The Psyche of the Artist: Seven Tips for Living the Artist’s Life

Eric Maisel

Many topics could be covered under the heading of “the psyche of the artist.” What sort of draining challenge is an artist’s lifelong struggle to retain her individuality and her independence? How much stress is produced by the realities of the art marketplace, where virtually no artist is able to make a living? How badly do criticism and rejection hurt an artist’s morale? What exactly are the traits of the creative personality (more than 75 traits have been identified) and what is the shadow side of each trait (e.g., too little risk-taking produces timidity but too much risk-taking produces its own serious negative consequences)?

Your emotional health is your responsibility: understanding the challenges that you face and having strategies and tactics in place for dealing with those challenges are as much your job as are stretching canvases or mixing pigments. Your mood will sink: expect it. You will get anxious: believe it. You will engage in self-soothing activities that can easily turn addictive: be on guard. You will set your brain racing: then you must be the brakeman. You will experience regrets, disappointments, rages, pestering self-talk, psychological pain, stresses from within and stresses from without: there is no getting around it. You are human — all of this is coming.
Get ready. Create a support system. Know what you will do when you get too sad or too anxious. Know what you will do at the first signs of addictive behavior. Educate yourself about the art of making and maintaining meaning. Be clear on your survival tactics when you ruin several canvases in a row, when no one takes an interest in your work, when your mate pressures you to bring in more income, when life eats up most of your time and you can find hardly any time to get to the studio. All of this is for you to know, for you to work out, and for you to put into place.

Here are seven tips worth remembering, for helping to ensure that you remain mentally and emotionally healthy as an artist, in addition to making sure that you create:
1. Accept being human
 
Human beings experience emotional distress in all sorts of ways: as sadness, anxiety, addictions, unproductive obsessions, unwanted compulsions, repetitive self-sabotaging behaviors, physical ailments, conflicts of conscience, despair, boredom, and more. Can you accept this? Can you accept being human? When distress returns, can you stand unsurprised and, instead of blaming the universe, shrinking from the moment,or throwing up your hands, say, “I am a human being. I am nothing but human. Now, let me do what I can to gather myself and make myself proud!”
2. Acknowledge the straightjacket that is personality
 
Our personality is at once a pressure cooker and a windowless room. It sends our mind racing, it builds up grievances, it chooses sides, it frightens itself, it experiences disappointment and loss, it maintains dark secrets, and it gets violently aggrieved. It wants what it wants and it knows how to hate at least as well as it knows how to love. Yet what it does and how it operates seems not to interest its owner. It is as if we are born with one genetic instruction before all others: “Never look in the mirror!” Your personality is your responsibility. Your personality is your destiny. It may prove an uncomfortable fit; only you can improve it. 
3. Be yourself
 
You must improve yourself — but you must also be yourself. This means asking for what you want, setting boundaries, having your own beliefs and opinions, standing up for your values, wearing the clothes you want to wear, eating the food you want to eat, saying the things you want to say, and in countless other ways being you and not somebody different, small, or false. This doesn’t mean denying the importance of others — of individuals, communities, civil society, and so on. Rather, it means that if you are gay, you are gay; if you are smart, you are smart; if you demand freedom, you demand freedom. Make use of your available personality to untwist the straps of your formed personality and be the person you intend to be.
4. Invent yourself
 
You come with attributes, capacities and proclivities and you are molded in a certain environment. Your personality forms and you become repetitive to a fault. But at some point you must say, “Okay, whatever is original to me — whether it’s an extra dose of sadness, a bit too much sensitivity, whatever — and however I’ve been formed — to shrink, to fantasize, whatever — now who do I want to be?” You reduce your emotional distress by deciding to become a person who will experience less emotional distress: a calmer person, a less critical person, a less egoistic person, a more productive person, a less self-abusive person, and so on. You make the clear, conscious decision that, even as tightly wound as you may be, you will make use of your available personality and your remaining freedom to create yourself in your own best image. 
5. Love and be loved
 
Part of an artist’s nature requires solitude, alone time, and a substantial rugged individualism. But this isn’t the whole story of our nature. We feel happier, warmer, and just much better, we live longer, and we experience life as more meaningful if we love and let ourselves be loved. We must be individuals but we must also relate. To do both, to both be ourselves and to relate, requires that we acknowledge the reality of others, that we speak but also listen, and that we make ourselves fit for relationships by eliminating our worst faults and by growing up. If you have trouble loving, if you withhold, if you give yourself away, if you lead with criticism, if you can’t get over yourself — whatever you do that harms your chances at love — remedying that ought to become one of your life purposes.
6. Deal with your circumstances
 
Our circumstances matter to us. Our economic circumstances matter; our relationships matter; our work conditions matter; our health matters; whether our nation is at peace or is occupied by invaders matters. It matters whether we are selling our art; whether we are making enough money from our art; whether we are making any money from our art. Many circumstances are completely out of our control and many we can at least influence. We can change our day job, we can divorce, we can reduce our calorie intake, we can stand up or keep quiet, and we can do what we can to improve our circumstances. As a result of these improvements, we will likely feel emotionally better. Reducing your emotional distress requires that you take real action in the real world.
7. Make meaning
 
Our hardest lessons have to do with meaning. We do not understand that meaning is a “mere” psychological experience; we do not realize that adopting strong life purposes helps put meaning in its rightful place; we probably have never thought about our exact personal requirements with respect to meaning. We can have much more meaning in our life if we stop looking for it, as if it were a lost object or as if someone else knew more about it than we did, and realize that it is in our power to influence meaning and even make it. By making daily meaning investments and by seizing daily meaning opportunities we hold meaning crises at bay and we experience life as more meaningful. Meaning problems produce severe emotional distress and learning the art of value-based meaning-making dramatically reduces that distress. Learning this requires self-education, since nothing about meaning is taught in schools or by parents — or anywhere.
 Good luck to you!

Dr. Eric Maisel will be at The Rowe Center March 23–25, 2018 Visit rowecenter.org

This article is excerpted and adapted from “Get Smart About the Artist’s Psyche: Eric Maisel’s Solutions Guide to Meeting the Challenges of Mood Swings, Manias, Obsessions, Anxieties and Addictions,” by Eric Maisel, posted at www.ericmaisel.com.

Eric Maisel will present “Reigniting Your Creative Spark,” March 23–25.

ERIC MAISEL, PhD, has worked with thousands of artists worldwide. He has written more than 50 books, among them Fearless Creating, Coaching the Artist Within, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Creativity for Life, and The Van Gogh Blues.