Photo by Alice Dietrich on Unsplash

How Allowing Yourself to Be an Artist Improves Your Mental Health

You already are an artist; you just have to give your artist room to come out and play. The medium doesn’t matter; whether you’d like to paint, draw, sculpt, write, make music, or build sand castles, the simple act of relating to yourself as an artist can and will initiate a process of getting to know yourself, and of supporting your mental health, for as long as you keep at it.

A Gift You Give to Yourself

Creativity is very much an altered state, at least from the more rational, left-brained pursuits endemic in the modern world. I studied art history and interned in museums for my Bachelor’s degree, but I was always on the side of the fence that appreciates art and never on the side that creates it. In those younger years, I fell in love with a lot of artists. Looking back now, I know that these artists had something I wanted more than anything: access to this altered, creative state that I was only achieving a particularly inadequate version of through drinking and other addictive behaviors.

I wanted to know how to achieve that creative state, and I wanted (in what I recognize now, years later, is the most needy, unattractive way) for them to give me some of what they had. I thought their genius would somehow rub off on me, or — much worse — that somehow they’d “owe” me for the emotional labor I performed in the relationship, and thusly I’d receive some sort of creative remittance.

Spoiler alert: that’s not how it works. It’s certainly a fast track to double heartbreak: your lover will leave you, and your hope of achieving that creative state will once again fall completely flat, because you still think that someone else can give it to you.

No one else can give it to you.

Only you can give it to you. And it truly is something to give: attention, time, space, allowance. You must give it to yourself. It will not be given from outside, or above — and thank god for that. It wouldn’t mean as much if it just fell into your lap, with no work or effort involved. The effort is in the space making. The effort is in getting out of your own way. The effort is in closing the door and saying, “I’m not available for the next 15 minutes.” That’s a lot of effort, especially these days.

Process Over Outcome

The creative practice — just like a yoga practice — is not something that you accomplish. It’s process oriented, rather than outcome oriented, and the benefits are all in the allowing of the process, rather than the focus on an outcome. Outcomes are for later, if and when you want to release control altogether and share your work. For now, we focus on the practice. We focus on returning to the practice again and again. And we allow the practice to shape us, to change us.

Creativity means stepping out of the comfortable and allowing the discomfort of uncertainty, of not knowing what to do next. When you sit with that uncertainty, your creativity shows up to answer that question: what to do next? Relax the diaphragm, breath in, and try hitting that note one more time. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t; at least you gave creativity a shred of space to come out and play. It’s a muscle to be strengthened, and that muscle will support you in every facet of your life.

It’s also how to love yourself more. Giving the smallest shred of time and space to your creativity means giving importance and attention to your inner world, rather than prioritizing the outer world at all times, like we so often do. Giving your creativity — yourself — that attention is the greatest act of love.

We all have an artist, and an extraordinary balm for mental wellbeing is to let that artist out to play in whatever medium strikes the artist’s fancy. Today it could be doodling; tomorrow it could be singing. The next day it could be collage, or macrame, or poetry, or taking photographs. There really is no right answer; there is no right or wrong at all in this endeavor.

The Practice of Allowing

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, said, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes; art is knowing which ones to keep.” The exercise is entirely to allow yourself to make mistakes, something we rarely allow ourselves to do, sometimes even as children. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Making mistakes is part of the process.

If there was a balm that could be applied to mental health, it would be to allow oneself to make mistakes. Not only would we relate to ourselves differently, with more compassion, but that relativity would eventually extend to others as well. Mental health means less criticism, more compassion; less shame, more tenderness.

Shame and criticism place such a heavy burden on the mind, and those heavy memories try to hide in addiction and secrecy. What if, instead of burying them below those tectonic plates of addiction and secrecy, we practiced allowing ourselves and our minds to make mistakes, without shame or criticism? Those old experiences that are so hard to bear might dissolve as we learn to create, to play, to allow our inner artist out into the light.

We allow, allow, allow. Creativity is a drug, you just have to learn how to use it. You don’t smoke, it, you don’t drink it, you don’t inject it, you don’t snort it. You allow it. And you have to practice allowing it, over and over and over again. Eventually, you you get the hang of it. And then you can’t live without it.

Creativity is a game of perseverance, but one that is about meeting yourself again and again and again. About facing yourself, instead of ignoring. About working with yourself, instead of against. About allowing yourself to make mistakes again and again and again. All of which takes perseverance, willingness, courage, and vulnerability.

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Robin Cressman

Robin Cressman

Artist, writer, beach walker. Just happy to be here. Sign up for my newsletter!