ARTISTS IN DISTRESS
The pressures of making excellent art, fashioning a successful career, and, as added burdens, keeping up with ever-changing technology and a continually shifting art landscape, are tremendous stressors on an artist’s system. And then there is life, with its headaches, heartaches, and bills to be paid. What artist doesn’t suffer from severe emotional distress in the face of so many demands? This distress comes with certain mental disorder labels nowadays, but whether or not the labels are warranted or legitimate the distress is abundantly real.
How is this distress experienced? As profound sadness, high anxiety, pestering self-talk, unproductive obsessions, self-soothing addictions, overwhelm, procrastination, sleeplessness, deep fatigue, irritability, eroded self-confidence, a weakened immune system—the list is very long. This distress is completely to be expected, given the demands that a contemporary artist faces, and made worse if the rest of an artist’s life is also stressful. No wonder that so many of our artists are in so much pain.
There are zero easy answers or magic bullets available. The mental health system provides two offerings, “psychiatric medication” and “expert talk” (in quotes because there is great debate in the mental health profession about the value and legitimacy of those offerings). Society provides none, as it is busy with bottom line concerns and the propagation of cultural value and myths, including the myth that we are all essentially happy. Family can be a great resource—except when it is part of the problem. Where can an artist turn for help?
I’ve done whole books on each of these problems: the sadness problem (The Van Gogh Blues and Rethinking Depression), the anxiety problem (Mastering Creative Anxiety and Performance Anxiety), the addiction problem (Creative Recovery), the problems that come with a racing brain (Brainstorm and Why Smart People Hurt), and many other books that examine what an artist can do to reduce emotional pain and distress. Each of these books presents a long part-answer to the question of how to meet the large demands that come with the life an artist has chosen to live.
Another important part-answer can be found in my latest book, Life Purpose Boot Camp. To the extent that we don’t understand how to create the psychological experience of meaning, we are that much less likely to experience life as meaningful. Likewise, if we don’t make strong life purpose choices, articulate them clearly and get them on our daily calendar, and align our thoughts and our behaviors with our life purpose choices, we won’t be living our life purposes. How much more distress will we create for ourselves if we aren’t experiencing life as meaningful or living our life purposes? Focusing on meaning and life purpose are keys to reducing our emotional distress.
Mental health professionals rarely address these two areas of life purpose and meaning. Yet life purpose and meaning may hold the key to emotional wellbeing. It may prove life-changing to create a menu of meaning opportunities for yourself and discern the many ways you have available to make value-based meaning—art making, certainly, but a score of other opportunities, too, like relating, service, activism, and so on. When you focus on your meaning investments and your life purpose intentions you make yourself proud; and that sense of personal pride can go a long way to reducing emotional distress. The more we live authentically, the more we arrive at a place where meaning trumps mood: where the activity of making meaning is more real and important to us than the mood we happen to find ourselves in.
There are many ways to relieve distress. Sunlight and exercise help with sadness. Anxiety management strategies help with anxiety. Recovery programs help with addictions. There are useful cognitive techniques to master and stress reduction skills to learn. But if you do not also learn how to maintain meaning and live in the light of your life purposes, a substantial portion of your distress will not go away. There is an art to making meaning and an art to living our life purposes and this art is not taught in any art school – or anywhere else, for that matter.
Mental distress is a given. We can’t make it through life without the many demands piled upon us producing significant unwanted effects. A beautifully designed creature might have been designed to handle these stressors better: an evolved creature like us is stuck being the current model of our species. This model gets sad; this model gets agitated; this model gets overwhelmed. Every change in the art landscape, every sale that falls through, every offhand criticism of our work wears us down a little bit more. At least, if we are savvy, we can still meet our life purpose needs and keep meaning afloat. In those regards I recommend Life Purpose Boot Camp to you. I think it might just help.
You can pre-order Life Purpose Boot Camp here:
You can learn about the next Life Purpose Boo Camp class here: