Expressing Your Pain Through The Creative Arts

Expressing Your Pain Through Creative Arts

“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.”

The Dread Pirate Roberts (The Princess Bride)

Society doesn’t teach you to accept pain. It teaches you to look for wish fulfilment, constant euphoria and ecstasy; to be continuously and deliriously happy like a child drinking red cordial straight from the bottle.

We are the inhabitants of Brave New World who take their soma and remain blissfully unaware of the full breadth of human emotion while frolicking naked down the slippery dip of self-absorbed instant gratification. Pass the microwave dinner, please.

We must become like John the Savage and question our world about the spectacular depth of emotion garnered and expressed in poetry, film, song, literature, dance and music.

We need to know what it’s like to have Dettol applied to our gravel-grazed knee; to know the pain of heartache from our first break up (and then write bad poetry to immortalise the event), the gut-wrenching sorrow of losing a loved one and every other expression of pain and suffering capable in our experience.

Pain is often a stimulant for creativity; a genesis for a piece of writing, a song, developing a dance or striking a canvas with paint.

Acts of creativity brought about by pain and trauma have three expressions for the creative person:

  1. Catharsis
  2. Reflection
  3. Teaching and Learning

1. Catharsis

In order to understand pain and suffering there needs to be a release, a purging of the emotions, resulting in the renewal of heart and mind. One of the ways we do this is to tell stories.

Physical scars become stories and shared experiences

Our childhood is characterised by physical scars; I have one just below my knee where I met with the corner of a fish tank and another in the middle of my back from a staff Christmas party. My brother, the carpenter, is a museum of scars and stories (and it is nothing short of a miracle he still has all fingers, toes and limbs).

Yet we often repress those experiences that have caused us to experience emotional and mental pain.

Emotional scars become silent considerations and isolating experiences.

As children we find it difficult to understand the emotional and mental scars from the trauma we experience. I remember the passing of my paternal grandmother when I was 13 and not having the emotional maturity to understand and comprehend the enormity of it. After recently attending the funeral of my best friend’s father who died of cancer, I doubt I have the emotional maturity even now.

The catharsis of emotions allows for a creative act to be expressed in its most primeval and unformed way; a raw, uncensored, unchecked and deliberate action to release the pressure of the pain.

And the creative act may go no further than the initial purge; allowing the vented emotions to dissipate on the wind and be no more.

Sometimes, though, we need more.

2. Reflection

The painful and traumatic experiences of our lives can find expression in acts of creativity as we come to understand the complexity of our emotional scars and through the maturation of our emotional wounds. Severe trauma can cause a blockage in our creativity and cause our expression and understanding to stop.

Yet it is pain that is often the trigger for creativity as we reflect on our experiences – as catharsis, inspiration, questioning, understanding.

Understand your pain; know what causes it. Learn from it. Keep a journal. Paint. Draw. Write music. Write a story. Create something from it, even if it’s only a piece of paper entirely coloured in with a black texta.

Tell others about your pain through your creativity. It may resonate with them and speak to them.

A friend, Janetta, who has worked with people using art as therapy, explained it this way:

“From what I’ve seen working with people in art therapy, using art making to creatively process trauma gives people the ability to express the inexpressible and help them tell their story.

“Trauma is non-verbal (stored in the subcortical, non-verbal parts of the brain), so making art can allow the person to explore the non-verbal traumatic memory/experience and externalise it, so it can be processed with the verbal parts of the brain.”

3. Teaching and Learning

Creativity teaches you to express your pain and come to an understanding of the experience

Janetta continues:

 “Suddenly you can speak and talk about something that was too much to cope with. This makes the issue more manageable & less overwhelming and restores the person’s sense of control, all of which are lost through traumatic experiences, which primarily are beyond our ability to cope & make us feel overwhelmed & out of control.

“Some of my clients have also reported feeling understood when they can finally talk about it and when I can see what they were dealing with on the inside.

“For the mental health patients and dementia residents I work with, creativity, especially in group settings, offers an opportunity to connect with others and gives people relatively safe things to talk about, which is great for healing loneliness, isolation and dealing with loss of independence.”

A creative act is a teaching and learning moment for the creator and a teaching and learning moment for the reader/viewer/listener. It is a shared moment.

In my collaborative novel, Post Marked: Piper’s Reach (currently being edited), is it the emotional resonance of the past, a form of trauma, which defines the protagonists, Ella-Louise and Jude. As an author I explore how the past defines and influences the present, how the trauma affects the characters. Without pain, a story has no momentum, no movement forward. A story with no pain or conflict is no story at all.

Final Notes

To focus on pain alone, in all its manifestations, in the composition of a creative piece, to the exclusion of other emotions, is limiting. Creativity is about expressing the breadth and depth of human emotional experience.

We create with pain as the focus to understand ourselves and our relationship to the experience.

We read stories or watch films or listen to music about pain to understand that our experiences are not individual to us alone; to know someone else shares what we have gone through and to seek redemption in the hope of their success.

To express our pain we write stories, compose music, draw, paint, dance, sculpt. We find a creative outlet to deal with the pain.

We create firstly to understand our experiences, and secondly to share those experiences as the connection of our humanity.

How has creativity helped you through the painful times in your life?


3 responses to “Expressing Your Pain Through The Creative Arts

  1. A very timely article Adam. Lately I’ve been considering my own reluctance to delve into deep emotion. I have to admit to be a little frightened of it, tending to want to stick to the surface stuff. Even though I know it’s necessary to dig deep and gauge out the painful bits and as the saying goes, bleed on the page. Thanks 🙂

  2. Timely is what I consider this article as well, (though obviously I’m late in reading).
    Last autumn I experienced a Major Life Change, initially brought on by the shock of the fact that my life had indeed taken a 360, with no input from me. Without pen and paper I never would’ve made it through that shock, never mind all the steps I had to immediately take – like it or not – to get on with my “new” life. Though my ability to write fiction was suddenly halted, in a span of four months I filled five notebooks with nothing more than the pure, and numerous, emotions I was experiencing.

    Now that I’m getting settled into this new way of life I am at the reflection stage and believe I will soon be able to go back to those notebooks and examine the emotions I lived through with a critical eye and the intention of using the experience, through my writing, to help others. (I have tried twice to read the notebooks but it was obviously too early as every time I read I only ended up in tears). I look forward to the day I reach the teaching and learning stage.

    Thank you so much for this Adam!

    • Sorry to hear that you have been through significant pain, and I pray you find peace and comfort as you work through it.
      As a society we tend to ignore the need for pain, to work through significant events in our lives and come to a better understanding and love of ourselves and one another.

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