How Trusting Yourself Can Help You Grow As An Artist

(I have a long background working with actors, writers and creatives. I found that the issues we struggle with in the process of bringing our best, most personal work into the world are often the same issues many of us face in other areas of life. Whether you’re a creative or not, take a few minutes for this article. I think there might be something here for you)

A while ago a student in a screen acting class I was teaching said that he had to work hard to really crush down his habits. He even made a crushing action with his fist into his hand to emphasise the point. 

I was slightly horrified. But some of that horror was recognition – I’ve done exactly the same thing. I spent years hammering myself about what kind of actor/writer/coach I had to be. I’m still a work in progress. Before that I had it drilled into me in my actor training in Australia that I had all sorts of habits I had to fix or I’d never work. 

I think many of us in the creative fields and in other fields of work and life have contorted ourselves to be anything but ourselves in an attempt to fit what we were told was the model mould.

(As I think about it now, I recall that when I went on to do some training in the UK, not one of the teaching staff there mentioned those habits that, in Australia, were apparently holding me back. So sometimes it’s about whether or not you’re in the right place. More about that below…)

I’m going to write about the arts and creative work here, but as I talk to more and more people in other industries – tech, sales and many others – I see that more and more of us are dealing with the same issue.

What is a habit, anyway? 

Here’s a simple definition we can use for this discussion:

In our creative training and work, a habit is an outward expression of a much more complex and interesting story. We might also have internal habits – which we might experience as inner tension/relaxation/feeling in certain areas of the body, habits of thought.

In our professional and personal life, it can be helpful to encourage us to see how we habitually respond to situations.

A teacher can be helpful here to point out that we may not even know that we’re acting in a certain way. Our reactions may be outside our awareness and only pop up at moments when we feel we need to use a layer of habit to help us feel comfortable in the situation we find ourselves in.

And there’s nothing wrong with helping people to become more aware of themselves.

The Upside of Investigating Our Habits

There’s nothing essentially wrong with helping actors to see, for example, that if they can channel the energy of a habit through the whole body rather than, for example, a waving or twitching arm, they’ll often find that energy flows through the body differently and gives them an extra interesting way of playing a scene. 

Some actors find that their faces tense up when they try to convey emotion. When they take a moment to acknowledge that experience, rather than fighting against it, and play the moment rather than pushing themselves to stop feeling what they’re feeling, we see them, we see their emotions, we see the importance of this moment in the scene.

Habits don’t pop up out of nowhere, a knee-jerk reaction to a situation, a place, a scene, a task, an assignment. 

Habits develop with repetition through our life. Those repetitions come from a belief and experience that, once upon a time, they were very useful and important in keeping us safe, or helped us to belong to a family or a culture that responded to life in a certain way. 

So, we can add another aspect to our definition of habit: Your habits are the result of your experience and interpretation of your world so far. 

A habit – of speech, of movement, of interpreting and expressing emotions and thoughts in certain ways and not in others –  is a well-defined story we perform about who we are, how we do things, how we see life, how we’ve been taught that life is and how we can express it. 

A habit, like a story, has a past and a present. It has given circumstances when it appears, and it shapes our beliefs and choices which then are reflected in our actions and behaviour.

As artists, our habits may pop up in moments when things become intense, when we’re dealing with art and process that involves significant emotion or what seems to be a ‘small’ emotional / story moment that has a strong resonance for us and our personal history.

That habit might not serve us that well as an actor or artist in our training, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a ‘bad’ habit. 

It may well mean it’s a dominant habit, a result of an often-told story in our lives and perhaps the lives and beliefs of our family, culture, our ancestors. Perhaps the beliefs that underpin our habitual responses have been unquestioned. And yes, it’s helpful to widen and deepen your capacity. 

If there’s a dominant story, or a dominant habit, we can be sure there’s another habit and story that’s within us that tells a different story and allows a different way to respond. That story may not have had the opportunity to grow and develop in the same way.

Maybe the stronger habit became dominant because when we acted that way, people in our world recognised us. Maybe it kept us out of trouble. Maybe it even helped us to be invisible when we didn’t want to be seen. Think of all the comedians we know who honed that skill at school because they got laughs for being the Funny One.

Those habits aren’t bad – in fact, they can be very useful over the course of our lives. 

The point of our training and our self-development as artists is not (or should not be) to repress or squash dominant habits.

It’s much more useful to notice what we’re doing at that moment when it pops up unexpectedly. 

This process involves simply noticing what we’re doing with simple awareness of, oh, this is happening now. 

There’s no need for judgement. There’s no need to beat ourselves up about it – although if that happens, it might be useful to notice that too, and notice whose voice that criticism reminds you of.

This process invites curiosity rather than repression. It invites us to see ourselves in context. Rather than ‘making it wrong’, it gives you the opportunity to see that the habit is in you but that you are not that habit. You’re more than that. 

That moment of noticing and asking creates a small but definite inner space within us. 

In that space, we can see what other belief, emotion, action might come up. We can see that response we might have used, the one that’s had less attention paid to it. There might be other thoughts, feelings, memories that arise with the less used response. 

Maybe it wasn’t safe to express that emotion. Maybe we were heavily criticised for writing in a particular style. Maybe we weren’t allowed to show up in a certain way because others in the family/group were already taking that position. 

It’s often helpful to remember those times when it was very useful to have that response and it was very helpful to us.

Some of these habits got you a long way in life and in your profession and developed for a reason. And now you can develop more practices and processes that give you more freedom to express your work. 

That’s very different from being told, ‘that habit is bad’ and ‘that habit is good’. Context matters.

We can encourage that habit, With practice and care, to grow and to give us more options, a wider palette, and a broader perspective as artists.

We’re Carrying Around Other People’s Baggage

I think a lot of us in the arts – performing, visual, and any other kind – have been taught that we have to be hard on ourselves to be any good. 

We’re told we need to identify and get rid of habits. We are told they hold us back, they keep us from developing our range, stop us from working in different styles and fields. It’s strongly reinforced that they limit our capacity to show emotion and express important moments in the story. So they tell us. 

When you’re in the process of training, it often feels like these comments aren’t presented as merely comments. They’re more announcements of The Right Way To Be. Students sometimes harshly judged – based on whether or not they fit the moulds and whether or not they respond to their school’s notes.

My postgrad research focused on actors’ experiences in training and the industry. I spoke to a number of actors who had studied in internationally recognised schools and who had worked in big cities, centres for film, TV and theatre. I interviewed them about the impact of comments and criticisms of teachers and ‘industry professionals’. How these actors were pushed to conform to a mould and a way of presenting as actors. I also talked to them about how they carried those criticisms and stories with them as professional actors and the impact on their professional wellbeing and mental health.

Many actors I spoke to carry pain from the ways they were cajoled and, in some cases, bullied to eliminate certain ways of speaking, moving and being.

I also found that many teachers had a definition of habits as: 

A habit is a behaviour that needed to be stamped out. 

In some cases, that definition shifted to

Habits are behaviours that don’t reflect the way we do things at this school – the school for which you are very lucky to have been selected.

Our Habits Are Trying To Serve Us, Not Hinder Us

Almost EVERY person I’ve worked with has had a difficult experience with being labelled and limited. Some of the best actors I work with found their habits increased during their training. As we investigated what happened, it became clear that those habits increased because the actor didn’t feel safe in the classroom.

All these misguided attempts missed an important point – our habits and tendencies come from somewhere

They have formed over our lifetimes to help us deal with situations, protect us and defend us from feelings or people or situations that we found uncomfortable or unsafe. They may also be reflex actions to positive or happy situations according to our cultural and family upbringing.

But – in the course of my training, my work with professional actors, writers, directors and creatives of all stripes, one thing has been consistent. 

To be clear:

I haven’t found hammering people on negative habits to be even remotely effective in helping them develop as artists and creative, whether that’s acting, writing or anything else.

On the contrary, it not only harms the actor’s development but can seriously damage their beliefs about themselves, their emotional and mental health.

In my experience as a student, practitioner, teacher and coach, pushing people hard to squash habits that the school or the teacher doesn’t like is a simplistic, outdated and at times dangerous way of teaching.

I have found that there are much better ways to talk about, work with and develop habits that help people than pushing them on the narrative that ‘you won’t be an artist until you get rid of your tendency to (fill in your own experience here)’.

So why, when we walk into a training which is intended to help us become more internally connected and able to express our own artistic truth, do we find that our habits are so harshly judged? As being ‘wrong’ or ‘limited’ or as a sign that we need to be ‘fixed’? And that we are often judged for having them?

Training Still Helps

To be clear at this point: I’m pro training, in general. If you want to be an artist, by all means train. Develop your voice. Develop your palette of expression. Learn how to relax and shape your body so you have a greater physical capacity to portray characters. Study writing. Study different forms and worlds of visual art. Learn how to inhabit different styles of performance, character, text, all of it. Take in as much as you can. And a good school will be full of guides along the path to open up your vision and plant good seeds for how you can grow in your creative life.

The best kind of training does all this and more – it opens your awareness and your capacity to see and experience the world and gives you more and more tools to reflect your experience back to us based on your personal interpretation.

Vigorous training develops strong positive habits and opens you to new possibilities.

Good training can instil beliefs, habits and ways of seeing the world that can make a foundation for how we see life itself, let alone creative practice.

The right exposure to the right teacher can open new worlds for you as a creative person that you’d never discover on your own.

This becomes a way of seeing and working in art and the world. You can take the model of looking for new ways to create and express and make a full creative process and life using that mindset and those beliefs.

If you work with a teacher who sees this way, your acting and creative training is a foundation for life as well as work, no matter where you go and what you do.

The flip side of that: my experience and research shows that you won’t be helped by punishing yourself or internalising the punishment of teachers who criticise you harshly for responding to the world through reflex and reaction. Because – 

You’ll Get More of What You Focus On

You have to stop doing that with your voice!

You’re too tense! Relax!



Instructors will claim that these comments are meant to help the actor ‘solve the problem’. 

But very often, these comments only focus on the problem itself – and that’s a big problem. You’ll never find a solution to the problem by looking hard at the problem and saying to yourself, I must never do that again! 

Because, as race car drivers will tell you, you go where you’re looking. If you’re skidding toward the wall, you wrap the wheel and look toward the road you’re trying to correct to. Otherwise you look straight at the wall and your brain processes are: wall, wall, wall CRASH.

But in some acting institutions, the focus is on ‘correcting’. So the actor, often diligent, sensitive and holding themselves open to the input of the instructor, goes away and pushes hard to remove that thing they’ve been criticised for.

The problem? They haven’t been given a positive direction, a direction towards anything. They’re stuck trying to get away from Doing That Thing. 

Often, no matter how much the actor tries, when pressure rises in a scene or in a mentally/emotionally intense experience, that habit will jump out again with full force.

Why? Because the more you’re drilled to push away and repress your habits, the more force and tension you put into your physical and emotional body. 

It’s also been my experience that

If you focus so strongly on the negative, you will end up making yourself smaller. 

Why? Because, as many psychotherapeutic modalities tell us, when you repress one part of your self, you repress a lot of others by default. 

I’ve seen many artists trained to focus on the ‘negative’ aspects of themselves and their identity as actors, myself included. 

That vigilance turned us into our own worst critics and censors. It did nothing to help us identify our talents, our unique capacity as artists. It sent us into our heads and turned us into our own worst censors.

It made us smaller as actors, writers and makers of work. It diminished our confidence and belief in ourselves as people who could create spontaneously in the moment. We were constantly and anxiously self-policing every action we took in case it didn’t measure up to what our teachers insisted was ‘right’ – which should have read, ‘right for them’.

Worse, many actors I work with today have been told their work contains bad habits not because they’re getting in the way of their work, but because the teacher has prejudices against what the style or technique the student is using.

I’ve had a couple of great teachers who encouraged the hell out of every actor they worked with. There was a lot of accountability – it wasn’t an easy ride – but that encouragement brought out new, interesting and unique aspects of each actor’s character and personality. 

The Good News – Work With All Of Yourself, Not Just Your Habits

So how do you make space, discover your own personal stories and processes that open you up as creatives?

When a habit comes up – it’s showing you that something important is there, maybe below the surface.

Take it as a signal to notice what’s happening. Notice where in your body it’s coming from. Now allow that experience to be there AND do the line, the action, the scene with that experience as it’s happening. 

Accept it and allow it, rather than push it away.

I’ve also found it’s also important to spend time focusing on what’s going well. If you feel there’s only a small amount of your work is good – that’s a great place to begin. I mostly work with actors on screen, which has made it easier, to be honest. I can play back the moments in the scene or the test that really sing and we can ask, honestly, with forensic intensity, how did that happen? What did you do to make that good and how can you do it again?

In my experience as a student and a teacher, the single most effective practice as a teacher is the relentless encouragement of what’s working, backed up with accountability, curiosity and practice, practice, practice.

As an actor, if you can find 2 seconds of a scene that works, you can look at those two seconds and ask yourself 

What was happening in those two seconds that made that so good?

With a little experimentation, you can do four seconds that works. That sounds like a small measure but in fact it’s a 100% improvement. 

Four seconds quickly leads to being able to bring more of yourself to half a page. From there, you can get to a page, then two pages, and and pretty soon you’re ready to shoot a scene. And sometimes your professional screen tests are only one – two pages long.

Are you a writer? You can find that one sentence that works and ask yourself what was happening in you and with you at that time that lead you to write that and write it that way. Maybe you can repeat that process for two sentences. Then four. And so on. 

Read the books, essays, screenplays you love and ask yourself why you love them. What do they make you feel? What do they evoke in you? What draws you back to them?

The qualities you love in your favourite work are the same qualities that are in you already, calling out to be expressed.

You may write very differently, in completely different genres, even different forms. But those qualities will still underpin everything you love about what you want to write.

Trust Yourself

Understanding and developing habits rather than crushing them leads to a huge increase in your ability to trust yourself.

If you’re constantly on hypervigilance alert for a Bad Habit to jump in and tear apart your scene or your writing or your painting, you’re developing an inner atmosphere of mistrust. You feed the inner critic that acts like a cop watching over your shoulder your whole life (some clients of mine literally experience a ‘voice on their shoulder’). 

If you can allow new voices, new ways of working, new processes to be just as right as the other voices and beliefs, you’re levelling the playing field for yourself and building up an inner voice that can support you rather that pull you down when things get difficult.

This stage of development as an artist is about seeing your habits for what they are – habitual responses developed over time in response to your life experience and what was safe and not safe to express. 

The next step? Discover, get to know those experiences. Understand, as best you can, that they’re coming up now to be of help, not to hinder you. 

and develop processes that serve you just as well or better so that you have a wide range of options to call on. This not only makes you a better artist, it makes you calmer, which leads to more confidence and solidity in your performance.

The funny thing is, there will be times when those habits you were told to get rid of will serve you beautifully in an audition, in a callback, on a set, when something unexpected comes along that calls for exactly that response. In that moment, you’ll be able to allow that response to come along and help you like an old friend.

If you’re curious about what it’d be like to work with me, drop me a line or email me direct at

hello (at)

and tell me what you’re working on, what you’d like to work on and what you want to create. There are lots of ways we can work together. Let’s have a conversation.