I have a friend who just spent several months writing a book. It’s about her experiences while growing up in Southeast Asia, immigrating to the United States and living here afterward. She’s been excited about the writing process throughout, and she’s thrilled to finally be done. However, she recently told me, there’s just one hitch: she’s not sure she feels okay about publishing the book.
“Why don’t you feel okay publishing it?” I asked.
“I don’t know—it just feels like it would be kind of arrogant.”
“Why would it be arrogant?”
“Well, it would be like I was saying I was really special, you know? Like I’m more important than everyone else, and I have more interesting things to say than them.”
I suspect many people can identify with my friend’s concerns. I certainly can. A while back, when I was about to start submitting articles to magazines for publication, I had a similar twinge of doubt. “Who am I to assume people want to hear what I say, or find it useful?” I thought. “Isn’t it egotistical to believe that?”
Something about that idea, however, just didn’t sound right. After some reflection, I came upon the problem. I recognized that, when I was worried that it would be arrogant for me to make my writings publicly available, my real concern was that I was going to somehow harm others by publishing. I was afraid other people would see my work and think “who does he think he is, saying those things? He must think he’s better than us.” And they would feel envious, contemptuous and angry. Or perhaps they’d conclude I didn’t know what I was talking about, and be outraged that a “hack” like me dared to put his work in the public domain.
But hold on a minute, I thought. What’s more arrogant—simply making my writing available to people, or believing I can make people suffer just by publishing a few articles? Wouldn’t I need a very inflated perception of my importance to think I could hurt people’s feelings just by writing? Wouldn’t I have to believe the world was carefully poring over my every written word, looking for something to get outraged about? In short, I’d need to have a pretty egocentric mindset to withhold my writing from the world for fear of upsetting people.
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo makes similar observations in discussing the personality traits of shy people. At first glance, one would suspect that people who avoid, or get awkward while, interacting with others see themselves as insignificant and unable to affect other people’s lives with their actions. Shy people keep to themselves, one would think, because they basically believe they don’t matter.
However, as Zimbardo writes, often the opposite is true—shy people hold back in interactions because they’re convinced that people are constantly regarding them with a critical gaze, and that even the most trivial things they say and do have the power to seriously hurt and anger others. As Zimbardo puts it, “the egocentric preoccupation of shyness leads people to see themselves as being at stage center,” and thus “shyness leaves them intensely fearful of being noticed by hosts of critical reviewers.”
When we withhold our creativity from others for fear of angering them or making them jealous, we make the same kind of assumption—that everyone is examining our work with a jaundiced eye, looking for something to attack us or get offended about. This assumption, however, isn’t realistic. People have their own lives to live, and are occupied with achieving their own goals and overcoming their own obstacles. Most people aren’t likely to develop personal grudges against us based on our creative activities, or suffer over our supposed “arrogance” for doing them.
What’s more, if someone doesn’t like our creative work, no one is forcing them to read it, watch it, or do whatever else is necessary to take it in. If my friend publishes her book and someone finds it inadequate or offensive, they can stop reading it, throw it away, write a nasty review of it, or do a wide range of other (hopefully legal) things to express their displeasure. We can’t really be said to “hurt” others by making the fruits of our creativity publicly available, as others are ultimately responsible for deciding whether to expose themselves to it.
I’m not saying you should shame yourself for being “arrogant” if you’re worried about unleashing your creativity on the world. I do think, however, that if you’re concerned about others’ possible negative reactions, it’s useful to ask yourself how realistic those concerns are. Will your work really be the object of the world’s judgmental gaze? Is there really a risk that you’ll somehow hurt people or disrupt their lives with what you create? Seriously considering this question will likely help you find the courage and determination to freely give your creative gifts.
(This article appeared in the Energies of Creation Carnival, located at http://www.energiesofcreation.com/carnival-of-creative-growth/carnival-of-creative-growth-26/.)