Hard on ourselves for not painting

Why Are We So Hard On Ourselves? One Thing That May Help

I was recently thinking about how sometimes, we can be so hard on ourselves.

I was sitting with my friend Julia. She was talking about her music practice. “I should be able to play this ___ by now. I’m useless!” Yup – she was in fine self-flagulation form! I recognised these types of words having said many a similar thing to myself in my art studio.

I decided to say the words back to her, as if I was saying them to her: You should be able to play this by now Julia. You’re useless!”


But I wanted to make the point – we would never speak to a friend like that so why are we so darn unkind to ourselves? 

We criticize ourselves harshly, using words we would never say to someone else. Why do we tend to be so hard on ourselves? Why can’t we be as tolerant and supportive of ourselves and our foibles as we would be with others? 

Now I’m sure there’s a lot of psychology around that tells us why we do this to ourselves – lots of self-doubt and insecurities I’m sure – but rather than go into that, I’d like to suggest a way to deal with that inner critic. This is something I do. 

The first thing is to actually hear ourselves. Doing so is the first step to taming that rather mean voice. It’s in our minds, often a mindless stream of negative chatter and castigation, and can be difficult to catch but once our intention to hear it is clear, we can catch it out! 

Sketches made in Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales

Now, as soon as I hear myself saying, “Gail, that’s such rubbish! You should be able to do better. You’re an art instructor for goodness sake!” I stop. And then I repeat the words out loud but as if I’m saying them to someone else. Terrible stuff! 

Then I pause, and I consider my words. I look at what I’m chastising myself about and then I go on and tell myself what I would say to a friend. It might go something like this:

“Each piece you do is new territory. You can never know what’s going to happen and that’s the great thing about art-making. It’s not a formula. We’re always finding our way. Some days are way easier and sometimes, they are harder. You’re having the second type of day. And tomorrow is another day. It’s all learning. And listen, making art is hard work! Keep focusing on your intention to create. Be in the process and don’t worry about the outcome. And…how about we celebrate the fact that you’re actually painting!” 

And then I can move on.

I’ll give you an example of my own self-cruelty. 

On a recent teaching trip to the UK, my reward at the end was to spend a week on a canal boat with Cam. It was going to be leisurely AND I was going to paint with my pastels as I hadn’t had time to do so before this point. My plan was to try and paint each day but I’d be okay with five out of seven. 

Well, two days into the trip, I began to realise that if we were going to get where we wanted to go, through all the various locks and miles, we’d need to keep moving each day. Uh oh. So, the self-loathing began.As did the insults being hurled for breaking the promise to myself to use this time to paint. I could feel the tension building between wanting to paint and wanting to be doing this boating thing with Cam each day, making it as far as the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal. 

Hard on ourselves - Canal Boating!

Recognising this tension was the beginning of doing something about it. So I made a choice. I decided to let go of my intention to paint so I could fully experience this quiet adventure we were on together. 

And…I also congratulated myself on doing the sketches I’d done despite the restrictions on my time when teaching and travelling. I’ve included a few.

Hard on ourselves! sketch

So tell me, why do you think we are hard on ourselves? Do you have a harsh inner critic? Let me know your thoughts about this topic in the comments!

Until next time,


PS. If you have any book suggestions on dealing with the inner critic and also why we are so hard on ourselves, carrying on with this negative self-talk, please add them to the comments.

Two I know of are: 

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22 thoughts on “Why Are We So Hard On Ourselves? One Thing That May Help”

  1. The above is so true, we can be so hard on ourselves. Humbling to hear that you too struggle with this at times. Sometimes I’m not sure who I am judging myself against! I find taking time to acknowledge what creativity I have done alongside all of life’s challenges. Then giving myself love and ‘a well done’ and then immersing myself in any art, whether sketching, looking a other artists books, reading blogs (such as yours), will give me inspiration to get started again.

    I attended your Plein Air workshop in Cornwall and the energy and content you put into the 3 days was incredible. So inspiring, informative and encouraging. This was despite very dull weather which has been our story in the UK this summer! Thank you. Taking time to replenish your energy levels was probably on the cards. Great blog and a reminder that we need to be kind to ourselves and take time to recognise that.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and strategies for dealing with this topic Jackie. And yes I do indeed struggle with it!

      And THANK YOU for such a wonderful review of our workshop together. Loved meeting you, seeing your work, and hope to see you again one of these days!!

  2. Oh Gail, so so true! In the Bible it says to love your neighbor as yourself. Ask people around you if they love themselves…you won’t find many who do. One of my dear friends replied that she didn’t even know what that meant. The Dalaï Lama was floored when he was told about the notion of self-hatred so prevalent here in the West.

    Where does it come from? Vast question. And is it any wonder that that inner critic screams so loudly? I love the way you deal with it and thank yo so much for sharing this with us.

    1. It’s a sad state of affairs isn’t it? And as you say Nancy, a vast question to know why this is!
      I’m glad you love my way of dealing with that negative Nelly of an inner critic. It really does help!

  3. Great article, Gail! For me, it’s all about managing expectations. If I expect a certain result and fall short of that, it’s my expectation that needs to be adjusted. I find it’s helpful to think about play or process versus outcome, and not to have expectations about any part of it, to see what happens and respond. This article has some good points.

    1. Thanks Susan! And YES, we set ourselves up when we “expect” a certain outcome rather than playing and being in the work (the process). This is exactly what Ardith talks about so passionately in one of our Blind Dates in the IGNITE! membership! Goal-setting can be very useful but perhaps not with the outcome of our art-making!!

      Thanks for the article – all the points certainly relate to our art practice!!

  4. Hi Gail, lovely sketches!! Charcoal and pastel?
    Great looking books too, made me smile. I have no idea why we are so hard on ourselves, but I do love your solution and will be using it!!
    😂sounds crazy that we talk to ourselves in a way we wouldn’t to others… but so true!
    Thank you for your blogs and free stuff⭐️it’s all brilliant and much appreciated.
    Huge thanks! I look forward to your blogs landing in my inbox 😁🌻x

    1. Thanks Carol and oops, I should have said – pencil and charcoal pencils in black and white.
      And I smiled that you smiled at the book titles!
      Glad to hear you’ll be putting my strategy to work!
      Thanks for your lovely words about the blog. I hope you don’t mind if I use them somewhere on the website 😁

  5. Thank you for this Gail! Now that I’m painting again after such a long layoff, that critic was having a field day. Thankfully it’s getting better and your advice is gold. ❤️

    1. Soooo glad to hear you’re getting back to painting Gailen! And yes, I can just imagine that inner critic giving you a good chattering! Glad my advice will help quiet it!

      1. Thank you, Gail, I needed to hear this. Whenever I fall short of my expectations, which is almost always, my painting practice flies out the window and I think , “what’s the use?” You have just provided a welcome dose of inspiration tempered with reality. My sketchbook waits. Your blog is a gift to us all! I am grateful!

        1. I’m glad it came at a good time Sheila.
          And I sure hear you – “what’s the use?’ can easily become a common refrain. Yet…there is only one of us, with our voice. We do a disservice to others when we retreat from our art practice. Day in and day out, let’s reveal us and our voice and our art to the world!!
          And thank you.

  6. Gail I think the line work in your sketches are wonderful. The inner critic is always in my head but I think when you look back at your sketches you will say you managed to overcome your negative thoughts without knowing.

    1. Many thanks Michele! And yes, I quite like my sketches 😁
      My big negativity was about not getting any pastel plein air work done…and me needing to work at letting go of that expectation.

  7. Hi Gail. I’m brand new to reading your blog. I really enjoyed this one. It’s a topic I think we all can relate to. A book I find really speaks to this is called The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. I find it’s a good one to go back to from time to time.

    Your sketches were fun to look at, and a good reminder that the sketching is the scaffolding for our pieces, and legitimate creations in and of themselves. I look forward to reading your blogs in the future

    1. Welcome Katherine! And thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate the book recommendation. I’ve actually been recommended this book before and had it out of our library but ack! I haven’t ever made the time to read it. So now, I will!!

      And yes to the importance of sketching!! They can be useful as well as bring back memories of a time and place vividly.

      I look forward to seeing you turn up on the comments in the future 😁

  8. Thirty years ago (I am old) I had an opportunity to take a course with an amazing artist who lived in Montreal. I didn’t do it because I thought I wasn’t good enough. I mention it because I talked to a cousin yesterday about missed wishes. She wanted to be a nurse but thought she wasn’t smart enough. I look back through my life and regret opportunities that I didn’t take because – fill in the blanks too old, not talented etc. The negative voices in my head exactly what you are saying. I admire people with confidence.

    The artist moved away. I never took his course.

    1. Ohhh Suzy, thank you for sharing this sad story with us. I think we can all relate, relate to those missed opportunities due to our own negative self-talk, to those feelings of being “not enough.” I do hope that now, knowing this, you say, Damn it, I’m good enough so let’s go!

      We only have this life (as far as we know) so let’s not waste time with comparisons and what the heck others think! Let’s ride the wind and express our voice!! Yeah!!

      And Suzy, thank you for being brave and sharing this story with us.

  9. Hi Gail, Your trip sounds wonderful!
    I think we all talk smack to ourselves, not only when we paint but all of the aspects of an art career. ( Why are you so lazy and hit or miss about promoting yourself? , for example ) I love the idea of repeating the criticism.
    And, your sketches are just so special. I think that if you did paint as much as you had initially planned, you may have missed some of the varied delights of your journey. Setting up and painting means a chunk of about 2 hours being stationary, and it appears that you were on the move, experiencing a whole buffet, rather than a big entree!
    Thank you for sharing all that you do, Christine

    1. Thanks so much Christine for your kindness and reaffirming that I did make the right decision, to let go of those pastel painting hopes. Looking back, the memories created on that canal trip with my dear man are so precious. And…I’m also glad I could squeak in a few sketches!

      It’s marvellous to hear that an artist like yourself experiences those voices too. Gosh we are cruel to ourselves. Let’s all work to change that!!

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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