Is Virtue Your Trap, Too?

(Or: Confessing My Creative Recovery, Pt. 2)

Awhile back, I promised to do a series of posts on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

This might or might not be the first post in that series. I don’t know yet. I’ve been keeping myself pretty well confined to Confessions of late, so after today, I might need to break out of that for awhile. We’ll see.

Today, however, I’m definitely talking about my experiences with The Artist’s Way, and I’ll start by saying this:

If you’re a practicing Creative, then you need to work this book.

If you know you’re a dormant Creative, then you need to work this book.

If you’d like to be creative, then you need to work this book.

I say “work” instead of “read” because this book is work. I won’t hide that. It’s work, and it is painful, hard work.

But it’s worth it. If you work it the way it’s meant to be worked, it’ll change your life. At the very least, it’ll alter in a positive way how you see yourself. And that, my lovelies, is always worth the effort.

Get Well? Yes, Please!

There’s a whole ‘nother story behind how I ended up with a copy of The Artist’s Way in my grubby hands (thanks, Gail!), and maybe I’ll tell you sometime. For now, all you need to know is that this book grabbed me from page one, because I had realized I was very, very sick (see posts on boundaries, fear, God, confessions).

And though I’d already started on my journey toward creative recovery, the start of that journey was similar to that of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: I ran out of my proverbial house in a panic, carrying with me no supplies but the clothes on my back. No shoes. And not even a pocket handkerchief!

I knew I was on a journey of healing, and I desperately wanted to get well. I’d reached a point in my journey that called for finding supplies or giving up and going home.

Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was my Gandalf, my dwarves, and my stop at the inn to catch up with them all and catch my breath.

The Virtue Trap

Cameron’s book consists of cramazing thoughts on creativity and practical exercises to go along with all the thoughts. Today, I’m sharing with you some of her ideas. Next week, I’ll open the door and let you see the start of the bonfire her thoughts sparked in me.

Cameron writes (p. 97-98),

For an artist, withdrawal is necessary. Without it, the artist in us feels vexed, angry, out of sorts. If such deprivation continues, our artist becomes sullen, depressed, hostile. We eventually become like cornered animals, snarling at our family and friends to leave us alone…

Many of us have made a virtue out of deprivation. We have embraced a long-suffering artistic anorexia as a martyr’s cross. We have used it to feed a false sense of spirituality grounded in being good, meaning superior.

I call this seductive, faux spirituality the Virtue Trap.

Cameron goes on to talk about how, when we fall into the Virtue Trap, we abandon self. Like a wounded animal, our artist self goes to ground because we’ve sold it out in favor of others’ approval. The only thing left for the world to see is this Virtuous shell that everybody likes.

This is what happened to me when acquaintances disapproved of my art and mentors called my writing a selfish waste of time — and I abandoned my creativity in favor of a Virtuous shell.

Rage Against the Machine Myself

My Virtue was fake, it was deceptive, and it enabled me to go on self-destructing on the inside, where nobody had to watch. I was leeching blood from myself, vampirizing my soul.

When that one acquaintance called my art “demonic,” I hid my dark fantasy paintings away — in exchange for apathy and resignation.

When that one mentor told me I was being selfish for wanting time to myself, I gave up that time — and the result was a secret, uncontrollable rage.

But nobody knew I was feeling both apathetic and furious at the same time, because all anybody could see was my outer shell of likeable Virtue.

Our artist is not merely out of sorts. Our artist has checked out. Our life is now an out-of-body-experience. We’re gone. A clinician might call it disassociating. I call it leaving the scene of the crime (Cameron, 98).

Whose crime?

Mine. My crime was selling out my artist self to everyone else’s opinions, desires, and demands. My artist self met with disapproval — and because I’m an approval addict, I set out to destroy my artist self with hidden apathy and rage.

Weird Enough?

Virtuous to a fault, these trapped creatives have destroyed the true self, the self that didn’t meet with approval… The self who heard repeatedly, “Don’t be selfish!” The true self is a disturbing character, healthy and occasionally anarchistic, who knows how to play, how to say no to others and “yes” to itself (Cameron, 99).

I’m a weirdo who grew up as a Creative immersed in several different cultures at once. That’s disturbing enough in and of itself. But now I’m supposed to become even more disturbing by defending my artist self and saying “no” to people? I’m supposed to become that weird?

I couldn’t face it. So I constructed the Virtuous shell and systematically destroyed myself on the inside.

I didn’t become consciously aware of all this until I read what Cameron wrote about the Virtue Trap.

Come back next week, and I’ll let you peek at my Virtue Trap homework.

Good grief, that sounds dirty. 😀


What can you relate to about the Virtue Trap?

What about this feels familiar?

What do you think about Cameron’s claim that we develop a Virtuous shell out of a sense of superiority?

Have you worked any of The Artist’s Way? Share your experiences with us!

3 thoughts on “Is Virtue Your Trap, Too?

  1. Patricia says:

    Wow, I am identifying with this concept big-time. After all, isn’t it ‘better’ to sacrifice one’s desires to ‘become all things to all people’?? We think ourselves superior for ‘learning’ other ‘gifts’….the popular ones, the petted ones. I never had any doubt I was (and am) an approval addict. I think it’s part of being firstborn. Yet it’s also part of being creative, too. I don’t think there is anything abnormal about wanting approval…it’s when we let that want get in the way of what needs to happen that we throw ourselves off-balance. I mean really, what are the odds that EVERYONE will hate what you create. Pretty slim. Yet we’d choose a 9/10 insincere approval rating over a 1/10 sincere one.

    • Patricia, I agree: I don’t think there’s anything abnormal about wanting approval. I can’t think of a single human of my acquaintance who doesn’t want approval of some fashion and to some degree. Unless we’re talking about sociopaths, I think every human being walks around with an invisible sign that reads, “Please Don’t Reject Me!”


      I think there’s a huge difference between the natural, normal desire for approval and the desperate need for — the inability to function without — validation from others. Which is exactly what you’re saying, if I’m understanding you correctly. 😉 We throw ourselves off-balance when the need for approval begins to outweigh our spiritual and emotional health.

      As for “becoming all things to all people,” I don’t think that means sacrificing the essence of self. When Paul was ministering to others, he came across some people who wanted him to give up the essence of who he was: his utter faithfulness to Jesus of Nazareth. He never once sacrificed to others’ opinion by becoming faithless. He maintained his basic essence (the essence of Paul-ness! 🙂 ) in spite of the barrier this created between him and others.

      The best way we can shine a light for others is to become exactly what we were created to be. 🙂

  2. […] Last week, my darlings, we talked faux Virtue, self-sabotage, and other fun stuff like that. A very great […]

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