Art, Fear, and Sensitivity...

These are the 13th & 14th of 25 books I have committed to read & review this year for a project I’m calling “25/25.” Follow visual updates on Instagram (& Twitter) with the hashtag #read25in25.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland

I've read this book a couple of times now over the last few years. It's a staple in my library of books on life as an artist and the creative process. It is one of the ones that sends me straight back into my work reenergized and refocused. One of the best parts of Art & Fear is how is de-romanticizes artmaking, centering the conversation in the practical world of life and work without discounting the element of mystery involved in finding and making the work that is ours to make. 

It is said to be an "artist's survival guide" that addresses the following 3 questions that recur at each stage of an artist's development:

  • What is your art really about?
  • Where is it going?
  • What stands in the way of getting it there? must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have. Art work is ordinary work, but it takes courage to embrace that work, and wisdom to mediate the interplay of art & fear...Your art does not arrive miraculously from the darkness, but is made uneventfully in the light.
— David Bayles & Ted Orland

The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron, Ph. D

When reading Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, I learned of a trait called "high-sensitivity." It's a trait that merely describes a person with a more sensitive nervous system than the average person, and it is estimated that 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive persons (HSPs)–that makes approximately 50 million in the U.S. Cain referenced the work of Elaine Aron repeatedly, and it led me to purchase and read this book by Aron. It was valuable to get a more in depth look at the nuances of living as or with an HSP, but as a starting point, I'd really recommend reading Cain's book first.

Dr. Aron explains that in the past HSPs have been called “shy,” “timid,” “inhibited,” or “introverted,” but these labels completely miss the nature of the trait. Thirty percent of HSPs are actually extraverts. HSPs only appear inhibited because they are so aware of all the possibilities in a situation. They pause before acting, reflecting on their past experiences. If these were mostly bad experiences, then yes, they will be truly shy. But in a culture that prefers confident, “bold” extraverts, it is harmful as well as mistaken to stigmatize all HSPs as shy when many are not. In The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aron reframes these stereotyping words and their common application to the HSP in a more positive light and helps HSPs use and view these aspects of their personality as strengths rather than weaknesses.

Sensitivity is anything but a flaw. Many HSPs are often unusually creative and productive workers, attentive and thoughtful partners, and intellectually gifted individuals.

Some gifted individuals indeed, and important figures in our culture, including: Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Thomas Alva Edison, Jane Goodall, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, E.E. Cummings, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Kahlil Gibran, D.H. Lawrence, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van GoghGeorgia O’Keefe, Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Frank Lloyd Wright, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Neil Young, Judy Garland, and many others. To be fair, the trait certainly does not always lead to positive contributions as  Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden are also thought to exhibit the signs of being HSPs.

Some questions to ask yourself...if you answer yes to the majority of these you may be an HSP:

  • Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
  • Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
  • Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
  • Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
  • Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
  • Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
  • Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
  • When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?

High-sensitivity is not the same as introversion, however many introverts are also HSPs. And both of these traits–introversion and high-sensitivity–can get confused with shyness, but these are misconceptions. Watch the TED Talk to the left from Susan Cain to get a bit more of an accurate picture of what introversion truly is, the value of it, and a look at how the bias of our current culture is toward extroversion in a variety of ways...

If you know me at all, you know I fit into both of these categories–HSP and introverted. I'm grateful for the language people like Susan Cain and Elaine Aron are developing and that it is gaining a place in the public discourse. This is good news for all of us I think:)