Monday, November 3, 2008

Intimacy, Fear and Creativity

by Lawrence H. Staples
author of Guilt with a Twist

The resistance a patient experiences in painting on this canvas that lies between him and the analyst, or in attempting otherwise to paint or write while in analysis, is similar to what artists experience when they encounter a block. They have touched and activated some thought or feeling that scared them. They will remain blocked until the unconscious thought or feeling is made conscious and dealt with. What scared them often turns out to be a fear that is appropriate to and belongs to childhood, but that continues unconsciously. What scares artists and causes them to block is often the fear of revealing in their art a secret about themselves. It is a fear of self-revelation, a fear of revealing something that was dangerously unacceptable to their parents. They are not conscious of what is frightening them because the fearful thing might seem silly or frivolous. Dealing with this issue is the job of analysis. Analysis tries to depotentiate these fears, allowing the individual to see them for what they are, often just a spook.

The Creative Soul: Art and the Quest for WholenessI have worked with a number of creative people who entered analysis because they were blocked. Something had frightened them or hurt them or made them feel so vulnerable that they could no longer risk going outside the fence, where the opposites they needed for their creative work were. Their need for safety was keeping them in the safe zone. Thus, they were separated from the stones they needed to finish the work they had started. Usually, with sufficient encouragement and mirroring, their comfort level with the opposites returned and they were able to go back outside, where lay the stones needed to complete their job.

A letter from a former patient, a multi-talented artist who had finished his work with me, helped make me more conscious of and understand more fully the etiology of the resistance to and the blocking of our creative work, whether in analysis or in other art forms. This former patient shared with me the profound insight that what blocks us in our art is essentially what blocks us in our relationships.

He was struggling with his painting when he wrote to me: “Our talks about the fear of intimacy in relationships come to mind when I find myself frustrated in my creative work and begin to think to myself, ‘Yeah, it is just getting difficult and you want to bail out on something that you actually have feelings for and are afraid of going deeper.’” He had perceived a connection between creative work and relationships that is far from obvious. Reflecting on his comments, I realized how rich his insight was.

Reflecting on his comments, I realized how rich his insight was. He was right; it is fear of intimacy that blocks our commitment to and deep engagement to both art and relationships. Intimacy means fully revealing and expressing our selves to others. It is intimacy, deep self-revelation that renders both art and relationships authentic. We resist intimacy and the authenticity it produces because we fear fully revealing our selves to others. We are afraid we will be unacceptable, criticized, and rejected. And we fear revealing ourselves to our self.

Because our art is a reflected image of our selves, the potential rejection of our art is as terrifying as the potential rejection of our selves in a relationship. Rejection is a threat of annihilation in both. No wonder we are tempted to hide our selves or to run away or, as my patient remarked, “bail out” of both. No wonder we are tempted to keep our paintings, our writing, or other artistic output safely ensconced out of sight in a drawer or cupboard. No wonder it keeps us from submitting our art for exhibition or our writing to a publisher. Even worse, it is often what separates us from our paintbrushes, word processors, or other tools of the trade.

Instead of doing creative work and exposing it to the world we go drinking, fishing, or screwing. Such diversions, if they replace our creative artistic work, eventually result in thoughts of suicide. There is only one way to relieve or expunge those thoughts—creative production. If we are lucky, we eventually will be able to engage in both authentic art and authentic relationships before we die.

Guilt with a Twist: The Promethean WayThe idea of revealing our selves to others is like parading naked before others, and both are scary. It makes no difference whether this revealing of ourselves is represented in a physical, mental, spiritual, or symbolic form. We fear the guilt and shame that will ensue if any representation is judged to be bad. It is a feared attack on our self-worth, on the very foundations of our being. It is the ultimate block to our creativity or activity, or at least, that is how it seems. This fear is one reason why it is often easier to be successful in conventional terms—in business, law, or medicine—than to be successful in art or relationships. Being successful in conventional areas often depends upon concealing large parts of one’s self, while success in art most often involves revealing large parts of one’s self. Thus, the very thing that makes bad art and bad relationships may make good business.

My patient’s note crystallized for me the important connection between art and relationships. The more I thought about what he said the more I could see that they have much in common. Both good art and good relationships depend on and result from a creative activity that flows from our deepest realm. They are, in fact, identical from the standpoint of the underlying creative principles and processes that give them life. They are similarly conceived, formed, and developed. It follows, then, that good art and good relationships depend on the same things, and they both require creative effort of the highest order, effort that may be intense and may need a prolonged gestation period. And they both require profound intimacy, both with one’s self and others, if they are to be really good.

We create great relationships only when we fully reveal our selves; we create great art only when we truly reveal our selves. Art and relationships require the same nutrients to grow. If we want our art and our relationships to be strong and beautiful, we must feed them intimacy, which is what makes both of them thrive. Thus, the quality of our art and the quality of our relationships depend on the degree to which we accomplish this feat of intimate self-revelation. The more that they reflect our selves the better they are.

This is why we simultaneously both fear and fall in love with our relationships and our art. We see our selves in both of them. Christ’s command that we love our neighbors as our selves would be a meaningless and empty phrase if we could not first love our selves. We cannot love our selves if we cannot know our selves. Both relationships and art help us know our selves by mirroring and reflecting back to us who we are.

As we have noted, however, life presents us with a great paradox. We fear deeply the very thing that we need if we are to create good art and good relationships. Artist’s block and lover’s block flow from the same pool and result from the same dynamics. For reasons described throughout my book we are frightened by the impulse to reveal our selves fully, because it always means revealing the unacceptable parts of our selves. To find and reveal our selves fully, we must breach the fence with which convention surrounds us, and incur guilt. Doing this requires great courage and a high tolerance for pain.

It is painful because to do so is to expose parts of our selves that got us into trouble with or caused us to be rejected. There was trouble when we expressed unacceptable feelings, like: “I am afraid” or “I need you” or “I miss you” or “Please leave the lights on” or “Please don’t leave me alone” or “I hate you” or “Go to hell.” There is a huge range of negative feelings that were disallowed and we are afraid to expose them because we do not want to be rejected by touching the same hot stove that burned us when we were kids. We want people to love our art and us, but we fear that they will reject both if we truly reveal who we are and what we feel. How could we feel otherwise? That was a burn that still hurts.

Parents were our first image of God, and we harbor well into adulthood, mostly unconsciously, the thought that they are God. For this reason, we viscerally experience the acknowledgment, acceptance, or expression of the forbidden feelings and values as a transgression of God’s will. It is easy to understand why it is so difficult to undo the early damage that parents inflicted and that interfere with our deep need for intimacy. Even the parents themselves were unaware of what was going on.

Relevant is a dream of an analysand several years ago. In the dream, he went into the bathroom at night, in the dark, and stepped on glass that his mother had broken, but not swept up. He cut his feet badly. It cut him and wounded him in an important place: his standpoint. Insecure and domineering parents often cannot tolerate their children subscribing to or expressing a standpoint different from theirs; they demand orthodoxy of feelings, values, and viewpoints. They thus cut the child off from large areas of himself. The cut, as seen in the dream, must heal if the child is to find and know himself fully, develop his own individual standpoint, and express himself intimately in both art and relationships. Whether a cut or a burn, the sensitive wound does not want to be reopened and the fear of pain keeps us at a distance from important parts of our selves.

Thus, to avoid the frightful intimacy that involves fully revealing our selves, we kid our selves into thinking that our art and our relationships depend on finding the “right” person or the “right” art form. We believe that both the problem and its solution lie “out there” instead of “in here,” in our selves. Our capacity for intimacy depends on our capacity to find and accept within our selves the forbidden feelings that we rejected. We simply cannot intimately reveal to others feelings that we our selves do not accept. Finding and accepting those forbidden feelings involves a long process of introspection that is not for the faint of heart.

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