Fighting Fear by Jumping in the Deep End

Today I had a great interaction with one of my students. It’s one of those interactions in which we both learn something and walk away feeling more ready to face our challenges.

Right now I have my students doing eye paintings. They can either work from a photo or from a mirror in order to paint a relatively small picture of their eye. I usually recommend a mirror, as it is a greater challenge and challenges lead to growth. The eye painting is a way for them to paint organic shapes, differentiate between assumed reality and actual reality, and work with an emphasis on accuracy. It’s tough, but can really be rewarding as the painting begins to take shape.

One of my students was struggling. She had essentially blanketed the small canvas with a relatively generic skin tone, working all around the edges and up to the shape of the eye itself, which was left completely empty. It resembled a portrait that had the eyes cut out or painted over with pure white. She had been working on this eye painting for about two and a half hours. Other students had made good progress on their paintings, some of them having finished already. I periodically checked in with her to see how things were shaping up. I could tell that she was intimidated by the idea of not getting her eye painted right and was basically distracting herself with all of the less important elements of her painting. She just kept going over all of the parts that she felt more comfortable with. Over and over and over again, she worked on that skin tone, without much variation.

When a student stalls, I conclude that they are lacking either the confidence or knowledge to move forward. So, I try to determine which it is by asking a simple question: what is preventing you from moving forward? I asked her as much. She was afraid of messing up the painting by putting the iris in. She was trying to perfect the part she felt more comfortable with before moving on.

During class, I had decided that I was going to set up my own easel to do a quick eye painting myself, so that I could potentially offer some demonstration of how to approach the project. In doing so, I ran into roadblocks and problems that I had to solve as I went. Every painter runs into a myriad of issues with every project. Values need adjusting, colors need more vibrancy, and proportions need correction. It never fails. Amateur artists to professionals – there will always be struggles.

I had discovered, in my own practice, the key to successfully addressing such challenges. More paint.

A new painter is scared of adding more paint. When you add more paint, you run the risk of messing with the ground you’ve already gained. More paint means more potential for screwing up. If you stall, you won’t feel the pain of making mistakes. If you add more paint, you will make a mistake, no doubt, but at least you’ll make progress.

I advised her to take the plunge. I likened it to a swimmer standing by a pool. They can go a toe at a time, incrementally getting into the water and torturing themselves slowly, or they can jump in and get to the heart of what they’re there for. Sometimes the swimmer should assess the water and themselves, but sooner or later it’s about the swimming. And the sooner the swimmer gets over the fear, the sooner they’ll get the joy of what’s in store for them.

I know these things because I grew up as the kid who inched into the water. I couldn’t choose a movie at the video store. I still struggle to make decisions. It’s really tough to not feel like I’m going to make a mistake that I will regret later. However, I’ve found that some of my biggest regrets have been not acting sooner. [And to just quickly address regrets in general, we should also not be afraid to let go of regrets and live in the joy and peace of our present. I personally have found those grounding boons in my relationship with God and my reading of the Bible, which helps me live with a greater perspective.]

After just twenty minutes I revisited my student to see what she had accomplished. Her iris was painted in and she had found that by painting her iris, it helped her realize an issue with the eye shape she had created initially, which she then corrected. What a great illustration of seeing relationships between shapes and values! The more we build and add, the more we can reassess what has already been built. I was so happy to see her in better spirits and with a greater sense of the joy of overcoming an obstacle in painting.

What had I learned? I learned more about challenging and encouraging my students. It can be difficult to approach a struggling student with anything other than sympathy. Saying “you can do it” is helpful, but cutting to the chase and addressing the true issue is how a person will actually do it. Anything else and I’m just feeding the student’s fears. What if I say, “you can do it,” and they smile, but inwardly feel inadequate in knowing how?

My wife and I had a pastor guide us through premarital counseling and he had some great words of wisdom for us. Instead of giving us pretend scenarios and guidelines for how to address the specifics of them, he instead opted to help us see the bigger picture. When somebody is hurting, find out why. When faced with a big decision, find out what and how. It is crucial to gather data. The more you know about something, the better you’ll be able to handle the decisions surrounding it. For the painter, this can mean putting more paint on the canvas with a desire to “flesh out” the uncertainties. For the teacher, this can mean asking the questions needed to truly help the student.

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