A Therapist’s View On Artists

A couple of years ago I found an interesting book called Defining Moments : Breaking Through Tough Times by psychotherapist, Dorothea McArthur, published in 2014. It was the title that drew me, as I was going through my midlife crisis ebb and flow, and the cover, which shows someone embracing a special moment, their arms thrown wide up in the air while standing with legs apart and up to their knees in the sea – a stirring image with a feeling of  revelation and liberation. The book was free as an ebook from the International Psychotherapy Institute, which have many free resources for therapists and anyone interested in psychology.  I can’t believe I haven’t been back for more, but I expect I will remedy that ;>)

While I was reading my way through the usual issues and personal conflicts addressed in the book, I was astonished and delighted to come to a chapter entitled ‘Artists and Society’. By this time I knew that Dorothea lived in the Los Angeles area, worked from home with private clients having access to her office via an external staircase, and walked her dogs faithfully by the river every day. With over 30 years in private practice as a clinical psychologist, this nature loving, animal loving woman began to work her charm on me, so by the time I came to this particular chapter I trusted that she knew what she was talking about. One lovely quote from early on in the book had me hooked : We tend to think of ‘happiness’ in relation to ‘getting what we want’. As I observe the clients in my office, I see that ‘happiness is figuring out who we are’.  

And I feel this latter point is very much integral to the chapter on artists and society, which I related to so much. Maybe some of you will too.  I’ll work through the essence of Dorothea’s findings and beliefs, picking out what I feel to be the salient points, bearing in mind she uses the term artist very broadly to refer to painters, writers, musicians, actors, sculptors and craftspeople. (My own thoughts on the points are bracketed) She has an added insight perhaps, because she is an artist herself which no doubt counts for a great deal.

1. She begins by saying she has seen many artists over the years. In fact 80% of her clients are artistic and frequently highly sensitive. ‘They see the world deeply…and can feel sadness, concern, disgust, and triumph about civilisation and joy about nature easily.’ They have a strong need to understand and ‘often experience themselves on the outside of the ‘in’ crowd in childhood, and can be bored in school. Some of them have become accustomed to putting themselves down  because it’s commonplace for artists to have doubts about the validity of their creative endeavours.’

(Does this sound familiar? There’s that question we get asked ‘And what do you do? which used to make me cringe. And you try hard to sound confident in your rely that you are an artist, a writer…without flitting images passing through your mind of how that is going to sound exactly…instead of taking ownership of your creativity with a free assertiveness)

2. Many have discounted their creative genes because parental influence didn’t rate creativity as a viable means of making a living. (Well, we know it’s tough going in that regard, don’t we?) As a result, many artistic clients view their opportunity to create as an ‘extravagance’ they should not bother to indulge. (I know that at my school the arts were underrated at the time and I didn’t value my own interest in them, and so didn’t pursue them, which was something I later deeply regretted)

3. Being an artist is one way to make sense of and express feelings about living on this planet. (I think for artists it’s probably the only way). An artistic piece of writing, exhibition, or performance can bring forth and regroup feelings we didn’t know we had buried deeply inside us. Art can reach out and aid a viewer the way a therapist helps each person reach a resolution. When an audience gathers to watch a movie, play, concert… they mutually agree to study together whatever the artist has decided to say.’

(And of course these ‘creative ‘products’ are sometimes later studied and interpreted within the humanities, and lead to conclusions and insights into what it means to be human, and this is so valuable to our understanding and education)

4. Artists have reported to Dorothea that their creative expression comes through them from the outside world, or is generated within. Others feel it is a combination of both. There may be a quiet joy or sense of surrender, a sense of being lost in an ‘energy of potential.’

But she says ‘Whichever way it happens, the creative work of an artist has to be a solo journey until the creation is completed. It is important to suspend judgment and detach from the outcome to let the creative idea unfold.’ (So don’t go letting anyone undermine or make you question your current work in progress until you’ve finished it. Write or paint with the metaphorical door shut, and only open the door when it is accomplished. Let the right side of your brain do it’s thing to the finishing line, and trust in it, before you allow the left critical side take over to assess or edit it)

5. She believes that most people are jealous of artists (not something I had considered) and despite what non-artists may believe, ‘artists are generally not interested in riches or fame’. Instead they just want enough support to go on doing their creative work. (Amen to that!) Especially, actors and authors have to be experts at handling rejection after rejection as an expected and normal part of the process. Artistic clients come to me to quell their fear, acquire a strong enough self-esteem to survive society’s tentative response. (Amen to this too, which is why a bit of personal therapy can stand us in extremely good stead  for dealing with the vicissitudes of being an artist. If we put ourselves and our worth on the line by sharing and baring our soul in our work, we are doing something many people just couldn’t handle and wouldn’t dream of doing. We have to remember that we have chosen a hard road, and yet for us, it is the only road we could possibly take, so the more we understand ourselves, our strengths and vulnerabilities, the better placed we are to bend like a reed in the wind in our responses to difficult situations or reactions to our work. And the special thing is that if we take up this challenge and work through it, difficult though it will undoubtedly be, we will be far more unified in ourselves with little need for adopted personae, masks, or defensive reactions. We will be more fully ourselves. And through ‘figuring out who we are’, and accepting who we are we can actually be happier human beings.)

6. She says there are two conditions that contribute to becoming a successful artist. First, the person has to be born with creative genes. The second condition is always a surprise. Artists are often involved in a struggle, such as a difficult childhood, that becomes well understood by the child in terms of emotions and misconceptions. The resolution of this conflict often gives shape to the particular subject and expression of their creativity, while lack of resolution may block expression. As the client and I work on their unresolved issues, their creativity is able to flow freely again. Their resolution shapes an important creative endeavour that can make a difference for those who may suffer in a similar way.

(This makes total sense. Dulling depression or anxiety due to inner conflicts are naturally going to impede creative flow and confident creating)

7. However she says ‘it is hard to kill an artist’s drive, especially when each artist becomes an expert at rising above or ignoring sabotaging remarks, meant to clip their wings in place of useful criticism. With enough encouragement and support, the artist will prevail.

 And she gives a lovely quote in connection to this:

One of life’s most exhilarating feelings is to be shot at with no result. (Winston Churchill)

8. She says she encourages her artist clients to listen carefully to their creativity and intuition…all fear of failure, evaluation, judgment, or rejection of the work has to be sent down the drain of the artist’s daily bath or shower.

9. And now we come to the issues which she hopes that she has helped artists work through when they leave her office, which are a guide for all of us to aim for:

They understand and respect their particular creative genius (I don’t like the word genius but I’ll let her off ;>) For me this is about fully acknowledging and taking ownership of one’s creativity)

They have found and accepted their job-job when it is needed (to make ends meet while they create)

They feel entitled and compelled to use their artistic genes (give themselves permission to view their creativity as essential to their happiness and where they derive a primary existential life meaning from)

They understand the unresolved issues within their own lives (or indeed understand and then perhaps resolve them) and have some artistic way to express them to help others with similar problems (this is where the themes of novels, memoirs, or musicals can come into play to shed light, inform, and help others through the sharing)

They have mastered their fears of rejection and are able to create anyway. (A biggie, but how wonderfully liberating and strengthening to be in this position)

They can distinguish between useful constructive criticism to be incorporated, and sabotage based upon threat and jealousy which must be eliminated (so important and takes serious practice)

And in her final analysis at the end of the chapter, which I shall leave you with, she says:

It is powerful and compelling and hard to be an artist.


 (comments, as ever, always welcome)

(image courtesy of pixabay)








About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
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14 Responses to A Therapist’s View On Artists

  1. I loved this piece of writing Lynne, both Dorothea’s insights, and your comments and expansions of her themes… it all rang so true…even now, I have difficulty accepting that I might be an artist even though I’m a writer… words like poet, artist, writer, seemed such a huge stretch and way above my ability when I was at school… I used to feel that if I wrote poetry it had to be like the greats we studied, so I never had the ‘presumption to even try to write poetry…and even now that critical inner voice thinks it’s not ‘good enough’ when I do try because I enjoy the way poetry compresses huge expanses of meaning into a few perfect and beautiful words…
    Artistry now seems a much wider field of creativity and beauty covering such a range of human activities … and accepting one’s own level of sensitivity seems such a vital part of living life as an artist. Reading your blogs and thoughts have certainly helped me to know that being”over-sensitive” – other people’s analysis of my personality – is Okay, and even valuable, in that sensitivity is often the key to having insights into life and art…
    Your blog is a wonderful meeting place for creative people who need a bit of validation and understanding !!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Valerie, you’ve really moved me with what you say about this blog being a meeting place for creative people needing validation and understanding, That is my primary motivation for doing it, so I thank you! Yes, school perspectives may play a big part in how we react when we hear someone say, or try saying ourselves, ‘I’m an artist’, ‘I’m a writer’…there’s that sense of elevation, of being placed above or outside of the norm. The paradox is that for some, these days, owning creativity seems to have gone a wee bit beserk, and I can be just as irritated by reading a long list of creative abilities where compression would be fine instead eg ‘she is a novelist, poet, playwright’ – where ‘writer’ would do just fine! But for most of us, it’s about recognising who we are, what we have within that we need to bring forth, and accepting that our sensitivity is a bonus in this regard, not a handicap. Thank you so much for sharing, Valerie.


  2. galenpearl says:

    Ditto on Libby’s comment above. But what I most thought as I read this was “Lynne reads such interesting books!” You are always writing about something fascinating that often comes from something you just read. You don’t just read along the surface, but you really engage with your material at a deep level. Is THAT part of being an artist? That you dive deep below the surface to see what’s what down in the muddy roots? Being an artist isn’t just about what you produce; it’s about how you engage with and experience all of life. You always amaze….

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Well thank you, Galen…I do aim to please ;>) Yes, my reading has helped enormously with coming up with topics close to my heart. I just love psychology and the couple of counselling courses I did triggered it off in earnest. Not sure if it’s part of being an artist though. More to do with seeking to understand human nature in this midlife phase of mine, but tailored towards creatives and thinkers. I’ve tentatively begun a memoir on midlife crisis, and will be weaving in all my reading. The starting out quote has got to be the bud flowering Anais Nin quote, the one you chose for your self-help book ,10 Steps to Finding Your Happy Place (and Staying There), but I just can’t use another one! Got to finish the current novel first though! Cheers, Galen


  3. Oh, yeah, this applies to me. 🙂 I like her final analysis – soooo true! And I like the Churchill quote as well. 😃

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A.P. says:

    This is another very intriguing post, inciting themes of my own. So often I have felt that my identity as an Artist has actually been actively opposed by the society in which I have found myself. This is not so much the case in the present day, but in the past it has been so much so that I have allowed it to define me. My father was not encouraging toward my musicianship or overall artistry, and I didn’t find the school system pointing me in this direction either. I was pushed to take on something more practical, even though it was something at which I would not be likely to excel. So, when I finally did assert my artistic identity, it was as an act of rebellion against the authoritative powers that had dissuaded me from doing so. In embracing an unconventional lifestyle, I gave myself license to create as I would, and was very prolific in doing so. I sometimes feel less motivated today because there is less of a struggle, and less opposition in my relationship to society.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank you for sharing, Andy. Well I ended up at school wanting to study human physiology so I could look down a microscope and see colourful wonders! Not surprisingly, when faced with a mass of information I was supposed to learn throughly, all so precise and scientific with some physics and maths thrown in – I bolted. I’d had no idea what I was in for and this left my career development well and truly derailed. No one at school seemed to be keen on the arts. It took me years to come back to the arts, when I was settled and married. The sense of being a rebel, like you, wasn’t there at the time, but it is very interesting point you bring up as I think the mindset of a rebel can develop for many of us arty types at some stage when we recognise what an important part of ourselves being a creative person really is and when we don’t seem to fit in elsewhere. At this juncture you have to fully embrace it as integral to who you are. I can see how you became less motivated when the ‘kicking against’ wasn’t needed as much, but I guess you have to think of what you can contribute from your unique standpoint and talents, and that they should be expressed in any event. Cheers, Andy!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A really interesting post. I’ve also had a long struggle with self-doubt and fear of criticism. I think what’s helped most is learning not be ashamed of being sensitive, and accepting that those feelings will come and go. I do think our education system encourages creative people to be very self-critical, when everything is marked and graded, and our immediate response to creating something becomes ‘is it any good?’ instead of enjoying the process.

    Liked by 3 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Yes, Catherine, a lot of ‘me too’ with your reply and accepting my sensitivity is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in so many respects, not just to do with being an artist at all. No, there was nothing that I remember ever being taught about enjoying the crafting process, after junior school that sense of play dissappeared, it was all about passing tests, being graded, and chosing more ‘practical’ lines of work to aim for. A lot of creativity comes from the inner child and that is what we can reconnect with and respect when we feel the inherent pull to be creative. Thank you for sharing!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. All very interesting, especially points 6 and 7. Yes to the last quote!


    • lynnefisher says:

      Thanks, Cheryl. Yes to the last quote for me too. My husband frequently says to me when I am getting frustrated – ‘yes, but, you’ve chosen a hard road’. And I reply, ‘yes, but it’s who I am. I can’t imagine, and don’t want to do, anything else’. And some counselling during my midlife crisis really helped me with this and to shift some blockages too!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Libby Sommer says:

    great post. lots of interesting info. many thanks. this is the bit i like the best: “We tend to think of ‘happiness’ in relation to ‘getting what we want’. As I observe the clients in my office, I see that ‘happiness is figuring out who we are’. ” yes, and i would add: giving ourselves permission to be who we are.

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank you, Libby – and I fully agree with your addition on giving ourselves permission to be who we are. That is the main thing tht I learned with my midlife crisis and all the reading really helped get that into my head and heart.

      Liked by 2 people

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