The tortured artist, the alcoholic painter, the melancholic writer, the bipolar entertainer, the self-destructive singer, the dancer with the eating disorder, the raging actor: stereotypes?

There are examples in the media all the time. But do you have to be unhinged to be creative?

Is the world is telling us that if you choose the path of the artist, you’re different; you have to be mad, drunk, self-loathing, reckless or high?

“You are not a beautiful and individual Snowflake” Fight Club

Sorry to disappoint you, but these problems aren’t part of being creative any more than they are for the rest of society.

Many people experience mental health issues at some point in their lives (one in four). Just do that now if you’re in a room full of other people – look around the room and count.

So before you open your case of laudanum, or pour yourself another absinthe (dear), spare a thought for the anxious, alcoholic, drug-abusing, OCD-suffering postman, market researcher, call-centre worker, or shop assistant who is just as prone to issues as the artistic genius.

Self-Harm is not a sign of genius. Another glass of wine is not ‘part of my creative process’. ‘I’ve always been a bit odd’ is not a positive affirmation of creativity.

If we release the need to be damaged, and get on with being creative, our output increases.

To paraphrase Julia Cameron: it’s okay to be a sane, productive, happy, successful artist.

If you’re not completely happy with that idea, here’s why:

“You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes” The Matrix

Like everything in the mind, there’s no single answer. And this article has a size limit!

Carl Jung’s theory of Archetypes highlights that the creative ones are always tricksters. The new idea frightens the territorial tribal chiefs, upsetting the balance of power. So creatives are made to feel different in childhood, and that ‘difference’ gets amplified as you get older (it has to or it can’t support the emotion attached to the childhood belief).

Beliefs from childhood about creativity being dangerous, insane, or valueless (just for fun) might be called Dysfunctional Assumptions – for example; the idea that you can’t make money from art, that it’s not a serious profession, can stop you from being a talented, happy, successful artist.

But it’s not all childhood. The creative working environment often supports the dysfunction. Solitude, long working hours, cliques, freelancing (no work, no money), boom and bust productivity (so there’s always a party, drugs, sex, alcohol, etc.), and pressure from the ‘patrons’ to deliver. The trappings of success can be as damaging as the struggle to produce.

The creative head is full of ideas, your mind is over-stimulated, and you have trouble switching off.  Ideas are coming unbidden to your head and they’re compelling; if you have the materials and skills, you can create. If however, those ideas and compulsions become too much, you’re tired, or you don’t have the discipline and focus from formal artistic training, or the skills and materials, then all you have are compelling thoughts.

That’s pretty much the definition of an OCD. An Obsession (unbidden thoughts), which leads to a behaviour (Compulsion) and if it starts to interfere with your life or others it becomes a Disorder.

Perhaps that’s why intelligent people drink more.

So what can we do?

“You can’t handle the truth” A Few Good Men

First, you employ a therapist with a great deal of experience of creative… oh right, you want the one where you don’t have to pay me?

There are things you can do yourself:

1)     Watch for thoughts that don’t serve you: If you find yourself thinking anything but ‘I’m an intelligent, creative person, the world is full of fun and opportunity, and others are helpful’ then you’ve got some less useful thinking in there. Awareness or Mindfulness is half the battle.

2)     Accept that creativity is limitless and that you have limitless options in the ways you behave because you’re creative.

3)     You’re good enough and you deserve to be happy as an artist. If part of you is saying ‘no’ to that statement then your issues are bound up in a negative core belief. It’s a flat world. Prove it wrong.

4)     Emotions, Thinking and Physical States are linked. Change one and you change the rest. Look after your body, and make sure that you experience beauty and profound things every day and that will impact on your thoughts.

5)     Craft. This is another word for work. You’ll have spotted that. But don’t let it put you off. If you have to, call it The Craft, or The Work. And this is how it works…

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.”  Peter De Vries

When you are doing the work, you know you are doing the work. There’s no lying to yourself. The work takes place when you’re imagining, planning, writing down, typing up, etc. It’s a state of immersion in the creative process.

The rest of the time, you’re a person who has to feed and nurture the creator with ideas and experiences, and rest the creator so that they can Craft every day. So get exercise, and sleep, and the right foods for genius, or you’re blocking your creator and the Craft won’t happen.

Creatives create. Output is a sign of a creative.

Who’s in charge?

“Carpe Diem Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Dead Poets Society

We have free will.

We can choose.

We don’t have to have a default screensaver on our computer screen and we don’t have to be a person that’s purely a response to our environment and experiences- the default person.

To paraphrase the slightly dodgy but beautifully written Sucker Punch:

‘Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we will never die? Who decides why we live and what we’ll die to defend? Who chains us? And Who holds the key that can set us free… It’s You. You have everything you need. Now create!’

BIO: James Elder is a therapist who works with Creatives (and no, I’m not telling you who). He delights in applying psychological techniques to people who are already doing well, but who need to do spectacularly, and those who need that one little thing out of their way to realise their purpose.

He uses a blend of tools including psychotherapy, clinical hypnosis, NLP, and leadership coaching to help his clients achieve more, and offset some of the stuff that goes with the creative lifestyle and the trappings of ‘sudden’ success.

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10 Responses to 5 Ways To Stop Being A Tortured Artist

  1. Vera Mark says:

    Great piece. I like suggestions 4 and 5 in particular because, beyond a fuzzy feeling about being entitled to being creative, they give me something to DO. I recently started putting this “do one thing different” into practise – changing little, apparently unrelated (to my creativity) things that change my state of mind / feeling and often end up boosting my creativity.

    • Great article and great response Vera. Particularly agree with the one about watching thoughts that don’t serve you. So true, especially when working on your own as most writers tend to do. We are our own best friend or worst enemy. Today I’ll be my best friend.

  2. A says:

    If you are depressed, seek help, you’ll get there in the end if you do that. if you are creative and depressed be thankful you have a way to express what you are going through, hopefully even transmute it. You will still be creative when you are happy, no question about it.

    If you are a writer then the following will make sense…

    When you are depressed – just keep writing
    When you are happy – just keep writing

  3. I feel happy all the time when I am writing, I just rush to the ideas. I believe creativity is limitless But when I reach to some points I start to slow down, question myself if I am writing what is good or will not hurt any one. This slows down my creativity because I do not ask myself why I am writing a story when I am writing. I wonder if I have mastered the side of not being on the negative core belief side.

  4. BG says:

    Great stuff. thanks for this.

  5. HC says:

    Can I just say that the tortured artist thing very much applies to me, and I have to somewhat disagree with the above article on some notes. You are not more creative when you are happy, yes it’s still there, but that raw emotion and darkness isn’t expressed in your work as much, or not at all. This has happened to me personally, and I have noted that the geniuses are generally tortured artists, look at Beethoven, Alexander McQueen, Van Gogh, Marilyn Manson, but to name a few.

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      It may well apply to you, but it’s still a stereotype and NOT necessary to create, contrary to popular wisdom. I for one can’t write a word if miserable and you’d be surprised by just how many writers this applies to.

  6. Anita Morris says:

    I have bipolar type II, generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder etc. and that’s just my problems with mental illness. I have chronic pain problems and learning disabilities as well. I dislike the tortured artist cliche because I create better and more often when I’m well. I admit what I’m writing is very dark but good craft makes for good writing, not the nature of the plot.

  7. Kenny Rich says:

    Fantastic. Besides working at my “craft” and this article being both spot on and inspirational for me personally I am going to take it with me to share at a group I run for people who are trying to overcome substance abuse addictions. There is great wisdom in this article regardless of what you’re suffering from or think you’re suffering from.
    Thanks for sharing Lucy.


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