Have you gone to a Paint Nite event? They seem to be sweeping the country, or at least the Mid-Atlantic, or at least the women I know, who keep posting pictures on Facebook, all holding up a variation of the same painting, all with smiles on their faces and ecstatic posts about the fun they’d had.
My school recently held a painting evening with a local group, and after hearing a colleague/friend rave about paint nights, I decided to sign up. This is parent conference season, as well as being a few weeks from the end of first quarter, as well as busy times for the student groups I advise, but taking a few hours to myself sounded like a good self-care strategy, and painting seemed like a fun experiment for the evening.
I decided to walk to school, arriving a little more sweaty than I had hoped, to find that my friend hadn’t been able to register after all. While I knew some of the other participants from work, everyone else had arrived in chummy little groups, and I definitely felt like the odd one out. Mingling and making small talk is not one of my strengths–it’s one of my fear triggers, certainly, and I could feel my heart begin to race.
Paint nights operate on a “see it, do it” system, with an instructor and example at the front, walking you through each step as you reproduce each stroke, with plenty of room to choose your own colors and add your own flourishes. Our group was working on a crab, that iconic Maryland symbol, using acrylic paints on a rectangle of canvas. I work well on the “see it, do it” method in my life, but I haven’t had to be a student in a setting where I don’t excel in many years. As I lined up to make my paper-plate-palette, I put dollops of each color around the rim, only to have the instructor tease me a little about the piles of paint I’d taken. I began to twitch, wondering if I was doing it all wrong.
Wait, I hear you saying. It’s a Paint Nite. Why would you be nervous? Drink some wine, slap some paint on the canvas, have a solo night out and relax. Seriously. Dial it down a notch.
That’s exactly what I would have done, but sometimes, when you’re navigating some personal quicksand, it’s harder to stay steady on your feet, to maintain the balance you work so hard to achieve. Also I don’t drink, so the wine was not going to fix things.
I’m doing this all wrong, I texted my sister, who’s been my rock lately. NO WAY YOU’RE AWESOME, she texted back. I DEMAND CRAB PICS.
I had stepped aside from the group to send my text messages, and before I sat back down, I gave myself a minute to do a little self-examining. What exactly am I so afraid of in this moment? What distorted thoughts are getting under my skin right now? I decided that the idea of “doing it wrong” had somehow gotten into a loop in my mind, and I’d lost track of why I’d thought this might be fun in the first place. Instead of a relaxing activity, I’d turned this into a risky experiment, when really there was nothing at stake here except my own insecurity. I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism, and where in my life I feel paralyzed at the idea that I might not measure up, and how setting high standards for myself might be shutting me out of stretching myself in new ways. Did I come into this experience because I have always longed for a homemade painting of a crab? Of course not. I came into it wanting some novelty and some joy, and the only obstacle in my way was myself.
I sat down, picked up the brush, and turned on an internal soundtrack: my favorite current burst of sonic bubblegum, which coincidentally encourages us to let go of whatever might be bringing us down. I dabbed on paint, was a little dismayed when it seemed way too dark, listened to the instructor talk about adding shadow and dimension, and revised my painting several times. I chose cool tones, watching my grapey-purple and cerulean crab float against a tranquil blue background.
Gaze upon my Anxiety Crab, I told my sister when I texted her the picture. I brought it home and tilted it on our piano, a tangible reminder of what I tell my students all the time about the perfect being the enemy of the good, and of how valuable and important it can be to take a risk and see what you are capable of when you let yourself try.