“It took someone calling me ‘an artist’ to give me the permission to start showing my paintings,” explains abstract painter Sandi Goodwin when we talk about how she started.
“It meant that I felt it was OK to be doing something different, that I didn’t have to be like everyone else.”
Sandi came to painting after a career in nursing and theatre production. She’d drawn for years, and had been married to an artist, but says, “I didn’t see what I did as ‘art’. I’d doodle in my meetings, on the bus and on the phone, but I’d just throw all my doodles away.”
Like Sandi, many of us need to feel permission before we can see ourselves as creatives. This is especially necessary if we didn’t have an arts education. Through normal working lives, we learn that we can only change our role or our circumstances with someone’s permission. We get promoted by others, are graded by examiners and need to be approved by someone else for mortgages, loans and even our phone contract.
We get creative in restricting our creativity
It’s so normal to need permission that it comes as a surprise that we are, in fact, free to create. That freedom feels overwhelming or too good to be true. We’re simply not used to it. On top of this, our creativity is often actively discouraged in busy, working lives. We must consider how well our ideas will be received by our managers or our clients, coworkers or families. All too often the answer is, “not very”!
What can happen is that we get creative in restricting our creativity. We learn to wrap our creativity in “buts” and preemptive apologies – “I’m sorry but…”, “it’s probably a silly idea but…”, “I can’t believe I’m saying this but…”, or worse, stop expressing our ideas or creative desires at all.
Unlearning a lifetime’s worth of restrictions
As a creativity teacher, I work with many accomplished, outwardly successful people. I was at first amazed to hear them ask for my permission. “Can I really do that?”, “Is that OK?” or “Do other people do this too?” are the questions I often hear. My answer is always, and emphatically, “yes!” and this simple permission can be transformative.
Successful, intelligent people are often those most attuned to, and affected by, the reactions of others. If we have learned that our ideas are not usually appropriate, we must unlearn a lifetime’s worth of self-imposed restrictions before we can freely create. Permission can start that process.
“I remember saying to a professional artist, ‘I would love to be an artist too’”, recalls Sandi. “She said, ‘Sandi, the way you dress is an expression of your art.’ It was a lovely comment but it reiterated that my art could only be a hobby. Many years later, being accepted as an artist gave me the permission to see myself as one.”
The permission to start your creative journey
Permission works on two of our foundations for creativity. It helps our self-esteem (we can see ourselves as artists) and it makes us feel supported by our community (someone believes in us). By saying “yes!” to my students, I give them permission to try out new things or ideas that they have wanted to explore for years. They can feel a new sense of release and self-acceptance.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t have someone else to give us that permission. We can find ourselves feeling alone with our need to create, or unsure about what we can do. Again, we could talk here about creative privilege – that some of us heard ‘yes!’ early in our creative journeys, while others only heard disapproval or silence.
“Although my husband was an artist, I was always the facilitator. It never occurred to me that I could paint, and I don’t think it occurred to him either,” says Sandi.
Tools for self-permission
To overcome this difference, we need to talk more widely about permission’s role in creativity. We also need to share tools for ‘self-permission’ – ways to reassure ourselves that, whatever our circumstances, we can, and should, get started.
One of the simplest tools we can use to give ourselves permission is an ‘affirmation’. Affirmations are short, positive statements we can repeat regularly to ourselves. They are often used in treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy because they have been shown to be effective in improving self-belief.
Some affirmations for creative self-permission
Here are two simple affirmations you can use to give yourself the permission to create:
“For these 12 days, I give myself the permission to see myself as an artist / a writer / a creative.”
“For these 12 days, I give myself the permission to take my creativity seriously.”
It may seem strange to put a twelve day time limit on our permission. We give ourselves this limit because it helps us to accept that the affirmation is possible. It can at first seem too big a leap to give ourselves permission for the rest of our days! Of course, the great thing is that once our twelve days are up… we can renew them as many times as we like.
The twelve day limit comes from the structure of my upcoming book, “The 12 Days of Creativity”, which leads you through twelve exercises based on the Creativity Triangle.
How to use the affirmations
If you’re used to setting goals in your work, you might be questioning our affirmations. They certainly aren’t what goal-setters call “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-based). That’s intentional because affirmations aren’t goals. They aren’t external achievements we need to aim for or succeed in. Instead, affirmations are more subtle. By affirming the permission we have to create, they can gradually change our internal mindset. Over time, we see ourselves as freer and more creative.
To use the affirmations, choose the one that motivates you the most. Then write a copy and keep it by your bed. Read the affirmation when you wake, and again just before you sleep, on each of your twelve days. It can be helpful to visualise yourself doing this now. When we visualise a new habit before starting, we’re more likely to make it happen.
Share your affirmation for courage and community
It can also be useful to share your affirmation more widely. There are two reasons why this can help your creativity. The first, is that by affirming your permission to others you can change your self-perception. You become the type of person who is committed to developing their creativity and openly shares this intention. For many of us, this can be an important, courageous step and something to be celebrated.
The second, is that sharing your affirmation connects you with others at this stage in their creative journeys. When we connect with others with similar values and intentions, we are more likely to maintain those values and intentions ourselves. Peer-support is an important foundation of creativity, and as such is one of the core principles of The 12 Day Society. Sharing your affirmation is a great way to start connecting with other like-minded members.
For more information on how to share your affirmation, read Share this creative affirmation to start a supportive, virtual community
Summary of the ideas
In this article we’ve learned why permission is important to creativity, and why it can be missing for many of us as we start our journeys. We heard artist Sandi Goodwin’s experience of the difference that someone’s permission made for her. We’ve shared a simple affirmation for self-permission, and seen how sharing it more widely can support our creativity. Congratulations if you have got this far!
You can read many more ideas and exercises like this by becoming a member of The 12 Day Society today (it’s free).
About the author
Bay Backner is an artist, activist and creativity educator. She is the founder of The 12 Day Society, and the author of the upcoming book The 12 Days of Creativity. Bay’s own creative path took her from a working-class background to an Oxford degree in physics, then from open source technology to painting for international art galleries.
Bay is a fully-qualified teacher and is certified by The Smithsonian Institution in teaching critical thinking through art. She is currently the resident artist and creativity teacher at a leading independent school, and teaches creative confidence from her painting studio in Valencia, Spain. Bay initially qualified as a teacher through the social change program, Teach First, and is committed to opening creative education to all.