A painter we’ll call Jane had become reasonably successful creating and selling a certain kind of imagery: abstract paintings whose major motifs were triangles and circles. She complained to me that she wanted to try her hand at full abstraction and wanted to let go of the triangles and the circles but found that she couldn’t, that something in her balked at producing paintings where there was “nothing to read.”
The precipitating crisis came when she visited a painter friend, looked at one of her friend’s new, fully abstract paintings, and blurted out, “That’s what I want to do!” But when she got back to the studio and began working on a new painting, she still couldn’t keep her arm and her brain from including her characteristic triangles and circles. That’s when she called me.
I began by asking her the most natural question.
“What do you think is preventing you from letting go of the triangles and circles?”
“I really don’t know,” she replied. “I think … it has something to do with risk. It feels incredibly scary using just color and gesture. Intellectually and emotionally, that’s exactly what I want to do. But some fear is stopping me.”
“I get it. So … we could try our darnedest to get the fear named or we could work from the following premise, that full abstraction scares you but that you’re going to try it anyway. What’s your preference?”
Jane laughed. “I suppose we could do some sessions trying to get the fear named but I’m not sure I have the money for that. I guess I’m going to have to go with ‘It scares me and I’m going to do it anyway.’”
“Then let’s chat about getting you some simple, useful anxiety-management skills, since you’ve just announced that you mean to invite some new anxiety into your life. What do you currently do to manage the anxiety that wells up in you when you try to take a big risk?”
By the end of the session Jane had committed to trying her hand at some very large, fully abstract paintings, felt buoyed by having two new anxiety-management tools in place (a certain breathing technique and a certain relaxation technique), and felt ready to spend a month diving into the unknown.
Is this a lesson you need to learn?
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