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Therapy for Creatives, Part 15: A Downside of ‘Going Pro’

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

A fundamental premise of my therapy practice is creative people need to be creative to have good mental health. This opinion is based on 30 years of working as a creative, producing creatives' work, hiring creatives, and working for creatives. My observations and research in neuropsychology have led me to believe that creatives have an extra layer of complexity in how they view and organize their world. Those who were consistently engaged in creativity seem happier and more enthusiastic about life in general than those who are inconsistent or conflicted about how they are validated by their actions. (more about this in a moment).

Terms and Conditions

Before going any further, it's essential to know my definition of 'a creative’; anyone who has a passion for organizing or manifesting ideas or material goods. Computer programming, graffiti, fine art, dance, music, collecting, organizing, decorating, and design are a few examples of creative efforts. The 'passion' is the added X factor that makes the rewards of the creative act compelling.

The Antique Tractor Builders

In my experience, some creatives work in a space purely for their own enjoyment, not expecting fame and fortune due to their efforts. A recent internet search sent me down the rabbit trail of people buying and restoring derelict antique farm equipment. Youtube has dozens of videos on this subject with high play counts. These guys (and girls) are serious about what they are doing. In the videos, they are super into it—they have found a place in a weird (to me) tide pool creative community. While I’m not interested in restoring rusty tractors, I was fascinated by the video maker's devotion and passion for what they are doing. These rebuilders are in it for themselves. While they may capture an audience and sell their work, the point is not external validation (money, fame) but the interior reward of knowing and doing.

Looking for an Audience

There are other creatives, mainly in the performative or fine arts, who may have been attracted to their medium (painting, dancing, acting, playing music) by paying for the privilege of owning or witnessing the artist's product. Legions of musicians have been initiated and exposed to their craft with the knowledge that there could be large rewards of attention (fame) and money. This category of creators may reap valuable internal validation from their work; however, they may be invalidated by friends, family, and media messages that devalue their work. As a result, these creators are at risk of becoming conflicted about their creative work. The invalidation of a small audience or inability to make a living from their art creates anxiety and depression that can easily outweigh the positive influence of internal validation.

Moving the Goal Posts

In my experience as a record producer and therapist, it can be challenging for a creative to recalibrate their expectations and recognize that the reward for their work should not be tilted towards external gains. It was almost impossible to do as a producer (who was being paid to work on their shot at the big time) and challenging as a therapist. But in therapy, that shift is achievable.

The New Deliverable

Most creatives in therapy are not surprised to hear that being creative is essential to their mental health. The nature of inspiration (the joy when it comes and the anxiety and depression of working in the weeds with no clear path to excellence) operates in the realm of emotion. Once exposed to the idea that being creative is essential to good mental health—and having that message repeated and reformatted in their therapy experience—a shift from primary external validation to an awareness of internal rewards can happen. When it does, the results are excellent. Creatives who make a living with their talent may handle deadlines and rejection with less anxiety. For those that have not met an aspirational goal of making a living on their art, a softening of the external and internal critical voices can occur, leaving room for the deep satisfaction of being true to their creative compass.

Written by: Dan Workman, LMSW

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