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Creativity and Boundary-Setting, Part 2: The Limits of Responsibility

In the last post in this series, we talked about how developing the ability to say “no,” and protect our time, is important for making the kind of progress we want in our creative work.

In this post, I’ll discuss how it can help our creativity to set another kind of boundary — to stop blaming ourselves for how others experience the world.

As I’m sure you’ve learned firsthand, when we let people see our creative work, we risk getting criticized.  But criticism by itself, I think, isn’t a problem. It only becomes problematic when we take responsibility for the critic’s suffering and anger.

My Criticism Fantasy

I’ll give you an example from my own life.  While I was writing my book, I had a nagging tendency to imagine ways people might attack it.  A very specific “worst-case scenario” kept coming to mind.

The scenario involved me speaking at a bookstore.  During the question and answer period, a man stands up and launches into a tirade.  “This book doesn’t solve any real problems,” he shouts.  “I’ve got two kids, a wife and a mortgage, and no job — how does this book help me with that?”

I thought for a while about why I kept imagining this situation, and why it seemed troubling to me.  Eventually, I realized the problem was that I was taking responsibility for my fictitious critic’s suffering.

In other words, this man was basically blaming me for his situation and his emotional distress, and I was buying into his story.  But in “reality,” I didn’t create his financial problems, abuse him as a child, or do anything except tell him about my book.  When I recognized that, my body suddenly relaxed — tension I hadn’t noticed before melted away — and the fantasy no longer seemed so worrisome.

Releasing Your Responsibility

I’ve found that this kind of fantasizing is common among people who are having trouble putting their creative work “out there.”  Often, these are compassionate, empathic people.  They want to heal others’ suffering — not bring more into the world.

Unfortunately, people with this mentality (myself included, sometimes) also tend to have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for how others feel.  If someone else is hurt, they assume, I must have hurt them, and it’s my job to make it better.

The paradox is that this attitude actually prevents people from playing the healing role they desire.  Their fear of hurting others causes them to shrink away from giving their gifts to the world.  If they wrote that book or started that business, they think, somebody might get mad, and then the world would be worse off.

The key, I think, is to recognize that it’s possible to care about people without “merging” with them – without taking all of their hurt, suffering and fear upon ourselves.  Breathing deeply, and sensing the pressure of our feet against the ground, I think, is a helpful way to remember our separateness from others, and our solidity in the face of their upset and distress.

I know this was a liberating realization for me, and I hope it also helps you find the sense of ease and flow you may be seeking in your work.