Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Power of Self-Limiting Messages: And Drawing Straight Lines

Recently, I have taken up painting. Not the painting of buildings type but the artistic kind, although not sure what I’ve been painting could be called close to art, as of yet. I’m just six months into this new experiment with life and I’ve produced some reasonable efforts. What is even more interesting is that I have learned that I can draw. My birds, people and objects approximate what they are meant to look like, the proportions are good and others can tell what they are.

Since I was around 14 I have never tried to paint or draw. I was wont to quip that I couldn’t draw a straight line to save my life. The reason for this was that I developed an aversion to art when a teacher gave me 5% for an art exam and basically suggested I do science instead. I recall that day and I recall the painting that I did-it was pretty awful, a deep brown blob. The mark I got may have been generous like the joke about getting some marks for just turning up for an exam and writing your name. I duly went off to the science labs and never destroyed a nice white canvas again.

I have to agree with the teacher that I had no aptitude for art at all, at the time. But, of course, that was not the point. The complete lack of encouragement and writing me off as a dud had the effect of keeping me from a wonderfully creative experience for over 50 years. I suspect this is more true for those who have problems with being sporty and who are left on the sidelines rather than included, then lose interest in being active altogether.

I just love painting and, if left to my own devices and not disrupted by the  Director of Nursing waving the list of jobs to do around the house at me, will spend hours sitting at the easel. I am besotted.

What’s more, it is helping with other areas of my life, such as writing. And I seem to be having more good ideas lately. The evidence suggests that activating the creative parts of the brain will cause them to be active for some time afterwards. I always use creative activities to my workshops for this reason.  However, the point being that one does not have to be Renoir but just being creative is enough to have positive effects on my life.

As a psychologist I very frequently meet people who have self-limiting thoughts, usually implanted by an adult early in life, and nearly always without conscious malice. The malicious undermining of the self-esteem of another is a different matter, and it does happen, sadly.  Some people I meet struggle with these self-limiting messages all their lives. These are the ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’, ‘oughts’ and ‘cannots’ that get in the way of doing things that might ultimately fulfill us.

I also think that this can happen to adults too. Women in abusive relationships are a good example although they may have had some experience of abuse early in life as a model, so they don’t expect much else, although this is not true all the time.

As a psychologist, what interests me is how powerful these messages are: that we would take the opinion of another and believe it to be true. We are enormously fragile in a psychological sense. It behooves us to be aware of this when we make comments, even throw away ones, to children, family members, colleagues and those we manage at work.

The good news is that these self-limiting thoughts can be reversed. See your friendly local psychologist or send me an email and I can point you to some reading, if you are interested.

So, here I am, artist in the making. Still can’t draw straight lines but the great thing about art is that you don’t have to. Straight lines hardly exist in nature and they are boring anyway.

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  1. My equivalent to this could end up being another crack at some computer courses this year.

    Back in the late nineties, as a result of an industrial accident I ended in hospital. Eventually a (neuro) psychologist put me through a series of tests and solemnly concluded that I wasn't much cop at factory work and should go to uni instead.

    I was told this should be for arts/humanities/maybe soc science subjects rather than for anything to do with engineering, architecture etc, my spatial intelligence (memory?) wasn't that much good apparently.

    It rang true though. At school I had ran foul of maths/physics chem early and you couldnt hope for tertiary education later, so I ended up factory fodder and was often in strife doing stuff that knockabouts who wouldn't have known Sartre from satire did in their sleep.

    I soon discovered that to avoid binning whole reems of A4 trying to write comprehensible papers that I would have to finally bite the bullet and learn computers, some thing else I seem to lack an aptitude for.

    So began many years of agony, but also enjoyment as I learned to use word processing etc also learning how to navigate the magical world wiki-space.

    But, so help me god, If some exceptionally simple tasks remain still outside of my grasp and pride stings, maybe Ive reached the stage where I could restore a bit of self esteem and nail down a few more things whilst having not much better to do.

    Paul Walter

    1. Thanks for your response Paul. Sometimes its more about dealing with the 'pride' thing that you mention. Stuffing up is how we learn and the more we laugh at it the more likely we are to keep going. Its interesting that the psychological gurus are thinking of making hope a formal personality trait with the other 5 because it consistently predicts behaviour such as perseverance.

      Take care,


  2. Hi Stewart, I've been teaching my friends' children to draw and the first thing we do every week is draw lines! A small page of parallel vertical lines, then a page of horizontal lines, then maybe some diagonals or circles. When I first suggest it the kids think I'm an idiot, but we do it together, and it really helps to focus our minds to the activity. Pencil on paper, an even pressure, letting the mind work with the eye and hand. It's a very simple activity but worthwhile. Perhaps you could give it a go before you start your next painting?

    My black spot is writing - I find it very hard getting ideas out of my head and into words, in fact I feel slightly anxious right now. Any suggestions as to how I can get words on paper/screen would be gratefully received!

    With thanks,


    1. Hi Lynn. One of the best things I ever learnt about writing was in a creative writing course. It was suggested we write in pencil, as we had as children and that we just throw our thoughts down on paper. The idea was to learn NOT to edit, rather just let the mind flow. The mantra was, write, write some more, write even more THEN edit. When we write on a computer we tend to edit and it interrupts the flow. Edit later.

      It also helps to have an ego that suggests that you have something to tell the world, that the world will want to hear and not be too surprised when a good chunk of the world doesn't care.

      A guy I met in an art shop told me that it is important to paint for yourself and not for other people otherwise it is not you and probably not creative. I think the same can be said for writing.

      Take care,