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Omphaloskepsis Blog

Developing reslilience

Apr 28, 2013


You need at least these five traits to be successful as an artist: tenacity, intelligence, talent, desire and resilience. I’m not talking about the level of resilience you need in order to recover from a traumatic experience like losing a limb in a shotgun accident, or an eye in a lawn dart accident.


The pile of rejection letters in your inbox or mailbox is the reason why it’s important for artists to build their resilience muscles. We are in the rejection business. And it’s stressful to be rejected—exhibitions, grants, and organizations. Its stressful to have your work criticized—especially immediately after creating it.

What is resilience

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back after facing difficulty. Resilience is the ability to rise above challenging conditions, the attribute that allows us to exist in this world while moving forward with positivity and self-assurance in the midst of adversity. It’s the capacity to recover from setbacks, to bounce back. “Resilience is similar to buoyancy. When pushed under water, our bodies instinctively rise back up to the surface. Resilience is a mindset. Resilient people see challenges as opportunities. They do not seek problems but they understand that they will ultimately be strengthened from them. Rather than engaging in self-doubt, catastrophic thinking, or a mindset of victimization (why me?), they seek solutions.”1

The good news is that “in recent years […] neuroscientist (have) begun to understand how to harness the brain’s capacities to radically rewire our neural circuits and rebuild the functioning of the brain to increase resilience. Mindfulness and empathy are two key factors. By focusing our attention on new experiences and encoding them in our brain’s neural circuitry and the learning from those experiences through interactions with other people, we rewire our brains for resilience. Because of our brain’s neuroplasticity, we can change the patterns in our prefrontal cortex and develop new executive functioning skills.2


Like any muscle, resilience is something that you can build and develop. With the average of 40 rejections to 1 acceptance it seems like resilience would be a good skill for an artist to develop. There are many ways to build resilience. One of the primary ways to do this is by practicing positive self talk and here’s why…

A couple of years ago I attended a talk on resilience at a three-day conference. The speakers revealed the results of their recent study examining success and resilience. What the study revealed was that children who had positive self talk were the most resilient in all kinds of adverse situations. The resilient children in the study grew up to be successful adults.

We all have stressors in our lives. Traffic makes us late for an important appointment, a friend lets us down, a family member gets sick, a fender bender. When these stressors happen we are less likely to be resilient in our professional lives. It doesn’t help if we interpret rejection from an exhibit as proof of our lack of worthiness as an artist.


In reality, all it really means is that our work didn’t fit with the cast of work the curator was putting together for that particular exhibit. Once I rented a U-Haul truck to drive one of my water paintings to the Katonah Art Museum for an open call. The work had to be on site for jurying, but the curator was from the Met and I wanted my work in front of her. When I saw the other work in line, I was smugly certain my work would be accepted. Of course I was dismayed and devastated when it wasn’t.

I really couldn’t understand it. … until I saw the show. It was all political art. Of the 150 or so pieces, only about 5 were stand out pieces and only one was museum quality, the rest were propaganda, the same statement made over and over again. I got it. I got why my work wasn’t selected. It had nothing to do with whether or not my work was good or if I was a valid artist. It was all about—did my work fit the theme of the exhibit? No, it did not. It cost me $180 in truck rental fees to find that lesson out—plus a month of stinking thinking. But what a great lesson it was.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, there’s chatter going on in our heads all the time. If you really want to observe it (and you live near one of these facilities), try visiting a sensory deprivation tank a few times, like this one near me: Urban Float It may seem like a woo-woo far out there thing to do, but if you do this you’ll soon be aware of the ticker tape-like endless stream of nonsense flying across your brain. If that won’t work for you, try meditating for 10 minutes. Here are some links to some simple meditations. Again, you’ll see it can be difficult to quiet the mind.

How to Meditate the Easy Way, Tara Stiles

Need to Relax? Take a Break for Meditation, the Mao Clinic Staff

How to Practice Pranayama, by Lisa Dawn Angerame

Video: Alternate Nostril Breathing Exercise, Ole Test

Prescriptions for Pranayama, by Claudia Cummins


A Balancing Breath Nadi Sodhana, Alternate Nostril Breathing by Ashley Freeman - RYT Sep 22, 2012


Apparently, if you do the pranayama breathing with the breath hold for 15 minutes per day, after 6 weeks your brain waves will look the same as a Tibetan monk who has been meditating for 26 years…(I learned that at the same 2011conference.) 


One of the things my audio installation Mother May I…? demonstrates is how our self talk is universally negative. These voices in our heads hold us back. They can inhibit us, and delay or stop us from taking correct action towards our career goals and impede our ability to achieve our dreams.

Our actions are motivated by our thoughts. Practicing positive self-talk builds resilience. When you change the way you think about problems you become more resilient, optimistic and better able to cope. You don’t have to remain stuck on frustrated, disappointed, defeated, anxious or sad. You can rethink the situation, reframe it and find a solution that works. The more you do this the more effective you become at dealing with the next obstacle and building confidence. Understand the difference between when you do and do not have control over a situation. Use your resources for when you do. Let it go when you don’t. Put your energy and focus into what you can affect.1

Learn to recognize your negative thoughts and feelings. Dr. Seligman, Dr. Reivih and their colleagues call this thought catching. Evaluate those thoughts for accuracy. Let go of harmful thoughts. Let go of the ones that blow things out of proportion.1

What is Positive Self Talk?

Positive self talk is when you think or talk to yourself in a beneficial way. It is anything you say out loud or think to yourself that gives you a tool for improvement or inspiration.

Steps to take towards positive self talk


Before you can eliminate the stinking thinking you need to become aware of it. When you tell yourself I can’t or it’s too hard or I’m not good enough. That’s when you need to put the kibosh on that.

  • You can say out loud, Stop. Another recommendation is cancel cancel. Saying this out loud will be powerful, and it will make you more aware of how often you are stopping negative thoughts.
  • Some people snap a rubber band on their wrist to bring awareness to their negative thoughts at the time they’re happening.
  • Another way to become aware of your chatter is through mindfulness, or meditation. 5-15 minutes per day is a great start.
  • You might also try journaling to bring awareness to your thoughts.


Prepare your neural-pathways for change. This is what I do when I’m trying to make a change in my life. If I make small changes to my automatic routines that involve my short-term memory, I develop new neural-pathways, and prepare my brain to do more of that kind of work. Some of the things I might do include brushing my teeth with my non-dominant hand, changing the order of morning routine, or taking different route to work.

Use the present tense

Focus your internal talk from anxiety future talk to talk that is about the present: “What can I do right now?


Positive Affirmations

Affirmations are positive statements for preferred outcome. They are credible, focused, and brief. An important step when repeating affirmations is that you need to read your affirmations aloud with feeling.

Some Examples from Jeremy N. Johnson’s article, Positive Self Talk

Positive Affirmations for Confidence

  • I am as capable as anyone else out there
  • I know with time and effort I can accomplish anything
  • I am comfortable in front of people and say the right things

Positive Affirmations for Financial Freedom

  • I am confident in my career and I am worth a lot
  • I am successful in anything I try
  • I always keep plenty of money on hand

Positive Affirmations for Overcoming Fear/Doubt

  • I am smart, confident, and capable
  • I seek the best in other people and accept their weaknesses
  • I love challenges and the gain from overcoming them

Positive Affirmations for the Artist

  • (This is where you get to be specific to your own career)

More affirmations and more on positive self-talk on Jeremy N. Johnson’s article Positive Self Talk here

Transform Self-Limiting Statements to Questions

In Reduce Stress and Improve Your Life with Positive Self Talk: Develop the Positive Self Talk Habit! Elizabeth Scott, M.S. says that “Self-limiting statements like “I can’t handle this!” or “This is impossible!” are particularly damaging because they increase your stress in a given situation and they stop you from searching for solutions. “How can I handle this?” or “How is this possible?”

Other things you can do to build resilience.

Many experts have various advice on building resilience that includes facing your fears, doing what’s right, and drawing upon your faith. One thing that is stressed repeatedly in articles and books is building good relationships with supportive people now so that when things are not going well, and the industry lets you down, that support system will be available to you.

There are other things that build resilience such as practicing gratitude, learning from role models and physical fitness…exercise helps with mental resilience.

Remember, it’s a process, it takes time and practice. Like going to the gym and lifting weights. You become more resilient with practice. In my 20’s every comment about my work hurt. I was over-identifying with my art. When I realized that (duh) although my art came from me, it was not me, I become detached and grew more resilient. But you can see that from there to the Katonah Museum was a long time. Resilience is something that I’m still learning. Maybe the Accident Painting series addresses resilience too. In any case, I wish you all the best—strength and resilience—as you follow your passion.


Selected Bibliography:

1. Building Resilience in Children and Teensby Kenneth R. Ginsburg M.D. MSEd FAAP; American Academy of Pediatrics; 2011

2. Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being by Linda Graham, MFT; New World Library; 2013

Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. Steven M. Southwick, M.D. & Dennis S. Charney, M.D.; Cambridge University Press; 2012

2011 SENG conference, Seattle

7 Steps to Positive Self Talk; Posted on July 15, 2008, This guest post was written by Evelyn Lim


Reduce Stress and Improve Your Life with Positive Self Talk: Develop the Positive Self Talk Habit!; By Elizabeth Scott, M.S., About.com Guide; Updated April 11, 2011


Positive Self Talk; Jeremy M. Johnson, http://www.drjerm.com/Positive-Self-Talk/Positive-Self-Talk.php



Shotgun Accident, Latex on Canvas, 2009, 63" x 50" Collection of LANN Museum, Ecuador.

Lawn Dart Accident, Latex on Canvas, 2012, 54" x 50"

Ribs of Disaster Curving Their Assertion Among the Tentative Haunters, Oil on Canvas, 2009, 66" x 90"

Picture of alternate nostril breathing from Meditation Moment http://www.chopra.com/namaste/meditationmoment

Video Still from Mother May I...? Audio Visual Installation in Brooklyn NY, 2012

resiliencia from: http://www.resiliencia.n.nu/asesorias

Tree Image from: http://billboyajianassociates.com/resilience/



Urban Float: http://www.urbanfloat.com/

How to Meditate the Easy Way, Tara Stiles: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tara-stiles/how-to-meditatethe-easy-w_b_143861.html

Video: Need to relax? Take a break for meditation, By Mayo Clinic staff http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/meditation/MM00623

How to Practice Pranayama, Lisa Dawn Angerame


Video: Alternate Nostril Breathing Exercise, Ole Test


Prescriptions for Pranayama, by Claudia Cummins


A Balancing Breath Nadi Sodhana, Alternate Nostril Breathing by Ashley Freeman - RYT Sep 22, 2012


Mother May I...? Installation http://katevrijmoet.com/mother-may-i/

Category: Goals
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