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  • Elise V Allan

My Good Friend, Anxiety

first published August 2018


I blame creativity coaching. In an exercise, as a coaching student, where we co-coached on the topic of our work spaces, I complained that my studio felt less welcoming than I’d like, because it was stuffed with old paintings.  The intention arose to go through all of them, including the rolled up canvasses stored in the garage. So last November, when I was offered the opportunity to show in a beautiful big exhibition space, with the possibility of using three floors, I decided to do a retrospective.

It’s quite something to take on a bigger project than I’m used to – and this is bigger on several counts. There’s the number of paintings, and the fact that I’m selecting from over forty years of work. There’s the emotional impact of looking again so closely at my past, which is like re-reading a lifetime of diaries. And, on top of that, I’d made a decision to write a small catalogue, and to learn how to design it.

But as a coach, if I’m going to support others to go beyond their comfort zone, then I’d better walk the walk...

I’ll be hanging the exhibition in less than a week. Over the last months there have been some times when I’ve felt less enthusiastic about being stretched. And I’ve learned some new things about dealing with anxiety. For my levels of anxiety have risen to heights that I didn’t expect. I believed that the ways I’d learned to work at steadying myself would be enough. But I’ve found out that anxiety has an important job. At the points where it peaked, it was letting me know my physical, intellectual and emotional limits, helping me pace myself, and nudging me to ask for help.

During the summer I began to look through the old rolled up canvasses from the garage. I suspected that I wouldn’t choose to exhibit any of them; I’d left the best ones on their stretchers. But I wanted to do a complete inventory, and it could only happen in dry weather, using the space in the garden. I discovered that I could only look at about six a day.  Each painting brought back intense feeling-memories, and I needed time to digest them. It was more than a selection process. I have a great support network in which I can reflect, and I asked for, and received, help in working with these processes and in maintaining a bigger perspective.

The intellectual challenge was to write the booklet/catalogue and design it. My inner critic was pretty keen to gate-crash this party. I’ve written previously that I’d had a lesson in using InDesign from a graphic designer colleague, who also checked my final design before it went to print. I asked for feedback about the writing from three people, including a more experienced writer, and took their comments on board, too. I asked another graphic designer friend for a recommendation of a cheap fast printer with a tolerant attitude to an amateur designer, and he immediately sent a link for an online printer that took just a few days, and was easy to use. And meanwhile, my graphics colleague cheered me on throughout the process.

Many of the physical challenges have involved enormous amounts of help from my husband, including hiring a van to pick up a painting from where it was being looked after in his cousin’s warm house rather than lying in our cold garage. When the van turned out to be smaller than advertised - and smaller than the painting - he arranged to go into work later than usual, got the van changed as soon as the van hire opened and picked up the painting before work. After work, he returned the van and cycled home.

But he can’t be available during the hanging of the exhibition. It’s going to be a big job, with three floors, walls needing drilled to take mirror plates. The next wave of anxiety was a big one. My contact at the gallery, which is within a college, is a capable man, but with the number of paintings, some of them large, and some heavy, I know I don’t have the strength and skill to do what’s needed in the time available.  I have a couple of friends who’ll come along to assist, but three sleepless nights let me know that I wanted more help. Then I remembered an art school friend who has retired early, and is a DIY whiz. I texted him to ask for help and he was not only delighted, but said he’d ask a former colleague to come too.  So I have my team. I slept again on the fourth night.

My relationship to anxiety is changing.  When it arose at first, I fought it, and felt frustrated and ashamed that I couldn’t just shake it off. But it’s pushed me to look at the facts of what I could do alone, and ask for help when it’s needed. And the people I’ve asked for help have been incredibly generous in giving it.  I’ve learned to pace myself; I’m naturally impatient, and I’ve had to face the fact that where there’s an emotional impact in a task, it’s going to take time for what’s been stirred up to settle again.  Where there’s a skill to be learned, I can learn, and I can ask for feedback.  I’m incredibly grateful for all the help I’ve had. And credit goes too, to my new friend, anxiety, for making me pause and consider asking for it.

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