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Dr. Lisa Shares: How Our Self-Esteem Affects Our (Art) Work

I’m taking a sabbatical

Dr. Lisa's Ego Evaluation Chart

I’m taking a sabbatical. Hopefully a relatively short one, but I’ve rented a studio to make work for Bushwick Open Studios and I have to use it. As we all know, time is running out. The good news is when I told my BFF, Margot about my taking time off from the column, she jumped up and down and said, “I want to do it, and I want to do it!” More about that later…

Anyway, the emotional machinations I went through to come up with this personal compromise brought up a lot of issues for me that I think in one way or another affect a lot of humans. So I thought I would share them with you.

I was brought up in a critical family who told me I was lazy so my version of self-esteem is on the low end, at least for this brand of issue. Truth be told, I was a lazy, drug addled teen so they were kind of correct about that. But now I am a productive adult haunted by my childhood shadows. I’m too old to be fixing this shit, so I cope by compensating in my head - hence the machinations.

Rooted in my sense of not doing enough, I sometimes take on more than I can realistically keep up with. Then I am mired in a death spiral of I am not very good at what I do. I am not working hard enough. And then I say to myself, “I’m sick of this bullshit, you are well aware this is not true. Just freakin' work it out. Take action!” I take action and then I’m fine. Years of being in therapy and support of my friends has taught me to cope and pull myself out of the hole…eventually.

The charm and the downfall of being on the low end of the scale. If you try hard and never think you’re good enough, (which, sadly, is more often a issue for the ladies) then you may be taking on too much and not getting enough self-credit. You therefore miss out on the satisfaction of your labors. Also, you are ripe for exploitation. You set yourself up to do more in the hopes of getting positive feedback from other people instead of your gut. And it takes balls to get your work out in public. If you get too hung up on whether it’s any good, the “Is it good or not?” question becomes pointless since no one ends up seeing any of it.

On the charm side, you may be more productive and disciplined, pushing yourself further than if you were more self-satisfied. Also, holding back on showing your work until you’re further accomplished is not always a bad thing. You may be more appealing to the type of people who don’t want to hear how fabulous “you” are, but you run the danger of being needy and demanding reinforcement from others.

The charm and the downfall of being on the high end of the scale. The good points are more superficial and easier to see why they’re attractive. I’m not saying attractive = valuable...but sometimes it does. Everyone likes someone who exudes confidence! It’s easier for you to get your work out into the world and engage people to see it.

On the downside, if you believe in your own hot-shittedness, you may not be pushing yourself as hard as you could. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you do not get the reaction to your work that you expect. Overpricing your work could get in the way of sales. Low-enders on the scale (like me) may resent you and envy you, but who cares? You are popular! The real problem with the high end of the scale is that it doesn’t age well. Hubris is much more appealing in young people. Hold on to your enthusiasm and drive if you get taken down a peg - that will determine whether you can ride out other people's vision of you not matching up with your vision of yourself.

The importance of balance.  If you can, make relationships an important priority, that will help you find balance in all areas of your life, and I don’t mean getting wasted with large groups of people but the people in your life are your foundation. You can’t be productive in any way unless you have some security and that comes from family—if you’re lucky enough to have gotten the right one—or friends and partners. You only need a very few solid relationships, but make sure you have them. Then take on work. I’ve learned quite a bit from our own Katarína Hybenová, who's a great example of someone with a good work/life balance.  I admire how productive she is: she runs this whole site and takes amazing photographs, has job(s), a great fiancé, and she talks about how she likes to work hard but have fun and relax too.

Also there is some pain and sacrifice in balance. I’m talking self-discipline, meaning not going to the rave of the year because you’re working on something to show somebody next week. If you can make yourself stay home and work when you’re not in the mood—that’s huge.

Giving back is important—and the New York Times agrees! “And one study found that people who focus on achieving wealth and career advancement are less happy than those who focus on good works, religion or spirituality, or friends and family.” And for the uber-ambitious, here's another great New York Times story about how giving may be the secret to getting ahead.

Well that’s my sermon for today. Forgive me if I sounded too preachy-it’s just my point of view—I would LOVE to hear yours!

Photo of Lisa and Margot making snow angels by Phillip Buehler

Back to Margot Berwin, my BFF. Margot is a very accomplished writer (MFA in writing from New School, two Random House novels, and countless articles for Nerve.com). She also gives great advice—I’ve lived my life on it. And most importantly she’s down with Bushwick and loves to go out. Margot will be covering this advice column until June. Be nice to her and take advantage of her nonjudgmental razor-sharp perspective and honesty—send her your questions to margot18ATyahoo.com. I may be butting in on occasion, but I’ll see you back here when my life gets back in balance.

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