A perception of artists as eccentric, different, and living on the social periphery seems to precede this group outside of therapy and, likely, within the context of treatment as well. There seems to be an unspoken premise that ingenuity is motivated by pain or pathology, or at least some might argue there is a sort of affiliation. Some might assume that this relationship is causal: that trauma causes creativity and thus most artists are contending with some type of affliction. An alternative possibility may be that art is not necessarily motivated by pain; rather the capacity for creative inspiration is something that is brought into the recovery process by those who have such inclinations. In other words, some survivors who are able to express through art may have access to a recovery tool that others do not.
The explanation for eccentricity may serve those outside of the life of the creative in the collective search for continuity versus holding a truth for the individual. Cultural positions regarding gender, race, and other demographic variables have been acknowledged as significant in how therapy plays out as well as having a significant impact on people as they attempt to navigate their lives and define themselves. To postulate art as a product of illness likely has implications within the therapeutic context and thus may be worthy of evaluation. Regarding creative inspiration as a resiliency factor in the same way as personality traits, support systems, and solid attachment histories could be relevant in our approach with this population. The focus here will be in identifying the ways in which creativity can respond to trauma and mitigate its effects while simultaneously acting as a supportive tool.
Traumatic symptoms place significant demand on individuals’ emotional lives; the persistence and intensity of flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and other challenges can be unrelenting. Repeated images of disturbing aspects of events, difficulty relating to others, and emotional flooding are clearly something to be contended with for survivors. Distortions in reality such as feeling generally distrustful of others, feeling generally unsafe, or even varying degrees of psychosis are also indicators that integration of painful material has not occurred. Digestion and piecing together the historical puzzle are necessary components of feeling better. Access to creativity may assist in regulating affect while working towards making sense of trauma.
The drive to write or perform music or dance, act, paint, or draw seems to exist or not exist in someone. Perhaps to some extent it can be cultivated; however it appears we all come to the table with our own idiosyncratic gifts. Creative motivation is often described as an illusive and illogical propellant that tends not to yield financial and social gain. The reward seems to be internal and is related not only to the product (i.e. a painting, story, piece of music) but to the process. Engagement in developing something creative (much like I am attempting to do now) can have a dissociative feel; there is a disconnect from reality and a hyperfocus that is quite distinctive (I refer to this as the creative stupor). There is an openness in the process, a permission to explore the unspoken, to be childlike, and to express with depth and abandonment.
The intersection of painful events and the creative process either in the context of therapy or outside of it can be salubrious in that both the art and the person benefit.
Explanations for phenomena logically influence our response to them. Defining the creative process or artistic product as a function of pathology likely effects the cultural response to art as well as the therapeutic context. The identification of those within this demographic as having a unique tool to inform us as their clinician as well as to aid in their process could foster a dynamic shift in the work we do. Conceptually, eccentricities in people, whether it be through art, a mathematical gift, or idiosyncratic ways of thinking could all be potential resiliency factors. This doesn’t imply that we assume our clients should use their gift therapeutically, rather that we maintain curiosity and openness to it while allowing it to inform our work.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Athena H. Phillips, MSW, LCSW, therapist in Portland, Oregon
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