Identity Purgatory

For many of us, being home for the holidays means reconnecting with somewhat unfamiliar (purposely or otherwise) extended family members, new significant others, other loose acquaintances and even complete strangers. This faux-intimate environment is chock full of mundane, impersonal conversation: “I’m good, things are good… Oh yeah, this weather is crazy for December… Thanks! It’s my favorite Hanukkah sweater.” And of course, lurking behind every corner is the omnipresent adult equivalent of “What’s your major?”

“So, what do you do?”

It seems innocuous enough. Especially if you’re an accountant, a dentist, or a teacher. Really if you’re in any line of work that the general public “understands,” this question is somewhat easy to navigate. But what happens if you’re between jobs? Or not doing what your family expected? Or not making a lot of money? Or just not sure?

What happens if you’re an artist?

How stressful is that conversation? And how much does this question, repeated over and over from friends and family and strangers, impact your creative self-worth?

Even when talking to me, someone people pay to provide a safe, non-judgmental space, I still hear the anxiety: “I really like that you help people explore their creativity but I’m not sure that I qualify. I’m not an artist.” Which is almost always quickly followed up with, “But I love to paint!” or “But I have been writing a novel for fun” or “I make large-scale sculptures with cereal in my spare time.”

So when, if ever, do you begin to feel confident presenting yourself as an artist? When can you simply respond to your nosy second cousin’s new partner: “I’m a painter” or “I’m a writer” or “I’m a creative”? When can you feel like you’ve made the leap?

For some, “making it” as an artist is about time. If I spend 9-5 committed to this craft, then I’m an artist. For others, it’s money. The feeling comes after they’ve cut their first check, or earned that degree, or their work’s made it into some publication. For most, though, identifying as a comic, a poet, a dancer, a painter, or a writer is only a pipe dream, a goal we’re working towards in our minds but nowhere else, something that may or may not become reality. It’s as if we’re waiting for someone else to decide that we’ve made it, biding our time until an announcement arrives from on high : “You, my fine thespian, are no longer a bartender. Today and henceforth, you are an actor!”

Spoiler alert: That announcement never comes. In waiting for some mystical delivery from above, we lock ourselves in an identity purgatory (still working on the trademark for that one), forever aspiring to unleash our creativity to the public but never actually passing through the gates of artist heaven. We sit, hoping for some signal that our creative identity has become official, only to watch the days and months and years pass by. 

So before you walk into your Aunt Carol’s new boyfriend’s family gathering this holiday season, take a minute to ask yourself some questions:

  1. What needs to happen for me to start identifying as an artist?

  2. In what other areas am I allowing other people to decide what my life will be?

  3. What does it cost my creative self-worth every time I downplay or ignore my true goals in conversation?

  4. How much of my own self-worth comes from how other people react to me?

  5. What’s the worst thing that could happen if I told someone I’m an artist?

  6. The best?

Really take time to ask yourself these questions. If you find that you still aren’t comfortable introducing yourself as that one “thing” (i.e. a rapper, a playwright, a performance artist, etc.), then use your holiday travel time as an opportunity to craft and test an elevator pitch. Think of it like your artist’s statement. As a coach, I usually say something along the lines of, “I help creatives feel more fulfilled by aligning their goals and actions while challenging any limiting beliefs they have about what their art can lead to.” What will your pitch be?  

Then go for it. Seriously, test it out this holiday season. The next time you hear, “What do you do?” think about your creative identity. Think about your creative self-worth. Are you in some identity purgatory? Do you allow other people’s perceptions to hold you back? Choose your words wisely, but commit to saying them out loud over and over again. What you repeatedly say is what you’ll become.

And, who knows? Maybe that second cousin’s best friend is a gallery owner, a producer, or a publisher. Maybe your sister’s new partner has access to a studio. Maybe opportunity is right around the corner, too, waiting for an artist like you.