Confirmation withdrawal

I have a cat named Girly Girl (I didn’t name her!) who will get in my lap and just find contentment being there. She’s happy when I pet her and happy falling asleep untouched. Her brother has a different personality. He loves getting on my lap and purrs like a locomotive when I scratch beneath his chin, rub his tummy, or stroke the fur on his back. But within a few seconds of my taking my hand away the purring stops. He starts to get nervous, and generally in less than a minute he will jump down and be on his way.

How are we to understand this behavior? Dan Ariely was asked just this (related) question, and here’s how he answered:

Dear Dan,

I recently had a massage when I was very tired, and I fell asleep repeatedly. Every time I dozed off, the masseuse moved me particularly vigorously and woke me up. This left me a bit embarrassed, and it wasn’t fun to be woken up so many times in one hour. What should the masseuse have done—let me sleep through the massage, or woken me up to experience it?


The interesting thing about remembered and anticipated pleasure is that they capture some aspects of the experience—but not all of them. That’s why, for example, you might remember an experience that was great for 15 minutes as better than an experience that was great for the first 15 minutes and then merely good for 15 more. In essence, the longer experience had more goodness in it (30 minutes), but the remembered pleasure wasn’t as large because it also involved some less exciting moments.

I think this is something many potters (and other selling artists) are familiar with. When we have all these fabulous customers show their interest in our work we are elated. If the sales are continuous from start to finish we have the time of our lives. The rewards of people liking what we do are undeniable. But have the sales taper off, sometimes we are left with a bad taste in our mouths. Sometimes it become difficult to remember just how important it was that the customers who did show enthusiasm for what we do were actually there. We end up focusing on the absence rather than the presence of actual appreciation. We lose sight of the real joy we were successful in transacting with our customers. We forget how important it was just to connect to these people, have conversations, and enjoy each other’s company. When our expectation is that our bellies get rubbed the whole time we start to enjoy all the other good things less. The withdrawal of confirmation comes as a hard blow.

And unfortunately it is so easy to read into actions what we see as a withdrawal of confirmation. A customer looks at things but leaves without getting anything. That seems like a slam to our ego. How can we interpret that as anything other than a negative reaction?

But what if that disappearing customer was going out to their car to get more money? What if they were going back home to fetch their husband to see all the great things you were doing? What if they absolutely loved what you were doing, but couldn’t afford things this year? Or loved it all but couldn’t find the right one, the one that fits their hands just right? What if they love what you are doing but simply don’t need any more pots in their lives? How do we look inside another person’s mind and see how our own value is reflected in their actions? How do we avoid falling into the trap of interpreting what they sometimes do as a withdrawal of confirmation?

So my own story is this. Michael Simon was my teacher way back when he taught a semester at the University here. He lives about a dozen or so blocks from my house. He attends other pottery sales in the area, but not mine. I’ve given him my sales cards and invited him on out, but he’s never made it. Doesn’t that seem as though he must just not like my pots? Or maybe its personal? I don’t know…..

This past weekend Michael was at a sale a friend hosted that had my work in it. He’s seen my more recent work at a number of these sales he’s gone to. He’s never bought a thing I’ve made. If he’s supporting me its not in a conventional way, like when I showed up at his sales and loaded up on teapots, covered jars and tea bowls. He’s not giving me confirmation by praising my work to me or even showing much interest in my presence. Frankly, I’m afraid of what he thinks of my pots…..

But last Saturday he apparently did have things to say about what I do. My friend showed me pictures of him discussing one of the pots I had made with another customer. There were half a dozen photos, and it looked like they talked for several minutes. I wish I had been there! I wish I could have been a fly on the wall to hear what was said.

But without those pictures and that little story I would never have known. Of course they could really have been trashing my pots, and maybe that was the only one even marginally worth discussing, but how easy it is for me to leap to conclusions, and assume the worst.

I’m not sure how many pots from other artists Michael has in his house. I’ve heard its full of his own pots. Of course it would be an honor to have one of my pots in his collection. But should that even matter? Should my own happiness even remotely depend on what Michael thinks of my work? Other people do like my work, and that’s my 15 minutes of enjoyment. What’s even more important is that I like some of what I’m doing. It may not be perfect. It may never be perfect. But there are the seeds at least of the things I value. If even the great Michael Simon doesn’t share all of these values that shouldn’t change how I feel.

As soon as we let our expectations include the actions of other people in regard to our art we get vulnerable. We become like my cat Ziggy who gets nervous when he isn’t being petted. Confirmation does seem to matter. Its nice when it happens. But we should not let its absence shatter us. We should be like Girly Girl, and just enjoy what we are doing whether we are being petted or not.

That’s my advice for a Thursday morning!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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3 Responses to Confirmation withdrawal

  1. John Bauman says:

    It’s said that the motivations behind a fella’s actions and efforts can be traced to an attempt to fulfill mankind’s two basic needs — security and significance. Deriving no significance from that which brings man security leads to the decline of excellence. And deriving too much significance from that which brings us no security leads to potters and guitar players.

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