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Don’t Buy Into Being a Tortured Artist

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous artists of the 19th century. While he didn’t receive a lot of recognition or acclaim during his lifetime, today he is considered a prolific artist who has achieved commercial and popular acclaim. He’s also one of the most famous examples of the stereotypical tortured artist.

Van Gogh struggled with his mental health from a young age. He was described as an unhappy child, and it seems that he grew to be an unhappy man. He experienced psychotic episodes and delusions, spent time in psychiatric hospitals, and inflicted self-harm (including the infamous severing of his own ear). Ultimately, van Gogh committed suicide at just 37 years of age. 

It’s impossible to say what (if anything) was at the root of van Gogh’s troubles; everyone’s experience with mental health is unique. But for some reason, van Gogh’s challenges have made him a poster child of the tortured artist.

What is a tortured artist?

The idea of the “tortured artist” has been around since Plato, and has plagued many an artist since. Essentially, a tortured artist is a creator who relies on their mental health struggles, or on the negative aspects of their life or of the world, to feed their creative fire. 

Tortured artists think that they themselves must be sad in order to create. They must suffer, they must experience pain, they must torture themselves—all in the name of creating something unique and meaningful. 

It sounds rather deep and profound, and the concept has been dramatically romanticized over time, almost to the point of creating a belief that all artists are tortured (or at least, all good ones are).

But I’m writing today to tell you this: don’t buy it. Don’t buy into being a tortured artist.

Debunking the myth of the tortured artist

“You can receive your ideas with respect and curiosity, not with drama and dread.”

Elizabeth Gilbert

You don’t have to be depressed, psychotic, melancholic, or tortured in any other way, in order to be a creator. You just have to create. 

And creating can be exciting. It can (and should) be full of passion, intrigue, curiosity, and love. It should come from the best places inside of you—not the worst. 

Because here’s the thing: those “worst” places inside of you aren’t what make you a person worthy of creating. Do you know what does make you worthy of creating? The fact that you’re a human being who wants to create. That’s it.

If you’re willing to put in the work, to be open to inspiration, to believe in your ability to design your thoughts and “create happy” in your life, then you, my friend, are a creator. You’re an artist. And nowhere in that job description is there a requirement for being tortured.

The idea of a happy artist might seem too good to be true. But why can’t it be true? You’re the creator here. Being a happy artist is possible. If that’s the life you want to live, then create it. 

What tortures you and how to overcome it

Now, this is all fine and good, but we can’t deny the fact that many artists are, in fact, tortured. It’s true that many creators are plagued with certain feelings or aspirations that leave them feeling unworthy or “less-than.” These feelings are normal, but it’s important to know how to deal with them if you’re doing your best not to buy into the tortured artist myth. 

So real quick, let’s take a look at some of the common “tortures” creatives experience, and explore some ways to help work through them that don’t involve giving into the “tortured artist” stereotype.

Mental health

First of all, we have to acknowledge that many people, including creators, struggle with real mental health disorders. While we at Design.org deliver a message of designing your thoughts so you can “create happy” for yourself and others, the fact is that certain disorders make this exceptionally difficult (or even impossible) without proper care.

No matter what you’re struggling with, I want you to know this: there is always a healthy way to handle it. There is always something you can do. You may not be able to control the intrusive thoughts that lead to your OCD, but you can control whether or not you take the medication your doctor has prescribed to you. You may not be able to pull yourself out of deep depression, but you can get yourself into therapy so that you can talk through some of your troubling thoughts and feelings. 

Use the resources available to you. Reach out to people that love you. Give yourself grace and credit for the effort you put into living each day. Get professional help, if needed. You are capable of getting through this. Don’t forget that.

Comparison

Why is it sometimes so hard to see others succeed? 

I have seen many creators be tortured by comparison—some to the extent that they don’t want to create at all anymore. Envy isn’t considered one of the seven deadly sins for nothing: it has the power to make you feel inferior, not only to the person you’re comparing yourself to, but to everyone. You end up feeling like a fraud, like a “less-than,” or maybe a “has-been” or a “never-was.” The point is, you feel like you’re simply not good enough to create anything worthwhile. And for an artist, that’s a torturous feeling indeed.

If you want to get over the torture of comparison, I’ve found it helpful to adopt an abundance mindset, versus a scarcity mindset. An abundance mindset recognizes that there’s room for everyone to succeed. Everyone can create something great, make plenty of money, have the fame they’re looking for. There’s enough to go around, and there always will be.

A scarcity mindset is the opposite: believing that when you get something, it leaves less for me. Your success lowers my opportunity for success. This creates a dog-eat-dog mentality that is, quite frankly, a little panic-inducing, and not at all fun. 

Believe in abundance. Remember that there’s enough for you, for me, and for anyone else that wants to join us in creating. There are enough ideas. There’s enough potential for success. We can all have what we want.

If you can do this, you’ll start to see others’ work not as competition, but as inspiration. You won’t see something someone else creates as something you can’t create, but rather as a starting point for your own unique work with your own unique flair.  

Stop comparing. Start creating.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a burden that many people carry—not just artists and creators. But in my experience, artists and creators do tend toward perfectionism in alarming numbers. 

I believe that this is due to the personal nature of creating. When you create, you’re putting your heart and soul into your work. You aren’t solving for x, you’re exploring human emotion. It feels like you’re putting yourself out there for the world to judge. And if they judge you harshly, that would be heartbreaking. So, rather than face the possibility of heartbreak, creatives strive toward perfectionism. 

The problem, of course, is that perfectionism is a myth. No matter how much our society glorifies perfection, in reality, it’s unreachable. Especially in art, which is so subjective, it’s literally impossible to please everyone perfectly. 

How to fight back against perfectionism?

  • Embrace the imperfect. Make imperfection the goal. Don’t “settle” for imperfect; reach for it.
  • Set realistic expectations and standards. What makes work “shippable” for you? Your standards are what matter—not everyone else’s. Work to your standard.
  • Reframe failure. Failure isn’t the terrible thing it’s made out to be. Really, failure means learning. Failure gives you the chance to try again. Stop making failure the bad guy.
  • Be kind to yourself. Give yourself credit for effort. Applaud your new ideas. Enjoy the passion you feel for a project. Make the experience of creating more about the process than the result. 

Difficulty

Creating is hard. I know it, you know it, every creator knows it. It can be emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting. It can wear you down like few other things can. And there will be times when you feel like giving up. 

The sheer difficulty of creating can torture creators. It can result in thoughts like:

“What am I even doing this for?”
“There’s no way this is worth this effort.”
“If I’d known it was going to be this hard, I never would have started.”

When you’re trying to create something meaningful, such thoughts can be downright depressing.

Of course, if you give into those thoughts, I’ve got bad news for you: you’re acting like a tortured artist. 

If it starts to feel like the work of creating is starting to torture rather than excite you, you might try:

  • Renewing your motivation. Remembering your “why” is going to make the work much more tolerable. You’re doing this work for a reason—what is it? Remind yourself of your purpose often. 
  • Taking a step back. Need a break? Then take a break! Creative burnout is real and if you don’t deal with it, it can have long-term effects on your desire and ability to create. Take a deliberate step back and give your brain a chance to breathe.
  • Rewarding the effort. The effort is what matters. If your work gets hard, then you deserve to be rewarded for working hard. Give yourself the recognition you deserve.
  • Asking for help. Other people can bring fresh perspective and ideas to a project. If your creative work is starting to torture you, bring in someone else to offer new ideas or give you feedback. Two brains are often better than one.
  • Making the work a good thing. Yes, creating takes work. But it should take work. All the worthwhile things do. Remember that this work is going to pay off. The work is the point. 

Inner demons

“Your demons were never the ones doing the work, anyhow.”

Elizabeth Gilbert

Of all the things that torture artists, inner demons might be the most powerful. Your inner demons are the stories you tell yourself about the kind of person and artist you are. They’re the things that bring fear, resistance, negativity, and pessimism to a project. 

Inner demons tell you things like:

“You’ll never be good enough.”
“No one will ever love you like you want to be loved.”
“This will never work.”

Your inner demons are powerful. Most of the time, they’re voices that have gained strength over time, being fed by negative thought patterns and unfortunate experiences. But as powerful as they are, I’ve never met one that is unconquerable. 

You have the power to silence your inner demons with your thoughts. You can choose to listen to what they say, or you can choose to reject them. Will you give them control, or will you control them?

Everyone has inner demons. Great artists overcome their inner demons and start putting their energy toward creative pursuits. They act, instead of being acted upon. They create, instead of consuming. 

Do you know what inner demons hold you back? Listen to them when they try to discourage you from creating, taking creative risks, or trying something new. Write down what they say. Once you’re aware of those voices, you’ll be better able to reclaim power over your thoughts, and to stop letting your inner demons run the show. 


You don’t have to be a tortured artist. In fact: please don’t be a tortured artist. Create from a place of light. Use the good inside of you to be an inspirational creator of “happy.” Everything you are is unique. Use it as ammo for greatness. Leverage it. Don’t buy into being a tortured artist. Don’t allow that myth to tell you that you can’t create and be happy.

Because you can. And you will. 

Create happy (for free), with Design.org.

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