Art and the Dread of Experience

Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of artists — musicians, a choreographer, several writers — and dealt with various types of artistic inhibition such as writer’s block.  In our work together, my clients and I  struggled with issues that might be familiar to you:  perfectionism, grandiosity of the type described in my post on self-criticism, as well as the self-envy that may lie behind fear of success. With several of my clients, I came to understand another such difficulty in making art, where the original inspiration or emotional charge behind the work of art is killed off in the process of creation.

In an earlier post on anxiety attacks and disorders, I introduced the concept of mind as a container for emotional experience; I discussed how people with “insufficient mind” — that is, an inability to contain and manage their emotional experience — often feel terrified that strong feelings will overwhelm and annihilate them.  Several of the artists in my practice fit this description.  One of them was prone to anxiety attacks and states of disintegration; another led a very controlled life, without much human emotional involvement; a third showed symptoms of autism and often tried to shut out a world that stirred up such terrifying emotions.  These difficulties also affected their creative processes.

Over time, we came to think of the work of art — be it a choreographic work, a song or a piece of fiction — as a sort of container for their emotional experience.  It’s how I think about art in general:  great works of art contain and express profound emotional experiences; optimally, the shape of that container (the individual and unique painting, novel, symphony, etc.) bears an organic relationship to what is contained, adapting its shape to the needs of authentic emotional expression.  I hope that doesn’t sound too abstract; as a clinician, I have found it an incredibly helpful way to think about my artist-clients.  The artist works upon his or her “insights” and tries to create a uniquely powerful work of art that will convey powerful emotion (basic human truths) to an audience.

With several of my clients, they started off with a powerful feeling or insight but in the process of creating their work of art, deadened it.  The art they produced (in their own view, not mine) lacked “depth” or “dimension”:  dance works felt “constipated”, their performers trapped in choreography with constricted movement and little emotion; songs seemed simplistic and boring, without true feeling; characters appeared “flat” and “two-dimensional”.  In our culture, we frequently use these exact critical terms:  lack of depth, flat characters, two-dimensional stories, etc.  A vital artistic container has three dimensions and its own sort of life force; it has an interior and a surface or “skin” with which we, as audience, can interact.

Unsuccessful works of art have little dimension.  Rather than containing and conveying powerful emotion, they stifle it.  The artist who is terrified of intense emotion may mis-use his or her art form, employing it to flatten feelings instead of expressing them.  For that reason, the works of art they produce will leave an audience feeling “cold”, indifferent or bored.  In short, rather than conveying profound and intense human truths, such art works seek to deny them.

Recently, one of my clients (an aspiring and frustrated writer) brought in a dream that perfectly illustrated this process.  She was treading water in a pond along with some “cowboys”.  The pond felt like a whirlpool and they were all in danger of being sucked down into it.  The only way to save themselves — that is, to keep from drowning — was to tell one another non-stop stories while treading water.  At the same time, each of them had to hold onto a piece of raw meat that had been vacuum-sealed in plastic.

The cowboys are linked to the Wild West, a frightening way of life without the restraining influence of law and civilization.  Raw meat connects to raw emotion.  The dream shows how my client is terrified of her own raw emotional experience; in order to save herself from being overwhelmed by that experience, she resorts to “art” (telling stories) as a defense.  In the process, she shrink-wraps her experience and makes it safe, no longer raw and vital but hygienically processed, like something you might find in a supermarket meat case.

Finding Your Own Way:

I know that a number of visitors to this site are artists; I’d welcome your input on this subject.  What sort of artistic inhibitions have you struggled with?  Does this description in any way resonate with your own experience?  What about your view of other artists and their work?

As for the rest of us, we might begin with our relation to different art forms and how they affect us.  Think of a movie you found boring and ask yourself why.  Was it because the characters were flat, the story lacking in dimension?  Movies that portray extremely black-and-white characters often leave me cold because they strike me as a denial of a basic truth, that humans are a mixture of good and bad, each of us struggling with unavoidable ambivalence. What about novels you put aside and never finished?  Was it because they failed to engage your emotions?  Did they seem flat and lacking in dimension?

Many of us have artistic urges and never manage to fulfill them.  Maybe it’s because we lack time and self-discipline; maybe it’s because we don’t have the patience to master the needed skill.  Another possible explanation, suggested by this post, is that we grow bored with the process, bored with our own creations, and abandon them.  Sometimes people take up a “hobby”, an artistic endeavor that holds meaning, and in the process somehow render the experience meaningless to them; often it’s because they simply can’t sustain intense emotional involvement with themselves and their art form.

Defenses Against Shame

Over the years of my practice, I’ve found that most clients who come into treatment struggle on some level with issues of neediness and shame.  In other posts, I’ve discussed difficulties in bearing need; now I’d like to address in detail three core defenses against the experience of unbearable shame:  narcissistic flight, blaming and contempt.  Denial of internal damage lies at the heart of all three defenses.  Feelings of basic shame also form the core of what is commonly referred to as “low self-esteem”.

Narcissism is the primary defense against shame and often goes hand-in-hand with the other two defenses.  When people suffer from an unbearable sense of shame, they often seek to elicit admiration from the outside, as if to deny the internal damage.  Beautiful outside versus ugly inside.  We’ve all known such narcissistic types.  As friends or acquaintances, they tax our patience and drain us emotionally because of their constant need to draw attention to themselves; their narcissistic behavior makes social interactions dull and one-sided.  Recognizing that these people suffer from unbearable shame may help
us to feel some compassion but it doesn’t make the relationships any more satisfying.

The shame-driven client poses a major therapeutic challenge.  If the therapist tries to discuss narcissistic behavior as a defense, to go beneath the “beautiful” outside and get closer to the “ugly” inside, it can easily feel to the client like a narcissistic injury, unbearably painful; rather than feeling that the therapist wants to help them get closer to  something true but unrecognized, such clients often feel humiliated.  I discussed such a client in my post on ‘Avatar’ and toxic shame avoidance.  As we got closer to the core of shame in our work together, whenever I tried to put him in touch with the damaged David hiding behind his narcissistic Internet encounters, he’d often begin to scream, accusing me of misunderstanding or purposefully humiliating him.  It felt to me as if the shame were so excrutiating that he had to “scream it out,” to rid himself of that searing pain and project it into me.  As his therapist, I found the experience deeply painful but at the same time, it helped me understand the degree of his suffering, the intense pain he was constantly warding off.

Continue “Defenses Against Shame”

Hatred and Anger as Glue

Responding to an earlier post, Rafael Mendez-Arauz wonders whether the inner “brat” is in reality the “pseudo-self”.   My good friend Marla Estes has stated, on both her own site and in a comment to one of my posts, that she believes anger can be a response to forces from the outside that disturb our tranquility.  I think the three of us would agree that a response of anger or hatred isn’t always primary; that is, it might be a defense to ward off something else. The best way I can illustrate this is to discuss the “drowning kitten.”  This metaphor came to play a central part in the treatment of one of my long-term clients, a very disturbed young woman who was cutting herself when she first came in, and suffered from a kind of depression that bordered on psychosis.  Years later, after much improvement, she’d stabilized and had developed a positive relationship with a man.  From time to time, though, when she was under great stress, she’d erupt in anger at him; with a cruel sort of insight, she would savage him for his faults, spew invective at him, and then feel horribly guilty afterward.  We tried to understand this in various ways but didn’t seem to be making headway. My own theoretical point of view at that time was limiting my understanding, and I’m very grateful to this client (and others like her) who stuck with me long enough for me to grow into understanding.  Real insight came when she described herself during one of these outbursts as “a drowning kitten”, lashing out with her teeth and claws at those around her.   What we then were able to understand was that her rage helped ward off an unbearable experience of anxiety that verged on terror:  she felt she might literally fly into pieces (death), and the outburst of rage helped hold herself together in the face of this disintegration anxiety.  It acted as a kind of “glue”, in the way Marla Estes has described the function of psychological defenses. Continue “Hatred and Anger as Glue”

Breathe More, Think Less

You’re probably familiar with the cognitive-behavior technique known as “thought stopping,” used to cope with stressful and anxiety-intensifying thoughts and ideas during panic attacks, as well as with negative self-statements in depression.  I’ve never found this technique particularly useful, for me or my clients; even worse, its emphasis on replacing such thoughts with verbal affirmations means you’re trying to address a maladaptive mental habit by prescribing that very habit.  In other words, the problem isn’t negative verbal thoughts but verbal thought in general.

This isn’t true for everyone, but many of my clients turned to verbal thought at a very early age in an effort to master trauma, anxiety, major depression and the kind of emotional damage that leads to shame.  They’ve spent a lifetime coping with every emotional challenge by thinking about it.  That might sound like a positive endeavor — thinking is supposed to be a good thing, right? — but in fact, it’s a kind of defense mechanism where mentally/verbally describing an experience feels like a way of exerting control over it, in an almost a magical way.  The person who has developed this kind of defense tends to be very articulate, was often verbally precocious as a child, and over-values language.  As one of my clients once told me, “The only good to be found in suffering is if you can describe it well.”

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Your Emotional Playlist

If you’ve taken an exercise class at your gym, the instructor most likely played upbeat, high energy music, not only because the tempo and rhythm suited the exercise combinations but also because the music was energizing.  He or she selected music that would inspire you to exert yourself.  A yoga instructor might use New Age music instead, to put you in a peaceful, contemplative state of mind conducive to stretching.

I’m not the first to note that music is pure emotion.  It may give voice to emotions we’re already experiencing, but it can also induce new feelings within us.  No doubt you have favorite songs that reliably stir up certain feelings whenever you hear them.   Many people turn to music for emotional congruence:  if they’re feeling blue because a relationship ended, they may listen to torch songs; if they’re happy, they may want to hear something joyful.  But we can also use music in the exact opposite way — listen to something upbeat in order to cheer ourselves when we’re down.

We can use books and movies in these same ways, especially when it comes to old favorites.  No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I watch It’s a Wonderful Life almost every year at Christmas, and I still get weepy when the people of Bedford Falls file through George and Mary’s front door with cash to save him from the bank examiner.  I like to feel moved and I watch the film in part because I look forward to that experience.  I’ve read The Portrait of a Lady eight or nine times and I’m always devastated by the end.  Part of my goal in rereading the novel is to revisit that pain.

Continue “Your Emotional Playlist”