How to Eliminate "Can't" and Empower Your Creativity

July 15, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

There are a lot of things that I tell myself I can't do. For the past few years I've been working on eliminating the word "can't" from my vocabulary.

Every time the voice in my head says "You can't do that" I try to turn it around and say "But what if I could?"

It's scary, but oh so liberating.

Those opportunities to prove to yourself that "Yes, actually I can," are so precious and empowering.

Most recently I was hired to teach Digital Photography as a part of the Mill Street Loft's Summer Art Intensive. The goal of the program is to prepare high schoolers with the skills to create college level work and to build solid portfolios.

Honestly I thought that I was a long-shot for the job.

Then when I was hired I considered backing out because, really, "I can't be qualified to teach!"

Everyone kept saying "You've got this!" But in the back of my mind I would ask myself, "Do I really?"

High school can be a time where we give ourselves the least permission possible to be our true selves, and if we're not careful that can follow us for years.

Now I don't know about you, but for me high school was a pretty traumatic time. I had a wonderful group of friends freshman year, but with my family's nomadic ways we continued to move every nine months or so.

By junior year I was on my third high school, and my tenth school overall. My parents had split, we had moved back to the east coast from Arizona, and I was at my peak in terms of introversion.

And I started getting bullied. I sunk deeper into isolation, depression and self-destructive tendencies.  All I wanted to do was hide in my room, make art, listen to Sarah McLachlan, and feel sorry for myself.

Some days I'm still right there.

So I wondered, what exactly am I qualified to give to these students?

Thinking back to my days in high school, and how safe I felt in the art room with the quirky, understanding teachers, I realized that the most valuable thing that I could give to my students was the room to give themselves permission. To turn the "I can't" into an inquiring "Maybe I really could!"

It took me years of waiting for outside permission before I realized that I had to be in the driver's seat of my life and my creativity.

I was waiting for someone to tell me "It's ok to be dark, it's ok to have a hard time with things and to express it."

Most of the voices of my childhood told me the exact opposite. They were voices of repression, and even after I became an adult I gravitated towards people that were threatened when I let my true voice be heard.

When I began created self-portraits in my early 20's, one of my mentors shook their head and said "What goes on in that crazy head of yours?"

"The Red Queen Awaits" Fine Art Photograph by Jen Kiaba."The Red Queen Awaits" Fine Art Photograph by Jen Kiaba.What *was* going on in my crazy head? ;-) That was a small shifting point for me.

I still don't know if that was meant as high praise or an epic insult. But in that moment I decided to empower myself and ignored any potential slight to take it as a compliment that the work was difficult and compelling.

And holy crap, can teenagers be both difficult and compelling. 

But in my classroom I hope that I can applaud those instincts in them when they are applied to their art and expressing their authentic creativity, so that they can see the value in their work for themselves.

That, I believe, is where the kernel of giving oneself permission is born.

We had our art show for first session of students last week, and I was blown away by some of their work:

Photo by Barbara.Student Work at the Mill Street Loft's Summer Art Institute.
Photo by Phillip.Student work at the Mill Street Loft's Summer Art Institute.
Photo by Juliet.Student work at the Mill Street Loft's Summer Art Institute.
Photo by Niki.Student work at the Mill Street Loft's Summer Art Institute.
Photo by Daisy.Student Work at the Mill Street Loft's Summer Art Institute.
Photo by Gwen.Student Work at the Mill Street Loft's Summer Art Intensive.
Photo by Kane.Student Work at the Mill Street Loft's Summer Art Intensive.

Looking at their final show, I feel confident to say that each student gave themselves some room to listen to their voice and let it be heard through their work:

The Digital Photo exhibit at the Mill Street Loft's Summer Art Intensive show for Session 1.The Digital Photo exhibit at the Mill Street Loft's Summer Art Intensive show for Session 1.
Giving ourselves permission is a daily habit and a muscle that must be exercised. It can be easy to slip back into silence when we stop listening to our authentic selves.

Every time you feel something inside of you shutting down the possibility of being authentic or creative with the word "can't", stop for a moment to explore the feeling.

If you can find a quiet place to have an internal conversation, spend some time asking yourself WHY you feel like you can't.

Be relentless with yourself in this questioning. You may find that the first few answers you give yourself aren't the root of the "can't" feeling.

Pay attention to your gut. When you hit on an answer that resonates and even gives you that twinge of fear, you know that you've found what's holding you back.

Now ask yourself "But what if I could?"

You may find that soon you'll be asking yourself "How can I accomplish this?" as a complete 180º from where you started.


That small act of changing the "Can't Rhetoric" into an exploration will open you up to immense personal and creative possibilities.

I hope, that like my students, you can find ways to give yourself permission to be you everyday, and to express your highest truth and creativity.

Think of life like a classroom; we're here to learn and each experience is a precious lesson. There's no grade at the end of the day, other than our own deepest satisfaction.

Now I would love to hear from you.

Have you had a turning point where you finally allowed yourself permission to be and do what truly speaks to you?

Or have you had small moments of important shifting towards your goals? 

Tell me all about it in the comments below!

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