame. The others run away.

As one client reminded me, “I am the thought bubble that pops into her head when fears comes in” and rather than seeing things negatively and saying no, she looks for and sees opportunities. A remarkable shift in perspective that has moved her from 3 clients in 2012 to working with 12 in 2013. Yes, I have no guilt or shame there, we both worked on burying her fears and turning a new chapter of positive thinking that equals results.


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