Artists know the feeling well. You get absorbed in your work to the point of obsession. Yes, you might be making great art, but there is a personal, psychological price that you are paying to do it. Most of us deny that cost. We tough it out and put on the brave “everything’s ok and I love what I do” face. What we don’t reveal is the dark side of our obsession.
When I started to think about this subject, it occurred to me that entrepreneurs and artists have a lot in common. They are both driven by a goal, the power and magnetism of which few others can truly appreciate. We become slightly manic, in our endeavours. Quite frequently, we put the work above all else, we take risks with our health and finances and we work ourselves into a right old emotional state, to get the art made or the venture to succeed.
Here’s the thing. You are a creative creature, driven to produce because you’re wired this way. They call it hypomania, in some circles. You’re just crazy enough to pursue obsessions single mindedly, but not so crazy that you’re clinically manic. You do share many of the symptoms, though. They say that people who are the children of immigrants are pre-disposed to hypomania. It’s in the genes. There are a high proportion of artists and entrepreneurs that have this slight manic quality to them, undeniably.
Being slightly obsessive and manic, you feel things at seemingly higher amplitude than most. You’re happiest when you’re in the flow, but most anxious when you’re frustrated (being prevented from creating or pursuing your goal) or when you’ve failed (the venture folded, or the art was received badly or didn’t get finished at all). You always have to find yourself in that in-between zone between thwarted and defeated, where you are working slightly too hard, just to feel normal.
Characteristically, artists and entrepreneurs that are slightly obsessed and manic are absorbed to the point of exclusion of most other important aspects of life – they’re overworked, often over extended financially, they neglect to take care of their bodies, health and relationships and they are highly critical of their own performance and output. In short, they’re not fun to be around anyway. Partners can find them detached, distracted and downright emotionally distant or even psychologically abusive. They might be thought to be isolated or narcissistic, even selfish. When they’re immersed in their work, they’re cut off from the world and everybody in it.
A consequence of this state of being is that the hypomanic artist or entrepreneur (and after all, many professional artists are also entrepreneurs, it has to be said), is prone to feelings of stress, loneliness, boredom, anxiety, depression and loss of self confidence. They’re vulnerable, but can’t or won’t admit to it, for fear of it affecting their ability to complete the work. Sometimes, the worry caused by the work they have voluntarily undertaken to do can be psychologically debilitating. It can make you physically ill too. You look, to the entire world, like the heroic over-achiever, but inside you’re crumbling.
The pay off, if you can live through it, is that you succeed. When you succeed, you enjoy the temporary spoils of the win, but being obsessive, it isn’t long before you throw yourself into your next obsessive project. It’s not something you can help.
On the other hand, if you fail, the consequences can be devastating. You’ve made all these sacrifices and tried so hard, exhausting yourself, your finances and your relationships in the process and you’ve finished up with much less than you hoped for. Your confidence ebbs away. It makes it harder to pick yourself up and start again. In fact, you can begin to fear this feeling so much, that it stops you from starting. You just can’t face starting a new venture or new art project, for fear of the takeover of your entire life that comes with it, and the consequences of failure. Failure, if we are honest, is more likely than not. That’s just the way it is.
It has been said that it’s a little like post traumatic stress disorder. You’ve been in battle, taken some bad hits and now you just can’t face getting back to the front line. In fact, you can’t help overreacting to all sorts of silly stuff. You’re shell shocked.
I lived through a failed start-up venture. It took over a decade to pay off the debts. I abused my body, didn’t get enough sleep or exercise and cut myself off from those around me when I needed them most. It was horrible. The scars make it hard for me to start new big things. I start a lot of small things, instead and try to see them through to completion. Call it therapy.
What I learned was that I was most able to deal with the anxiety when I had a guitar in my hand. It has always been this way for me. I feel at peace when it’s just me and the guitar. It’s my place of safety.
I also learned that to survive the obsession and its dark consequences, you need to love deliberately. Love yourself and your loved ones and pay special attention to doing so. Your relationships are ultimately what make you strong and what heal the wounds. You have to care for yourself and for your loved ones. Sleep, eat right and relax when you need to. Take time to be who you are, rather than being owned by your obsession and take time to be with those you love and to do the things you love to do. Finally, be courageous, emotionally honest and open hearted enough to admit to your vulnerability. You’ll be surprised at how many people, who love you, will take care of you. You are not alone.
So, my artistic friends, if you are engaged in an obsessive pursuit, beware of the dark side of the obsession and make time to maintain your own psychological health and that of those around you. It’s important.