Asking Not Asking #5: Feeling Used & Confused
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
I've developed a chronic problem with an artist on my roster. When this person was starting out, we developed a friendship through our roster where they'd call for advice or ask me to contribute to or share their projects. While I didn't always agree with their methods, I supported them and their endeavors when possible. Over the last couple years, this person has amassed a large following.
There is a follower who references my work constantly, and while not a carbon copy, has patterned their concepts, advertising, and brand language directly off of mine. There is little distinction, if any. I've reached out to this follower several times to implore them to stop; they are immovable in their position. This follower has become vindictive in their practices, trying to migrate my audience through leveraged relationships and analytic shortcuts. The follower has developed a professional relationship with the artist on my roster (who I mentioned in the first paragraph). The artist knows about the professional concerns I have with this follower and made an attempt to remain neutral at first.
In the beginning, the artist shared our work with their growing audience, which was uncomfortable because it made the follower and I appear as separate entities coming to the same work coincidentally. Now this artist solely references the follower’s work. Together they've begun migrating my audience away. This is affecting my visibility, my bottom line, considerably; this also negatively impacts our shared agency's numbers. Both parties involved regularly encourage community over competition, but the reality is both are generating negative competition through these practices. I feel used by both parties.
While I've involved my agent in addressing this issue, I need to determine what I can personally do aside from "keeping my head down and working." While this will help, blindly churning out projects isn't enough to overcome. Admittedly I'm terrible at leveraging my relationships because I hate the idea of using people. Is there another path?
Feeling Used & Confused
Dear Feeling Used & Confused,
This is a complex situation, no doubt. You supported a fellow artist’s growth because you wanted to be helpful. Separately, a follower began to imitate your work. When you contacted the follower, they refused to stop. The follower developed a connection with the artist you had supported. Now, that artist has chosen to champion the follower’s work over yours, even though you and the artist are on the same roster. Not only is this disheartening because you previously helped your fellow artist and expected them to support you, but it is has also affected your bottom line: your finances.
The first thing that came to mind as I reflected on your letter was this quote from psychologist Susan David’s TED Talk about emotional courage:
“Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings. Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don't get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
This situation is an inconvenience. It is stressful, awkward, and uncomfortable. And it is breaking your heart. I wish it were different, but this is the reality you live in. And yet, there is something meaningful on the other side of this situation. I guarantee it. I’m not going to tell you this is happening for a reason or because there’s a lesson you are supposed to learn—I don’t ascribe to either of those explanations. But it is happening, and you get to decide how you are going to respond.
You’ve taken practical steps. You reached out to the follower imitating you and asked them to stop. They refused. You made your fellow artist aware of the situation. They chose to champion the follower anyway. You have gotten your agent involved to help address the issue. Practically, you have been diligent in trying to address and resolve the situation. What more could you do from a practical perspective? You could demand support from your fellow artist and tell your agent that if this artist continues to support your copycat, then you will leave the agency—it’s either you or them. Or you could give the follower an ultimatum and tell them that if they don’t stop imitating your work, you will publicly denounce them.
Let’s go beyond the practical. Let’s talk about how this has affected you and your ability to experience joy in your work. It sounds like a large portion of your emotional and mental energy is being consumed by what both parties have done to you. When you say, “I feel used by both parties,” that is not about your bottom line. That is a statement about your value and worth. Perhaps you feel betrayed, overlooked, discarded, and devalued. But you are valuable and worthy, and you are making valuable and worthy work, which, ironically, is reinforced by the fact that someone else saw enough value in it to copy it.
You made the work unique once—you can do it again. Someone is copying you, but they are not you. They haven’t experienced everything you have. They don’t have your exact skillset. They have a technique, an approach that is not theirs. And while they may be rewarded for it in the short-term, eventually they will need to create work from a more substantial place. In other words, they can copy you, but they cannot be you. Only you can be you. So be you.
In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown says:
“There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.’”
You are the wilderness. And you are in the wilderness. There are voices telling you that you don’t have what it takes. Maybe your own voice is telling you that you don’t have what it takes, but you do. This is the place where you can shout, scream, cry, get angry, and feel whatever you need to feel. But do not doubt your tenacity and resilience. Do not doubt your value and worth. Do not doubt your ability to rise above this situation and rediscover the joy that initially brought you to the work. Let that joy guide you back to where you need to be.
There are times when have to decide how to proceed, but we are truly unsure of what to do. I don’t think you’re unsure of what to do—I think you know what you need to do, but there are things you need to feel and accept first. Is it fair that this follower has imitated your work and is now gaining attention and clients? No. Is it fair that your fellow artist’s support of this follower has boosted their success while diminishing yours? No. Can you change what they have chosen to do? No.
In your closing paragraph, you note, “I need to determine what I can personally do aside from ‘keeping my head down and working.’” I know that this is not the answer you want, but this is your answer. You can remind yourself of why you do the work. You can do the work. You can push yourself further, challenge yourself to evolve as an artist, and focus on your own growth. I would encourage you to invest your time and energy in those things.
You may be able to do the work alone, but you can’t build a career in isolation. This next stage requires other people—both people who will mentor and sponsor you. Mentors are advisors who offer encouragement; sponsors are gatekeepers who provide concrete opportunities to advance your career. You need both. Here’s some homework: I’d like you to make a list of at least 5 people who you could reach out to. Next to each name on the list, write down how that person could support you and if they are a potential mentor or sponsor. Now, choose at least one mentor and one sponsor to reach out to within the next week. Go down your list until you’ve made a connection and have both types of support to help you move forward.
When we’re hurt, our instinct is to recoil. But I am asking you to do the opposite. I’m asking you to remain open. Don’t let this experience make you hard. You are in the wilderness, and you may feel like you are standing alone, but if you look around, there are others walking in the wilderness with you. Some of them are further along and they can show you the way. All you have to do is reach out your hand.
To finding our champions,
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