Valerie Ihsan

author, editor, dog lover

How to Change Negative Emotions into Art

I am an expert at grieving. The day I found out I was pregnant with my second child was the day my husband died. But you don’t have to have a loved one die to experience grief. True, it might be the first thing you think of when you hear the word grief. Death and grief do go hand in hand. But there are other hugely traumatic griefs that don’t involve death.

How about losing your home to natural disaster—the Oso, Washington mud slide, for instance? A divorce. That’s traumatic. Child abuse. Domestic abuse—verbal, emotional, sexual, or physical. They are all traumatic. What about cyber-bullying? Harassment at work? All these things cause trauma and grief. Some cause anger or fear. Certainly they cause anxiety and stress. So what do we do with those emotions? How do we work through the muck and sediment that those traumas impose on us?

First of all, I’d hope that you’d find some sort of therapy for yourself, if possible. And while I’m a big proponent of talk therapy combined with bodywork, there are lots of other therapies that can work wonders and/or complement your talk therapy. And art is just one of them.

I have three steps to turning your negative emotions into art. There are more, I’m sure, if I stopped to think of them, but the longer the list, the more complicated it becomes, and it really only boils down to three. So here they are:

Bypass the mind.

It really gets in the way. It does. It tries to make sense, and reason out the “WHY is this happening to me?”—which drives you crazy. You keep thinking, “If I can just figure out why I’m feeling this way, I can fix it. I can change it. I can make it go away.” Again, this is faulty thinking that will just cause a cycle of more negative emotions, driving self-worth lower.

So the first step is to (use your mind to make the decision to) get out of your mind.

Find your medium.

Put the words on the page. Put your fingers in the paint. Move your body in the dance. Stick your hands in dirt or clay. Maybe you already have a medium. Maybe you want to try a new one.

I’ve always been a writer, but after my husband died, I pounced on the clay. I swam my fingers through the slip. And years later I tried glass fusing and painting. I always seem to fall back on words though.

So find your medium.

Let Go.

This might seem flippant, but you really need to get out of your own way. And it works for life patterns not related to art, too.

Here’s an example: I had gotten to a place in my spiritual and personal growth and healing where I wanted to move ahead and learn more, do more, be more. I walked in with open heart and mind, asked all the right people, “What do I do next? How do I find inner peace? I’m ready.” These masters and teachers and guides gave me the answers: Relax. Don’t push so hard. Allow it to happen naturally at its own pace.

And I said, “Yes, Yes. But what do I do?”

I was a proactive person. I wanted to hurry up and grieve and get it over with so I could attain inner-peace with my situation. With my self.

“What do I do?”

Relax. Don’t push so hard. Allow it to happen naturally at its own pace.

“Yes, yes. But what do I do?”

I got stuck in that loop for many months. And finally I think I just got bored of asking. Got bored with my mind chatter. It was lame. So I let go and got out of my own way.

Like everything else in life that’s hard, (in this case, more hard than I ever thought myself capable of handling,) you put one foot in front of the other every day. And that’s how I mostly was able to work through my grief journey.

And so it is for art, too. To turn those negative emotions, those dense emotions, into something that can be worked through.

So, I stopped deciding what it was that my grieving was supposed to look like, and I stopped deciding what it was my art was supposed to look like. I put my fingers in the clay with my eyes closed and threw a pot on the wheel. I held an emotion in my mind and drew a picture of it with words; I painted the emergence of that emotion up and out of me and put it on the canvas. I wrote a book.

Let go. Relax. Don’t push so hard. Allow it to happen naturally.

What medium will YOU choose?

How has art helped you grieve a loss you’ve had?

Which negative emotions have you turned into art?


Find more articles on my archived blog, Dust Yourself Off (also known as Insane Parents Unite!).

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