Authenticity and Its Insecurities

I have been painting my clothes for several years now. It started with painting shoes, than T-shirts, and dresses. My needs for authenticity, contribution, being seen, and self-expression are all met when I paint and when I wear my art. It also inspires others to do the same, and I’m always excited to share the process and tools.

Last year, when I got engaged, I wasn’t sure exactly what my wedding dress would look like, but I was sure I wanted to paint it. When friends asked about my wedding dress, I shared my intention. I received some support and some criticism about it. Both relevant but it didn’t matter. The decision had been made. It was hard to find a dress that I would be willing to paint, until a dear friend recommended a local shop in Brooklyn that makes custom dresses. I chose the high/low shape I wanted, and the dress was ready about five weeks before the wedding.

The original plan was to decorate the dress with little gold and silver flowers. My then fiancé bought per my request, gold and silver fabric ink, and he added green and orange (his favorite colors) to the mix. Right away I told him I wasn’t going to use orange…

When the days approached for me to paint the dress (I had a weekend to do so before I was flying to be with him), self-doubt and negative self-talk crippled my creativity. Some of the thoughts included: Why did you tell people you were going to paint the dress? The dress is beautiful as it is, just wear it white. You are no Monet, what were you thinking? I was feeding myself with judgment of how people would react to my painting, and with my own judgment. I’m after all just a hobby painter, and I’m fully aware of my limited capabilities. It was a challenge not to let the inner critic win.

I spent all Saturday playing with the sample fabric I got from the shop owner, changing my vision and sketches several times, while trying to manage the voices within. It became clear that the silver painting and the original vision would not work. On Sunday I changed the whole plan. I was no longer going to paint the front of the dress or use silver. I decided to use more colors and paint two flowers, even though the pieces of fabric I had were done, and there was no test left to do.

I was inspired by sunflowers, and the fact that when the sun is behind clouds, they turn to each other. I attempted to paint two flowers facing each other (with the inner critic right there wishing I had learned how to paint to give a 3D effect). I connected their heart shaped leaves, to show our connection and love for each other. I also painted two butterflies, which have unique and special meaning for each of us. Then, my hand got paint on it, and it touched the dress. I had an extra unplanned dot in between the two flowers. The way I fixed it was by painting a bunch of dots, forming a line and connecting both flowers, as to demonstrate that they had each other’s backs. In the end, I did use orange, green and blue.

During the reception in Brazil, those who didn’t know my plan, mentioned that they heard a rumor that I painted the dress, and they appreciated my effort and complimented me on what I had done.

Since the wedding was in my hometown, people back home I had shared my intention with, are only now seeing pictures of the dress. Many express their disappointment: “I thought you were going to paint the whole dress…” I’ve heard this comment several times. Although it was never my intention to do so, I understand their point of view. Nobody has said that I’m not talented, a horrible painter, or “what were you thinking?” though.

The whole process got me thinking about how the desire to be accepted, loved, seen a certain way, may have the ability to cut our wings, and keep us “safe” in a place of compliance, contraction, and avoidance, rather than living in a place of authenticity, openness and self-reliance.

I have no regrets (well perhaps the dress, which seemed fine on the hanger but not so much in the wedding pictures “should” have been pressed but I digress), and I’m delighted by the outcome.

Lessons learned when overcome by the voices within:

Inner critic – The inner critic may sometimes also be influenced by perhaps not even too real expectations of how others would perceive us. If we learn to let go of how we want to be perceived, life can be lighter.

Accountability matters – Once I shared with whoever asked about the dress that I was going to paint it, I felt accountable to doing so. Although, it was ultimately up to me to change my mind, and I ended up adding perhaps unnecessary pressure to myself, having shared my plans gave me the extra strength to move through the inner critic and do it anyway.

Self-acceptance is key – From the beginning, I knew that a mistake could happen, and I told myself and a friend, that if I made a mistake, it would be incorporated in the painting, because that’s real life.

Flexibility and Trust in Self – Once I realized the original vision I had considered for weeks, wouldn’t work, I trusted my ability to simply paint, and gave myself permission to adapt, change and come up with a more doable plan on the spot.

Authenticity – I never imagined myself wearing a mermaid or princess dress, they aren’t me. Therefore, my authenticity showed up through my painting, regardless of how others may experience it, this is me.

How about you? How are you showing up authentically in the world? How are you managing your inner critic if it shows up?

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Elisa Balabram

Elisa Balabram is a lecturer, teacher and learner, writer, and author. This story first appeared on her website