Therapy for the Creative Artist and creative blocks

I’ve treated many creative artists in my practice—thespians, screen actors, writers and behind-the-sceners. Over the years of my own experience as a performing artist turned clinician, I have come to understand the psychological uniqueness of this population. First, I will list some clinical issues specific to the creative artist, and secondly I will address how psychotherapy can be helpful for the all-too-familiar “creative block.”

Psychological Issues relating to artists:

Low self-esteem due to continued rejection

Low motivation or hope for the future due to lack of work

Body image issues

Disordered eating

Creative blocks

Unresolved emotional issues hindering performance

Performance anxiety

Depression

Anxiety

Unresolved emotional issues being triggered by work and inability to appropriately work through them

Substance abuse for coping or performance enhancement

Perfectionism

Negative self-criticism or self-doubt

Relationship problems

Lack of meaning or purpose in one’s work

Shifts in identity

Loss of identity

The list could probably go on. Needless to say, it’s tough out there for any artist. I have found that fortunately, the artistic mind does incredibly well in therapy as it is naturally intuitive and introspective, and it typically benefits greatly from therapy.

One common reason creative artists seek therapy is for “creative block,” or feeling frozen in one’s tracks—the inability to perform or to produce new material. Psychotherapy can help with creative blocks. Recent research has shown that active mood states, particularly the verbal exploration of them, increases creativity. Having a safe place in which one is motivated to explore aloud their most primitive emotions might be the perfect catalyst for sparking a creative process. Often, that emotional content is accessed in therapy and becomes expressed in the form of creativity. Research in drama therapy has shown techniques such as the empty chair, role play and various experiential exercises to be highly effective at increasing creativity in artists.

Generally, psychoanalytic therapy for creative blocks encourages unbridled unconscious “material” to enter the room through free association, where the person says whatever comes to mind no matter how trivial. Free association through drawing, writing, reporting of dreams or others mediums are used as well, and the key is for both the analyst and patient to analyze the content to discover where the blockage lies. I favor this approach, since I believe nothing leads to understanding, let alone new creative material, like free association does.

New York psychoanalyst Paul Cooper makes an important point, informed by his award-winning career as a writer, poet and musician. He states that creative blocks for the artist can be mistakenly viewed as a “blockage,” or hault in functioning resulting from the individual’s own inner conflict. This often leads to a “what’s wrong with me?” focus for the artist, and the therapy can become about finding the cause of one’s defectiveness. Cooper’s observation is that the creative process naturally ebbs and flows, requiring times for pause—for “taking in, absorption, gestation and consolidation.” Thus, therapy should work with the circular creative process, with an acceptance and curiosity about where the artist is currently in their process.

So, it is accurate to say the inherently creative process of therapy, despite the specifics of one’s approach, is helpful in understanding where the artistic “blockage” comes from. As it typically stems from unconscious material, what better way to tackle it or to accept it than welcoming that precious material into the therapy room?

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