Creative People and Mental Health: Interview with Psychologist Cheryl Arutt
Actor William H. Macy once commented,
“Nobody became an actor because he had a good childhood.”
Psychologist Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D., agrees that is both a funny and a provocative remark.
She thinks that actors and other artists who are willing, in their creative work, to delve into the really “messy” feelings of being human (shame, devastations, disappointments, betrayals, traumas and more), probably have a relationship with those feelings.
She is a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, specializing in trauma recovery, fertility and creative artist issues, and a forensic and media consultant, as well as a frequent psychological expert on CNN, HLN, truTV and Fox News.
Topics in our interview [hear excerpt below] include:
“Bad boy” images and acting-out
Actors and actresses with “bad boy” or “troubled” images, or problems with issues of anger and acting out, have included Christian Bale, Shia Labeouf and many other talented performers.
Dr. Arutt comments about this kind of behavior, and the underlying emotional challenges, that so many people have – not just actors and performers.
“Life without pain isn’t real at all.”
Shia LaBeouf started acting at age 12 to support his mother when his heroin-addicted father abandoned the family. LaBeouf has said he was subjected to verbal and mental abuse by his father, who once pointed a gun at him during a Vietnam War flashback.
From my post Traumatic Childhood, Creative Adult .
A difficult childhood and trauma
The Shadow Self
Dr. Arutt talks about the concept of the Shadow Self that psychologist Carl Jung addressed in his therapy and writings. She notes that our emotional health and balance, perhaps especially for artists, may depend on having some understanding and acceptance of the darker or uncomfortable sides of ourselves – and this also gives us more power to make aware choices rather than just react to life unconsciously.
Also see my post Dancing With Our Shadow to Develop Creativity.
Creativity and mental health
This is a favorite topic of both of us, and Dr. Arutt talks about the fears many artists have about treating their depression, anxiety or other challenges, and then numbing or losing their creativity.
Dr. Arutt points out that certain forms of psychotherapy and techniques such as EMDR can be very effective in helping creative people get past the emotional pains which interfere with their creativity.
She notes that sometimes medication can be helpful for disruptive symptoms when prescribed by a medication specialist, a knowledgeable psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist. Unfortunately, many people are prescribed psychiatric medications by their general physician who may not be informed or trained well enough about this class of medications, resulting in people getting drug treatment that interferes rather than helps them.
Here is brief excerpt from our much longer audio interview:
Here is a video based on the audio excerpt:
The full-length (48 minute) interview – NOT AVAILABLE AT THIS TIME – includes the above topics – plus these:
Dr. Arutt refers to her TEDx video – “That Good Feeling of Control” and notes the title comes from TV host Fred Rogers who wanted to teach kids how to deal with the “mad” they felt inside, and be able to decide what to do with these kinds of strong feelings, and that what he was talking about was self-regulation and affect regulation that can help us as adults, too.
She thinks most forms of mental illness “can be traced to some form of dysregulation, either over-control or under-control.”
[You can view the video in the post Channeling Intensity Through Creative Expression.]
Artists need to safely access challenging emotional “places”
She notes our “flaws and quirks are some of the most interesting things about us” and that when actors can be free to play and risk, and trust they can safely return from extreme states of mind, they can immerse themselves in their characters, and sublimate or channel difficult or challenging emotions, and this can be one of the great gifts of working in a creative field.
Mariska Hargitay has talked about finding it hard to “shake off” some of the horrific stories she helps portray on her long-running TV show “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Dr. Arutt says something similar happens with therapists who work with victims of trauma.
Recovery from trauma
One of her areas of expertise is trauma therapy, for about twenty years. Dr. Arutt says people who have experienced trauma have had “more coming into their system than they are designed to cope with” using our hardwired fight/flight/freeze responses.
She finds that when people experience trauma and don’t understand well enough what is going on, they often feel “crazy” and don’t realize millions of others have had similar experiences.
Trauma can also lead to self-blame and very negative beliefs about the self, which can endure a lifetime if they aren’t addressed. Dr. Arutt notes that “each person’s hell is their own” and that what is traumatic for someone does not have to be just a “major” event like rape or being in a war, surviving a car crash or hurricane.
“We are not really in a position to judge what is going to traumatize another person.”
She is ‘very excited’ by the technology of fMRI, functional MRI, a form of brain scanning that shows how the brain is functioning, in addition to its anatomy.
She notes this can show the changes in the brain from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and its healing, using therapy such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which she describes.
After I comment that Highly Sensitive People may react more to traumatic experiences, Dr. Arutt agrees, and adds that high sensitivity is correlated with creativity and giftedness: “These things can overlap substantially.”
She says that whether or not they have the trait of high sensitivity (sensory processing sensitivity), creative people experience things in “such a deep, profound way” and that is why so many artists call other people ‘civilians’ who don’t really understand.
[Photo: Halle Berry said she recalls being terrified that her violent father, who physically abused her mother, would turn on her, adding, “I think I’ve spent my adult life dealing with the sense of low self-esteem that sort of implanted in me. Somehow I felt not worthy.” - From post: Creative People and Trauma.]
[Also see video: Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Creative People and Sensitivity and Suffering in post:
Pain and suffering and developing creativity.]
Being courageous to be authentic and follow our creative talents
Dr. Arutt recites part of a wonderful poem she often shares with her creative professional clients who may be struggling with “the issue of talent and self worth,” and questions such as ‘Am I a real artist’ – as well as with family responses that may or may not be supportive.
The poem is “For the young who want to” by Marge Piercy. It starts off:
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Self-care and staying healthy
Dr. Arutt concludes that creative people need to show self-compassion and take care of themselves – that you “can’t protect the art without protecting the artist.” She also emphasizes that whether or not you use difficulties in life for art, “Your pain is a part of you, but you are not your symptoms; you are so much more.”
She urges creative people to “allow permission to be thriving and healthy. To be able to go out and dare to write or embody all that the artist wants to do, really starts with learning how to settle down” and quiet the mind and body.
“The sensitivity and the ability to go there, to create – wherever ‘there’ may be – is a gift and a talent. But getting stuck there is no fun for anyone, and is not required in order to do good work. If you can take good care of yourself, and then visit there, everybody wins.”
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Earlier audio interview: Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Creative Artist Issues
Articles by Cheryl Arutt: