What Have the Arts Taught Me About Living?

Whitney Storey, MS, PLPC | Therapist | Lafayette, LA | Art

I have a long history of being involved in the arts and finding benefits from making art by myself and with others. While I had folks who encouraged me in my practice, I also found that many people (mostly my peers) didn't understand my love of art. The stigma I felt about my artistic self lead to feelings of shame. My best friend in undergrad even told me one time, as we were discussing dating, "maybe you shouldn't tell them you're a theatre major" - as if distancing myself from the arts were possible, let alone preferable! Art fills me with life.

As a child, I did every type of art I could.

I drew pictures (mostly of horses) in Microsoft Paint on our family's first computer, I built tiny furniture from construction paper for my toys, I created intricate terrariums for the creatures I caught and cared for. As I got older, I was able to experience different ways of creating through school and church - singing and acting, sculpture, puppetry, batik...my time in an international school in Bangkok, Thailand was particularly influential in finding new ways of expressing myself through the arts that weren't previously available to me in the U.S. public school system.

The more I learned about the arts and all of the opportunities to create, the more I was learning about myself and my capabilities.

The arts had so much to offer me, and where I could offer meaningful things to other people, too.

The arts taught me about struggle and empathy.

I think this one will be particularly relevant to people who think about making art and immediately want to run away because they feel incapable. Art is a skill, and there is no human who has been good at every art and any one art all of the time. I learned very quickly that sometimes the image I have in my mind just doesn't manage to make it all the way onto the paper, and that frustration of feeling as if my body isn't cooperating is a frustration that has shown up throughout my adult life.

When I experienced infertility, the feeling of anger and sadness at my body refusing to do what I wanted it to do was so familiar from my days of drawing and painting. And the empathy I could have for Little Whitney struggling with the paint brush was able to transfer to Adult Whitney struggling to build a family.

When I was able to practice empathy for myself. I also learned that I became much better at also practicing empathy for other people in my life. We all struggle from time to time to do things that seem so intuitive and are so important to us, even if in the moment we feel so alone in our struggling.

The arts taught me how to hear compliments and criticism, and then how to effectively give the same to others.

Art, regardless of the medium, is a process. It's a practice. I remember the anxiety of presenting my final works to a full classroom of people who I believed to be so much more talented than myself. To hear them tell me what they felt was off about my art was painful. To hear them speak about the things they loved about my art was also sometimes uncomfortable.

How similar this process has been to the times when I have seen opportunities to allow my truest self to be seen by other humans! When I have been afraid or regretful and I have been able to go to my husband, for example, and be vulnerable with him, it has felt very much like the process of getting my art critiqued.

Allowing myself to be fully seen and fully known is sometimes terrifying! But it's also in those moments when I have practiced trust and then intimacy grew, my relationships have deepened, and, when necessary healed.

The arts provided a place of escape and healing.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1975) first discussed the concept of "flow" - a state of being fully engaged and immersed in some sort of meaningful process. When we are in a flow state, time flies and we feel a sense of energy and excitement. I have had more flow experiences with art than with anything else, and when I feel that I am in a slump and life is not what I want it to be, I can often find relief by engaging with art and experiencing flow.

I have been able to watch my daughter find this flow state with her own art, and this has given me an opportunity to point out what a helpful tool that is for when we are not feeling our best.

Flow experiences with art provides a way to rest, activate my brain in new ways, and to re-energize.  I have a well-practiced and reliable way of caring for myself and a powerful tool to share with others.

The arts taught me that intentions are not always as important as impact.

This can be a frustrating part of being an artist. As creators, we often know what the art work means and is trying to say. But once that art work is out for other people to see, they interpret the art through their own personal context and what they decide can be quite different, even to the point of clashing with what we imagined.

I have seen this in my relationships with other people, as well. The things I say sometimes come off in ways that I wasn't intending. When I divide my attention, for example, between my phone and my children, they can't know that I am overstimulated and seeking relief so that I can be more present with them later. They see that, in that moment, they are less important than my phone. Moments like this are painful and important lessons for me.

The way that people feel during and after interacting with me has become more important, and as such, other people in general have become more important when I consider my impact on the world.

I still find myself self-conscious and too focused on what people might be thinking about me from time to time, but allowing myself to defuse from that and also see the people around me more clearly usually helps to relieve myself of those fears.

Even if you wouldn't consider yourself to be a particularly artistic person, I wonder how the process of creating art might impact your life?

When you'd like to explore this side of yourself more, reach out to me, and let's see what happens when we allow ourselves to create together.

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