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.

A Portrait of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in ‘The Social Network’ (2010)

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Throughout The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg demonstrates most of the traits associated with what the DSM-IV calls “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”  If you’ve spent much time on my site, you’ll have gathered that I’m no fan of diagnosis.  I don’t want to end my discussion of the film before I’ve even begun by affixing a label to this character; instead, I’d like to use The Social Network as a way to approach a cluster of psychological traits that often go together.  Sometimes you see them in the bipolar disorders; or you might find them displayed by someone who’d receive a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder instead.  In truth, the so-called personality disorders exist along a spectrum, nobody fitting neatly into any single diagnostic category, but I’ll use the DSM-IV criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a basis for my discussion.  I’ll invert the order of list and end with the earlier criteria since they raise some interesting and difficult questions.

According to the DSM-IV, you need to display at least five of these qualities to meet the diagnostic threshold.

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Compassion, Altruism and the True Spirit of Generosity

I have an ongoing debate with my oldest son about pure altruism and whether it actually exists.  He believes that nobody ever acts in a purely selfless way; part of the motivation for altruistic behavior, he argues, is to feel good about oneself as a person.  If you get some reward from the supposedly altruistic act then it can’t be purely selfless.

I go back and forth on my position.  “You haven’t had children yet,” I once told him.  “If I had to choose between us, I’d die for you.”  This was a cheap and sentimental argument, trying to use my supposedly self-sacrificial feelings as his father to win the debate.  He would have none of it. “That’s just because you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself otherwise.”  While that isn’t the only reason, of course not, it is definitely a large part of it.  This question isn’t finally settled in my mind but I think my son is winning the debate. With the Christmas holiday approaching — “the season of giving” — I’ve been thinking about compassion and self-sacrifice, and what motivates people to engage in apparently altruistic behavior.

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‘Avatar’, Toxic Shame and Avoidance of Authentic Relationships

At the opening of the movie Avatar, Jake Sully has suffered a severe spinal chord injury that leaves him a paraplegic.  No longer able to perform as a combat marine, and because the military won’t pay for an operation to restore the use of his legs — that is, to return him to his former self — Jake volunteers for a specialized military mission to the planet Pandora.  Through the miracle of medical technology, he learns to psychically link with and inhabit an “avatar” or alternative physical self on that planet.  In contrast to his paraplegic self, this avatar is healthy, fit and stands ten feet tall, with enormous physical prowess and sensory capabilities beyond those of humans. Embodying this avatar allows Jake not only to regain the functions he lost but also to surpass his human potential.  His experience on Pandora ultimately proves to be more real, more meaningful to him than his actual life; at the movie’s end, he finds a way to transcend his human physical damage and move permanently to the realm of his superior Na’vi self.

This story perfectly embodies a dynamic I’ve seen with many clients, where they feel themselves to be so damaged, so filled with basic shame (or toxic shame) that they long to escape into the world of fantasy and become another person entirely.

It’s a particular instance of the dynamic I discussed in my post about hopeless problems, perfect answers. In these cases, avoidance of authentic, realistic relationships is strong; instead, they wish for a perfect relationship with an idealized partner. The Internet has enabled many people to pursue and act out this fantasy — in virtual form, of course, and for a limited time only.

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Narcissistic Behavior and the Lost Art of Conversation

[NOTE:  Narcissism and narcissistic behavior are a primary focus of this website; all posts on that subject can be found under the heading Shame/Narcissism in the category menu to the right.  If you’d rather read a more clinical discussion of narcissistic behavior, you might prefer this post on narcissistic personality disorder, or this one on the relationship between narcissism and self-esteem.  If you want to learn more about the basic signs and symptoms of NPD and how to recognize them, click here.  More recently, I’ve also written about aspects of normal or everyday narcissism that apply to most of us.]


Most people are narcissistic.

I’m not using that word in the clinical diagnostic way, or in the everyday sense of vain or conceited.  What I mean is that most people are almost exclusively focused upon themselves, their personal interests and their own emotional needs for attention. A certain amount of preoccupation with oneself is normal and healthy; it becomes a problem when you’re not truly interested in other people or ideas and only want to talk about yourself.

Here’s a fairly common experience for me:  I’m at a party or social gathering, speaking to someone I’ve just met, or an acquaintance I haven’t seen in a long while.  I’m asking questions, inquiring about the person’s background or catching up since we last met. Fifteen, twenty minutes pass … we’re still talking about the other person.  I get the feeling that I could be anyone; I’m just a receptacle, a mirror or an audience.  I provide needed attention to the other person; he or she has no interest in getting to know the man who’s listening.

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