Art and Pain

Visual artists, like all human beings, experience significant emotional distress. What can we do to reduce that emotional pain?

We experience emotional distress in all sorts of ways, as sadness, anxiety, addictions, unproductive obsessions, unwanted compulsions, repetitive self-sabotaging behaviors, physical ailments, boredom, and as all sorts of angry, bleak, and agitated moods.

What helps relieve this distress? What helps a person to heal? The mental health system as currently constituted says that the following two things help the most: drugs and talk therapy. Setting those two aside, what else helps? Here are five tips for emotional healing:

Be yourself

You must 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 a hundred other ways being you and not somebody small or false.

Invent yourself

You come with attributes, capacities and proclivities and you are molded in a certain environment. But at some point you must say, “Okay, this is what is original to me and this is how I have been formed but 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.

Get a grip on your mind

Nothing causes more emotional distress than the thoughts we think. We must do a better job than we usually do of identifying the thoughts that don’t serve us, disputing them and demanding that they go away, and substituting more useful thoughts. Thinking thoughts that do not serve you is the equivalent of serving yourself up emotional distress. Only you can get a grip on your own mind; if you won’t do that work, you will live in distress.

Make meaning

Meaning is nothing more arcane than a certain sort of subjective psychological experience. We can have much more meaning in our life if we stop looking for it 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 experience life as meaningful. Meaning problems produce severe emotional distress and learning the art of value-based meaning-making dramatically reduces that distress.

Upgrade your personality

You may not be the person you would like to be. You may be angrier than you would like to be, more impulsive, more scattered, more self-sabotaging, more undisciplined, more frightened. If so, you require a personality upgrade, which of course only you can supply. You choose a feature of your personality you would like to upgrade and then you ask yourself, what thoughts align with this intention and what actions align with this intention? Then you think the appropriate thoughts and take the necessary action. In this way you become the person capable of and equal to reducing your emotional distress.

The paradigm of self-help is completely available to anyone who wants to reduce emotional distress. You can understand yourself; you can form intentions and carry them out; you can learn from experience; you can grow and heal. Naturally none of this is true if you are unwilling to do the work required. But if you are, you have an excellent chance of reducing your emotional distress and experiencing genuine emotional health.

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