Monday, June 22, 2009

On Creativity and Healing

by Lawrence H. Staples, Ph.D.

In his book, The Restoration of the Self, Heinz Kohut wrote at length about psychically wounded people and the therapeutic methods he used to help them. He found none more effective, or so essential, as creative work. He found, importantly, that it made no difference whether the creative work was deemed good or artistic by any standards. The simple process of doing creative work helped restore the self. It is as if nature plants within us a built-in remedy for our worst affliction, the affliction of being separated from large parts of ourselves. We experience this separation as a kind of inner civil war that divides us internally. It produces the pain and suffering inherent in any civil war, whether in our internal world or outside. It seems that the human urge to do creative work is a compensatory impulse and blessing that arises from the psychic civil war that wounded us. In my own work as a psychoanalyst, I have witnessed the truth of Kohut’s findings. I have watched patients grow in wholeness as they began to work creatively in a variety of media that helped them recover and restore lost aspects of themselves.

Creative work mirrors us in a way we were often not mirrored by our parents. It mirrors us for the simple reason that we can see projected in it, if we look and interpret carefully, our own psychological and spiritual selves. Mirrors in all their manifold forms and guises help restore the wounded self.

Humans simply cannot see themselves without a mirror. Some mirrors, however, are better than others. Some are flawed or distorted so that we see ourselves, but only partially or inaccurately. From early on in life, we depend upon other humans to reflect us back to ourselves. But later in life, if we are lucky, we find that creative work and dreams mirror us more faithfully. We discover that human judgment taints and/or limits what is reflected back. Once we discover that we can mirror ourselves through creative work, we gain a modicum of self-sufficiency. We are no longer entirely dependent upon others to see us.

We may wonder why it is that humans cannot see themselves directly, why it is we can only see ourselves indirectly, as an image reflected by mirrors of various types. As we know any reflective surface, other humans, dreams, and our creative production can serve as mirrors to help us see ourselves as an indirect experience. The secret behind our need for reflective mirrors to see ourselves may be found in ancient wisdom, which informs us that to look into the face of God is to die. This wisdom says that to see the totality, to observe the Tremendum directly, is dangerous. We could infer from this wisdom that to see our own totality, our self, would be equally dangerous. It may explain why Perseus, powerful as he was, could not look at Medusa directly. He could only safely see her in the mirror provided by his shield. At the bottom of the unconscious, represented by the Labyrinth, he would find his own dark side, and could not look at it head on. It doesn’t take too much imagination to suspect that seeing the darkest side of God, or our self, could be a shattering experience. That may be why we hide our darkest side as assiduously as we can in the shadow, necessarily protected from our seeing it until a reflective mirror appears to reveal it to us safely.

As Kohut has observed, we do not have to be professional, creative artists to do creative work that helps us integrate and restore lost parts of ourselves. The integration of opposites takes place through the mirroring effect of the work and its symbols and images, regardless of whether or not our output is deemed by others to be artistic or good. It is the creative process that integrates opposites. It helps make us whole. It helps make us whole because it brings back to us the missing opposites that we early in life cut off from our psychic bodies.

An example of the attempt to integrate the opposites, and to make one’s self whole through art and its mirroring power, is provided by the life of Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist, whom I am sure most of you know.

Frida was raised by parents who could not have been more opposite. Her mother was Mexican, rigidly Catholic, cool and puritanical. Her mother had grown up in an age when Mexican women were not allowed to say the word buttocks; rather they would say “that which I sit on.” Nor could they say the word legs; rather “that which I stand on.” And, as in the movie Like Water for Chocolate, they were not allowed to look at their bodies. They were taught to feel guilt and shame about their bodies and themselves. Much of what we would call normal life today was cut off from them. Frida’s mother was severe and frowned on much of what Frida did and who she was.

Frida’s father was a Jew who had immigrated from Germany. He had a completely different cultural and religious experience from her mother. Many accounts report him to have been overly solicitous of and close with Frida, especially after she hurt her foot when she was nine years old. All the children in her family were girls and she became her father’s favorite, and tried to be the boy for him that he never had, but yearned for. She was torn by the wholly different views and values of her parents but behaved in ways that were more acceptable to her father. She was every bit the tomboy, but she was also a lively and mischievous young girl. In her life, she was very unconventional when compared to traditional Mexican women at the time. She drank, she smoked, she was bisexual, had several abortions, was assertive, and was successful in a chosen career in which she distinguished herself.

At the age of 16, Frida nearly died in a terrible accident, breaking her leg and foot, her vertebra in three places, and her shoulder and ribs. She was left partly crippled.

After she recovered, she began to paint. It was as if her paintings were a collage on which she was pasting herself back together. Her paintings were mostly self-portraits. She could literally see herself in her paintings, her mirrors. She was fascinated with her body, which her mother had disallowed. While she was recuperating, she had had a mirror installed over her bed. Some instinct led her to sense the deep need for mirroring that she had not received as a child. Raised in such rigidity, conflicting worldviews, and values, she was cut off from parts of herself, and her painting was an attempt to create her own mirror so that she could restore herself. Her accident when she was sixteen profoundly affected her life and her ability to live it fully. Her painting was essentially her autobiography and a healing endeavor.

Lawrence Staples has a Ph.D. in psychology; his special areas of interest are the problems of midlife, guilt, and creativity. Dr. Staples is a diplomate of the C.G. Jung Institute, Z├╝rich, Switzerland, holds AB and MBA degrees from Harvard, and is the author of the popular Guilt with a Twist and the recently published The Creative Soul: Art and the Quest for Wholeness.

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