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)








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