My dream is to make it as a professional artist. I mainly paint, but also dabble in sculpting. My problem is that the only time my creative juices really flow is when I’m making really dark stuff. It disturbs me to even look at my finished projects, and they’re so abstract that I can’t even explain what they mean to other people, yet when I’m creating them it feels like a release, if that makes any sense. A friend of mine said I should see a counselor and that upset me. Is it really such a big deal if the dark and twisted stuff comes more easily to me than other stuff? My main concern is making money. I could access a much bigger market if I could move away from this theme I’m stuck on, but whenever I try to force myself in another direction, I get stalled. I’m kinda freaked out by what my friend said. I don’t want to be some kind of closet psycho. Any thoughts?
This dilemma is far more common than you think, and while your situation does indicate that you are carrying around some significant mental stress, there’s no need to panic because there are positive ways to resolve these things. While counseling could be quite beneficial, I suggest you start with some self-analysis exercises, because you might be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your mind reveals what’s really going on here. But first, let’s learn about where art really comes from…
As a human, you have three elements that make up your being: a mind, a soul and a body. Your mind has two parts to it: the conscious and subconscious. Of these four components, your soul and subconscious are far more dominant than your body and conscious. Between the two top alphas, your subconscious has more sway than your soul, which means it has the greatest impact on your behaviors.
Each of your elements has the ability to communicate to its partner elements. In fact, your four elements are constantly chitchatting with each other as you go throughout your day. Where things get interesting is that your elements don’t talk to each other using a verbal language. If they did, you’d feel like there were four voices in your head constantly yammering on, which would be very stressful. What happens instead is that your four elements talk to each other in their native tongues, none of which are verbal. The verbal thoughts that appear in your mind are actually mediocre translations of only a tiny amount of the countless statements that your elements are making to each other throughout the day and night. If you would like to learn more about this topic, see Voices In Your Mind, Part 1: Internal Sources. For now, the important point for you to understand is that all of your elements have their own opinions about the things you experience as you go through life, and they are constantly chatting to each other about what’s happening with you.
Now there is no such thing as a human without artistic talent. Instead, every human has an incredibly creative and original artist dwelling right within them: their subconscious. It is your subconscious that produces your dreams when you sleep: those short, dramatic films which the subconscious effortlessly cranks out using material from its massive memory database. When you wake up in the morning feeling disturbed and confused by bizarre dream imagery that’s lingering in your mind, that negative reaction is coming from your soul and conscious. The actual creator of your dream (your subconscious) heartily approves of all of its masterpieces.
As I mentioned, each of your elements has its own “native tongue” which it prefers to speak in. Your subconscious’ preferred communication style is heavily symbolic. Instead of using words to make a point, your subconscious prefers to speak in imagery and emotions. By now you’ve probably experienced being in the middle of an art project and suddenly realizing that you’re thirsty. If your subconscious wanted to directly prompt you to hydrate your body, it would flash an image of a beverage in your mind, such as a glass of water. Your subconscious considers imagery to be a far more efficient communication tool than words. But your conscious favors words, and when it receives a directive from the subconscious that you need to hydrate, your conscious will prefer to turn that non-verbal command into the verbal thought of “I’m thirsty. I should get something to drink.” The point is that you can receive the same message different ways, depending on which elements are involved.
Now let’s talk about your art. What kind of language are you using when you paint and sculpt? In both mediums, you are trying to communicate ideas and emotions using visual imagery. If your conscious wanted to communicate the idea of sorrow in some physical way, it would simply have you write the word “sorrow” on a piece of paper and be done with it. Your conscious is not where your artistic zest comes from. It is your subconscious that locks onto the idea of sorrow and begins coming up with a thousand different ways to symbolically represent that emotion. To your subconscious, smearing a canvas with a variety of dark shades is a fantastic way to communicate severe emotional angst. Want to dial things back a bit to convey a mild case of rainy day blues? Stir in some white to brighten those pigments. Want to communicate suicidal despair? Pour on the black, and maybe scrape in some sharp, violent lines. To your subconscious, non-verbal, sensual data (sights, sounds, smells, textures, etc.) are far superior to words when it comes to communicating complex emotions, fears, hopes, and needs. But while your subconscious thoroughly enjoys speaking in these ways, your soul and conscious often find your subconscious’ communication style mystifying. Unless your subconscious chooses to explain what it means to its partner elements, your conscious and soul can remain in the dark about what your subconscious is saying through its creative works. This is what’s happening with you right now. The positive rush you’re experience when you’re creating is your subconscious reacting to its own designs. The reason you experience this feeling as a positive “release” is because your subconscious is actually venting stress through its designs. The reason you feel such a push to keep creating dark stuff is because your subconscious’ current stress load is too great, and it is trying to protect its ability to function by frequently venting off some of that pressure. It’s similar to how volcanoes that can keep venting off their internal pressure through open steam vents can avoid erupting. It’s only when those vents get blocked up that the volcano’s internal pressure builds to an explosive level.
The human subconscious is a very clever strategist and will always look for ways to help itself when it gets into a crisis. While self-help methods vary drastically from human to human, in your case, your subconscious has clearly chosen painting and sculpting as two useful stress relief tools. Of course there are many forms of artistic expression in the world, including films, stories, poetry, sculpting, music, dance, tattooing, painting, makeup, hairstyles, and clothing fashions. But a closer look at these things will reveal that most of the art in the world is being driven by subconscious minds that are grappling with various kinds of stress. This isn’t to say that art can’t be positive, because it can, especially when the soul gets involved in the creative process. But there’s a reason why humans in general find it easier to focus on the negative than to stay entirely positive. Among humans, art is primarily driven by the subconscious, and because safety is such a major concern to subconscious minds, a lot of human art is focused on the things that make humans feel threatened in some way.
Now earlier I said that your subconscious’ artistic creations (such as dreams) can be quite mystifying to your soul and conscious. Because your subconscious is often talking about what it’s current stresses are through its artistic works, its creations often come across as not only confusing, but also disturbing to your other elements. You are personally experiencing this dynamic with your own art. While you are caught up in the rush of creating, your subconscious is directing you, and you sense it expressing continuous pleasure with what it’s making (which is that sense of “release” you mentioned). But once your subconscious puts the brush down, your soul gives its own reaction to what you’ve made. Notice how you aren’t consciously aware of why you make what you make, which is why you aren’t able to explain the meaning of your art to others. Your lack of self-understanding is due to your subconscious intentionally refusing to explain what it’s doing to your conscious and soul. Your conscious is used to being left in the dark about stuff, and it actually prefers not to be given too much information. So while your conscious might find your finished artwork mystifying, it won’t disapprove of it, because as long as your subconscious seems happy, your conscious is fine with not understanding. But your soul is a different deal…
Your soul is the only element of your being that cares about morality–the idea of right/wrong, good/bad. Your soul is the part of you that is expressing disapproval and repulsion of what your subconscious is making. But wait–all we’re talking about here are some layers of paint and some squished clay. What do these things have to do with morality? Well, while your soul is being kept in the dark about exactly what your subconscious is saying through its works, your soul is clearly picking up on a theme that it considers to be “bad”. Since I don’t know what kinds of things you’re making, I’ll just use an example…
Suppose you find yourself compelled to make a statue of a man with his head chopped off. To your subconscious, the work is a symbolic depiction of how threatened you feel by your abusive father who frequently beat you when you were a child. The figure represents your father, and his decapitated state represents how your subconscious desperately wants to find a way to take away your father’s ability to harm you. A man without a head is a dead man, and dead men are powerless to harm others.
Now while your subconscious is expressing its current terror of your father and its distress about all that your father has done to you, its choice of symbolism (a decapitated man) can be interpreted many ways. When your soul looks at the figure, it doesn’t understand the connection to your father, so it interprets the statue as portraying the victim of a violent murder. Since murder is morally wrong, your soul finds it disturbing that your mind is focusing on such an evil idea. As your soul starts voicing its disapproval, your conscious translates some of your soul’s comments into thoughts like “Why am I making something so gross looking? What is this saying about my inner self? Am I harboring some twisted desire to kill someone? What’s wrong with me?” All of these are soul concerns. The original artist–your subconscious–still thinks the statute is a creative way of expressing what a threatening figure your father is. Your subconscious isn’t really planning to physically chop your father’s head off, it’s simply being creative with its style of communication. Your soul would feel better if your subconscious explained this, but your subconscious refuses to do so. Why? Because your subconscious is angered by your soul’s constant rejection of its feelings and concerns.
Whenever you find yourself confused by behaviors that you also feel driven to do, you’re dealing with a conflict between your internal elements. The element pushing for the behavior (your soul or subconscious) will always have logical reasons for doing so, and if you could get that element to share its logic, you could probably help it identify better ways of dealing with its stress. But when elements start getting cagey and withholding information from each other, it can be a bit trickier to get to the truth. Secrecy is often a response to hostility, such as when your subconscious refuses to talk about its problems because your soul is being so critical and condemning.
Now I should clarify that souls are also capable of pushing for negative behaviors. But if it was your soul that was pushing you to keep producing dark art, you would have a more conscious understanding of what the art means to you. When the soul is venting stress through art, you typically experience a clear understanding of what the art means as you do it, then you find yourself feeling ashamed of what you’ve just done, because you feel like it’s some kind of sin to express whatever those feelings are. An example here would be a man who feels abandoned by God depicting God as a monster. As he paints his anti-God work, he’d be consciously aware of how hurt and abandoned he feels by his Maker. But because his soul really cares about pleasing God, he’d then experience shame for making something so disrespectful. As he cycles through these two opposing states (venting stress vs. guilt and shame), both would be clearly focused on the same theme (his need to be in a positive dynamic with his Creator).
The fact that you’re feeling confused by the meaning of your own works indicates your subconscious is the artist, and that it is intentionally keeping your soul and conscious in the dark about what it’s saying. To help you out, there are three goals you need to focus on. First, your soul needs to start focusing on listening instead of criticizing. Second, you need to encourage your subconscious to share what its creations mean. Third, you need to help your subconscious find better ways to resolve its current stresses, since it’s obviously struggling. Could the right counselor help you with these things? Sure, but you could also make great progress on your own. I always feel it’s beneficial to enter a counseling with as much self-awareness as you can, because having a basic understanding of what you’re struggling with and what you need can help you be less vulnerable to being manipulated. To that end, I’m going to recommend a process you can try that might encourage your mind to be more open with you.
A Self-Help Exercise
Let’s start with the clues we’ve already been given. First, there is this internal push to make dark things. Stronger pushes indicate higher stress. When creating something new feels optional, your mind is in a calmer state. But when you find yourself feeling desperate to hole up in your work space and spend hours cranking out a new, dark work, that intense need you feel indicates your mind is currently experiencing a high spike of stress. To help keep your stress levels manageable, you should not try to block your creative flow when your experiencing a strong need to make something new. Instead, you should encourage your mind to vent in those times, and give it the freedom to make anything it wants.
Our next clue is the fact that your mind is intentionally sabotaging your efforts to lighten the tone of what you make. Once again, this insistence that you stay on a specific theme indicates an urgent need for your mind to vent stress. This is not the time to worry about what will sell on the market. If you don’t take care of your own mental health by allowing your mind to vent its backlog of stress, your condition could deteriorate to the point that you won’t be able to do anything at all. I’d recommend you set aside the goal of selling your work right now, because creating for public consumption instead of personal benefit is likely hampering your process. Right now your mind needs to express itself without restriction, and since it is trying to talk through a non-harmful method, we definitely want to encourage it to do so.
It’s quite a blessing to have your mind fixate on art as a communication tool. It could just as easily have fixated on something very destructive, such as attacking others or ingesting harmful substances. You need to realize what an advantage it is to be able to process mental stress through a method that isn’t harming anyone. Give yourself permission to paint and sculpt whatever you want in the moment, then try to observe the process as an interested bystander, not a moral critic. If your soul can switch its focus off of approval and onto wanting to help its partner feel less stressed, your mind will be much more likely to explain what it’s doing.
Now when you have a nice open slot on your social calendar, gather up all the works you’ve done so far and take your time to studying them all, one by one. Sit down with a notepad and pen and start taking notes about each piece you’ve made. Don’t rush this process. Instead, take your time to study each piece, and write down any emotions, concepts, or behaviors that come to mind. Your notes should look like lists of single words and short phrases instead of full sentences. For example, you might look at one piece and write down: suffering, pain, grief, violence, death. Don’t try to analyze the words that come to mind, just write down any thoughts that the object seems to prompt. Continue this exercise until you’ve given all of your pieces your focused attention. Then get a highlighter and start sifting through the lists you’ve made. Look for recurring words/phrases and color code them so that they will stand out to you more easily. You’ve already noted one general theme in your question: really dark. By the time you finish your notes, you should be able to be a lot more specific.
Now once you’ve done your color coding, make a new list in which you jot down the words and phrases that came up most frequently. You’ll find that your mind keeps returning to the same ideas over and over again–ideas which it is linking to the same core stresses. In other words, you’re not into dark for darkness’ sake. You’re focusing on dark themes because they are reminding you of specific experiences from your past which you still feel upset by today.
Once you’ve got your list of recurring themes made, read through it and ask yourself, “Do these descriptions remind me of any real life experiences I’ve had?” Perhaps you find the words sad and loss coming up over and over, and you suddenly find the memory of your mom’s funeral surfacing. Once again it’s important that you don’t try to consciously control this process. Take your time focusing on each item on your list and wait for your subconscious to link that word or phrase to specific memories.
Every life has some degree of sorrow in it, but if I were to ask you what your saddest memories are, your subconscious wouldn’t just produce a random list of every sad experience you’ve had. Instead, it would only reply with a short list of memories, and those memories would be ones that it feels the most impacted by today. Since the goal of this exercise is to identify your mind’s current stresses, it’s important that you wait for it to choose which memories it wants to link to your art. It’s also important to remember that your subconscious loves symbolism. A statue of a cat might symbolize something that has nothing to do with actual cats. If you try to filter what your mind is saying by tuning out anything that doesn’t make immediate logical sense, you could miss an important insight. So just listen and take notes, don’t analyze.
After you’ve gathered your list of real life experiences that came to mind when you reviewed your frequent phrase list, you will probably be very close to identifying what real life experiences your mind is feeling so stressed about. In your case, I’d expect that list of triggered memories to include some very upsetting life experiences–some of which might not sound traumatic on paper, yet in real life caused you great emotional distress.
Now you might need many days to complete the process I just described. If you start experiencing emotional fatigue or internal resistance when moving through these steps, stop and don’t resume working on it until you feel up to it again. If you feel a need to make a new creation before you’ve had a chance to finish reviewing your old ones, take the time to do that, because that new creation could provide you with more helpful insights. The emphasis throughout this whole process needs to be on giving your mind permission to say whatever it wants to say without the threat of being criticized or stifled. Again, it’s very advantageous that your mind has chosen such a non-harmful method of venting, so you want to make the most of it. Using up a lot of canvases and clay is well worth the expense to be able to coax your mind into being more specific about what’s troubling it.
Once you feel you’ve been able to pinpoint your mind’s current stresses, you will be in a good position to either seek professional help or continue to pursue recovery on your own. For guidance on the self-help option, see my post Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs.
As far as career options go, your ability to broaden your artistic themes will increase as you reduce your mental stress load. So there’s no need to give up on your dream of being an artist whose works are less disturbing. Instead, by learning how to communicate with your own mind through your art, you’ll not only be able to expand on the kinds of themes you explore, but you’ll also be able to benefit from your creations as you learn to hear and appreciate what they are telling you about yourself. Humans are extremely complex creatures, and developing greater self-awareness unlocks the door to all kinds of positive growth.
This post was written in response to Shadow.
Looking for advice? You can submit an anonymous request through the Ask a Question page.