The Tortured Artist

This is arguably one of the most enduring myths of our time: the belief that suffering and emotional turmoil are equivalent to making meaningful art. Stereotypes carry harmful biases that can have negative effects, and this one can be especially dangerous for creatives, especially when it interferes with seeking help for emotional distress. The idea of the tortured artist is too often glamorized in our society—expected, even. The public’s fascination with this stereotype only perpetuates the false belief that one’s ability to create is bound exclusively to living in sustained, intense periods of pain and grief. Way too often, this belief leads to a fear of getting healthier through the assistance of psychotherapy. Clients will often tell me that they are afraid to take their care of their depression or anxiety, as they will somehow “lose” their ability to create if they can’t stay in the depths of their pain. As a result, these clients set up for themselves a painful dichotomy: a choice between their creativity or mental well-being.

Talent Is Innate

Talent exists whether you feel anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, or joy. I believe that talent is not the emotional experience itself, but the ability of the artist to take an experience, find meaning in it, and express it in a way which speaks to our collective source of experience. That the artist experiences suffering in her life is not unique—everyone experiences suffering. What is unique is how the artist uses her suffering and other universally felt experiences to help us recognize our ourselves, to make meaning of the world, to challenge society and ideas, and to help us feel less alone.

Why Self-Care for the Artist Is Essential

Longevity is essential for anyone pursuing a career they are passionate about. Listen to any interview, or ask any artist whom you admire, and they’ll probably tell you it took 5, 10, maybe even 20+ years to get to a place of consistent work. There is more to success than just the creative output, personal health and wellbeing  play crucial roles in developing the stamina necessary for a career full of  peaks and valleys. Existing in a constant state of suffering makes it challenging to accomplish the less-than-romantic tasks that are a reality to living as a professional, working creative.

Good self-care for the artist might include a number of things. One example might be to learn and practice tools that help to manage fatigue and burnout. This can be extremely useful in cultivating resilience. Greater mental stability and focus can aid in the practical, day-to-day tasks we rarely talk about but are integral to well-being, like remembering to buy groceries, showing up to your day job so you can pay your bills, going to the doctor when you are sick, or making it to the audition on time. Skills to manage uncomfortable feelings of disappointment, stress and perfectionism are invaluable for dealing with  difficult employers, rejection and project unpredictability. Learning organizational tools and personal goal setting are useful in finding a way for you to continually show up for your art: to create when you’re not feeling a wave of inspiration (which is often the reality) and to continue to improve on your craft.  

The Benefit of Creating from a Place of Clarity and Curiosity

Our emotions do not define who we are, nor is any one felt emotion the totality of our life experience. As humans we are complex, multidimensional, and nuanced. If psychotherapy and other forms of self-care helped to clear up some of those worried or sad voices taking up too much real estate in the brain —what else would you find? I believe that gaining a healthy distance between yourself and overwhelming emotions has the potential for deeper reflection. That deeper reflection gives you greater clarity and understanding to your art, be it a song, script, or dance. Imagine the the space for a fuller range of emotions and the ways that it could enrich your life. How might feeling more joy in your personal life and relationships enhance the quality of your art? Reconnecting to the pleasure of creating art is important for all artists. Why else would you do it if you didn’t love it?