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It’s Not an Outside Obstacle–It’s Self-Sabotage

How to recognize and recover when you sabotage your creative career

Years ago, an editor reached out to me. 

I came across your website and loved the writing pieces you have posted there. I see you have a publishing history and I’m not quite sure if or who represents you, but if you have any work in shape to send out, I’d love to have a look. You are quite an extraordinary talent, she wrote.

We emailed back and forth, and she offered to introduce me to potential agents. 

I was thrilled–and nervous. 

Oh, no, I thought. I have this amazing opportunity–but I’m not sure I have anything yet!! I was working on a collection of stories. I only had completed drafts of a couple, and those were still rough. 

Quickly, I wrote to a couple mentors. As I had expected, they both advised me not to submit anything unless it was polished and complete.

 Okay, I thought. Write fast. Finish the collection, make it good, take advantage of this. 

But, the pressure was too much. I froze up, and my writing slowed to a crawl. 

In the end, years passed. The editor stopped working on adult fiction and moved into children’s lit. An opportunity was lost.

This is what Julia Cameron (of The Artist’s Way) calls a “creative U-turn.” When facing a major step in your career, you pull back, turn away, or do something to sabotage the opportunity.

Creative U-turns can take many forms:

  • You’re a finalist for a choreography fellowship, and you’re going in for your interview. Inexplicably, even though the fellowship is exactly right for you and you know how important it is, you show up ten minutes late. You don’t get the fellowship.
  • You do a solo show at a gallery you really respect. A lot of people are interested in your work, but you don’t follow up with them. You decide the art scene is “too commercial” and stop showing your work at all.
  • You’re working with a teacher and make huge strides in writing your screenplay. Just as you’re on the cusp of finishing your screenplay, you quit working with her.
  • You finally find a writing coach who can help you overcome a huge impasse. You’re about to invest, but you get worried about money and decide not to.
  • You create a performance art piece with your friend. Just as you’re getting noticed by critics, you fight with your friend and break up the partnership.

Very often your reasons for the action will look rational–or like a form of self-care. (“I didn’t have the money,” “My teacher criticized me in a way that didn’t work for me,” “I couldn’t work with her/him/them,” “I need more time because I’m not ready yet.”)

But, if you dig down to your underlying feelings, you’ll find FEAR.

Fear of failure. Fear that you’re not good enough. Fear that someone is out to get you. Fears about survival. 

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Whatever your core fears and issues are (the ones that appear over and over in your life), they will rear up at the moment you’re about to make a breakthrough. If you don’t recognize that, you may take a creative U-turn–and pull back just before a big success.

Creative U-turns happen because when we’re making a huge transformation or leap, our nervous systems act up. Our “lizard brains” (the oldest part of our brain, or brain stem, responsible for primitive survival instincts like “flight or fight”) are wired to recreate the familiar because it’s survivable. 

When things start feeling too far out of our “comfort zone,” we unconsciously do things to return to the familiar. Hence the creative U-turn.

Here’s the truth: If fear is shaping your actions, you are not operating from your highest self. Your highest self will always lead you toward something–not away from something. 

Another truth: Even when you can’t see it yet (because of fear, of course!), there is a way.

If you keep the faith in your highest self, you will find it.

(There are times when following fear is useful–like when someone has broken into your house or is physically attacking you–but in most career and life decisions, following fear takes you away from success and joy.) 

So what do you do when you discover you’ve made a creative U-turn?

First, forgive yourself. 

You might feel angry or despairing (“I sabotaged myself again! How could I keep doing this?”) but remember, you’re human. It’s common to pull back when we stretch and grow.

Even if you feel like berating yourself, give some love and compassion to the scared part of you. Creative U-turns happen, especially if we’re unaware in the moment.

Then, ease back into action.

Holding the scared parts of you with so much love and compassion, take baby steps back towards your goal. 

If you need deeper support (a coach, therapist, healer, etc) to move past your fear and into action, get that support. And step back into action.

Reach out to contacts and colleagues. Follow up on opportunities. Reengage with your teachers and coaches. Do your creative work. 

You can do it.


Photo by Anna Kolosyuk on Unsplash

P.S. BTW, for those of you who could use support getting into action and doing your creative work, I’ve got a new program coming up: Artist in Action. Stay tuned for details…

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