“I’ve suffered enough. When does my artwork improve?” Refrigerator magnet
The tortured artist mythology is an ancient and enduring one: The idea that art depends on suffering, and artists need to be suffering with dark emotions, and need their pain to create.
But that is a wrong and destructive idea.
For example, in his appearance as a guest on The Ellen Show, Colin Farrell said he is more creative being sober and happy.
“I ascribed to the notion that to express yourself as an artist, you have to live in perpetual pain. And that’s nonsense.”
Musician Sting also said he bought into this myth for a long time:
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As Dr. Webb explains “Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence… (or ‘ultimate concerns’) – death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness.”
His related book: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope.
Webb has written extensively about how characteristics of giftedness that are a part of so many people – including well-known artists such as Robin Williams – are often misdiagnosed.
One kind of pressure is feeling an intense urge to create; it is probably an inherent part of being a creative person.
But other pressures can lead to stress and overwhelm, and being pulled away from the joys of creating.
Annemarie Roeper (founder of the Roeper School and The Roeper Review, a professional journal on the gifted) wrote about this intense inner pressure to create as a characteristic of high ability people – but you may experience this even if you are not “technically” gifted:
“Gifted adults may be overwhelmed by the pressure of their own creativity. The gifted derive enormous satisfaction from the creative process.
Most of us experience some kind of trauma in life.
How does it impact creative people, and how can creative expression help?
Acclaimed actor Patrick Stewart is one of many artists who have been deeply impacted by trauma in early life.
An interview article notes he “was for decades a man plagued by fear and stifled by rage. The roots of his struggle go back to a difficult childhood, marked by poverty and abuse that took him years to understand.”
“Basically, I’d been fairly drunk or high since I was 14.” Colin Farrell
Why do so many creative people use and abuse drugs, often to the point of addiction?
There is of course no easy answer, but one of the factors for many people may be childhood trauma.
In his article Emotional Trauma: An Often Overlooked Root of Addiction, David Sack, M.D. writes, “A history of childhood neglect or sexual, physical or emotional abuse is common among people undergoing treatment for alcoholism and may be a factor in the development of alcohol use disorders…
“Trauma has been associated not only with drug addiction but also overeating, compulsive sexual behavior and other types of addictions.”
Another article notes, “Children who have a history of abuse, neglect, or trauma may exhibit oppositional behavior as a response to their experiences. Experiencing any kind of traumatic event increases a child’s likelihood of acting out, as they must cope with challenging feelings, thoughts, and memories.”
So many people experience unwanted sexual contact, rape and other forms of sexual abuse.
And they often help deal with the aftermath through creative expression, perhaps using art therapy, but more often some other form of creative self-expression.
One of many articles on the topic here on Psych Central, Mental Disorders Often Follow Sexual Abuse by Rick Nauert PhD, reports: “Researchers have discovered that a history of sexual abuse is frequently linked with a lifetime diagnosis of multiple psychiatric disorders…this association held true regardless of the victim’s gender or age when the abuse occurred.”
There are many references and articles on “healing” from sexual abuse and other kinds of trauma, but it is important to keep in mind the emotional and spiritual impacts may endure, at least to some degree; dealing with abuse is not like healing a broken bone.
But experiencing abuse of any kind also does not make us “damaged goods” – see actor Teri Hatcher’s comments below.
The painting is a self portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653). An article notes she was raped by an art tutor of hers, followed by a “highly publicised seven-month trial. This event makes up the central theme of a controversial French film, Artemisia (1998), directed by Agnes Merlet.
How important is it to identify yourself as an artist – to others, and especially to yourself?
What if you don’t get awards for your creative work? What if it isn’t even seen by others?
Are you still an artist if you are doing something else for survival?
Psychologist Robert Maurer has worked with many creative people and researches the dynamics of success. He comments:
“The people who love their craft and see themselves as artists, and carry that identity through and study each day… are the people who thrive. To me, that’s the only definition of success that matters.”
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Musician Henry Rollins commented about being a performer and staying healthy on road tours:
“Eating well is becoming easier on the road as more places are health conscious. Gyms are easy to find anywhere there’s electricity and traffic.
“Time is the hard part. I do my best and I learned a long time ago that without recuperative sleep, good nutrition and constant exercise, this high stress lifestyle of traveling, etc. quickly takes a toll. I just see it as a very important thing and make sure I get it done.”
From my article Taking Care of Your Creative Self.
Good self-care is taking steps daily, even hourly, to stay replenished with the energy and positive attitude needed to be productively creative.
One way is to slow down or shift our thinking about having “too much to do.”
Entrepreneur coach Molly Gordon writes about this kind of shift:
“Life is about courage and going into the unknown.” Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
The movie is a celebration of the wonderful diversity of people and places on Earth, and pursuing ideas with courage, even if most of the pursuit by Mitty is in his imagination.
It is based on a story by James Thurber (by the way, he hated the 1947 movie version, according to Turner Classic Movies), who said:
“Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.”
Ben Stiller stars in and directs this version, which a writer summarizes as being about “an ordinary man with an extraordinarily active imagination” who embarks “on a globe-trotting adventure that ultimately trumps anything in his daydreams.”