The importance of self-compassion when learning a new skill

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If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed that my latest obsession is flower photography. Last week I went to a workshop on the topic, the standard of which was slightly advanced for me. There I found out, as I’d suspected, that I was doing a lot of things wrong.

It would be unrealistic to expect me to be anything other than amateur. I’ve only owned a camera for the last three months. Before that, I had no experience whatsoever. I follow professional photographers online, and some of their images are utterly mesmerising. The result of artistic talent combined with decades of experience and knowledge of technique.

I like sharing my photos with friends, but I don’t have any illusions about them. Because I’ve reached the psychological learning stage of conscious incompetence. The point where I know enough about the art form to be aware of how much I still don’t know.

It makes me think back to fourteen years ago, when I starting writing fiction for the first time since leaving school. It was a different experience from the photography. I knew at once that this was more than a hobby. It was like falling in love. I’d found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I absolutely adored that first novel. But of course, it too was full of rookie mistakes, as I discovered after I’d sent it to a publisher.

Authors sometimes say ‘the book practically wrote itself’. What they’re describing is being in flow. A state of consciousness where you’re so absorbed in a creative activity that you lose all sense of yourself and time passing. Everything you do feels natural and effortless, although your brain is actually working very hard.

I love writing in flow. It’s amazing. I feel privileged to have found something I love doing so much. But the downside of discovering the flow state is that it can give you the impression that writing is easy. That it’s an innate gift that requires no development. That all you have to do is pour your words out onto the page.

Learning to write well is excruciatingly hard. That first inspired draft that emerges from your subconscious is only the start. There are months ahead of rewriting and editing and receiving feedback that makes you want to weep, and editing again. And knowing your opening sentence is still not right.

Learning means accepting that as beginners, we may be full of ability and passion, but we’re lacking in skill. We’re not yet equipped with the tools that empower us to fulfil our creative potential. We have to master so many things: point of view, dialogue, characterisation, etc., and none of that is achievable overnight.

This can be emotionally challenging to hear. Obviously, no one enjoys being criticised or feeling inadequate. But it’s especially hard when we’re sure we’ve discovered our life purpose, and it turns out we’re not that great at it, and we might not be for years.

After making the transition from unconscious to conscious incompetence, it’s tempting to give up or to stay where we are. When we see that the road ahead is darker than we’d imagined. That we’ll have to endure a gruelling mountain ascent to enjoy the beautiful views from the summit.

I believe hard work and sacrifice are intrinsic to any artistic career. But I also believe we can lessen our suffering by being compassionate to ourselves and each other on our journey.

We’ve all been taught to judge and compare our work. But isn’t it better for us to be kind and respectful towards our first artistic creations? Yes, they’re imperfect, and we feel frustrated that they’re nothing like the work of the artists we admire. But they’re also an essential part of our growth. We made them the best we could, with love and care. They are what they need to be right now.

We shouldn’t accept cruelty from anyone else either. Constructive criticism is never about mocking or belittling your creative efforts. If someone makes you feel crushed or discouraged, no matter who they are, don’t share your work with them. Search for a mentor instead.

None of us are alone. Even the greatest authors had to learn their craft. The vast majority go through years of practice, rejection and self-doubt before achieving success. Finding a supportive community can help you through those tough times. Equally, an encouraging word to another writer or artist can make their day.

Documenting our progress can help us to see how far we’ve come. Admittedly, it can feel somewhat embarrassing in five years’ time to re-read our early work. But it’s testament to our perseverance and willingness to learn, which more than anything else will determine whether or not we reach a professional level.

The picture above is one I took following the photography workshop. It’s not going to win  any awards, but I’m proud that it’s better than I could have done a few months ago.  And I like the shine of the raindrops, and the brightness of the yellow.

It makes me feel hopeful about what lies ahead.

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4 thoughts on “The importance of self-compassion when learning a new skill

  1. Thanks for the blog Catherine. It means something to me from a poetry, song writing and counselling perspective. Not being the expert or perfect immediately can feel frustrating. Knowing its going to take years and tears is almost a complete defeat. Compassion is most definitely a soothing balm. I had the opportunity to attend a mindful compassion workshop on Sunday which allowed me to sit with acceptance of self. Even though only a few hours it helped to ground and strengthen my resolve. Good luck. Lovely picture. X

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    • Thanks so much! It’s nice to hear it meant something to you. I’m actually having compassion-focused therapy at the moment, which was partly the inspiration for writing this. I’ve also been to some mindfulness workshops which I found useful as well. I’m glad it worked for you too.

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