Creative People: Personality and Mental Health


 Creative People: Personality and Mental Health

The International Bipolar Foundation invited me to present a webinar
and I chose the above as the title.

You can view my full length 1 hour video presentation at Vimeo

Also see multiple short video excerpts in my Creative People webinar playlist on YouTube:

Creative People webinar playlist


Here are some brief presentations [videos and Slidecasts] based on the long webinar, plus notes – including links to related articles, books and other resources :

Main topics:
Personality:  High Sensitivity   |  Self Concept / Self Esteem
Mental Health:  Anxiety  |  Depression  |  Trauma

Sections below include:

A Complex Personality

Insecurity and Androgyny

High Sensitivity


Our Shadow Self

Creative People and Madness


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Creative People: A Complex Personality

{Also see the presentation above at SlideShare/Douglas Eby}
Here is another interactive format you can view full-screen:

Creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-high chick-sent-me-high-ee) is author of the classic book on Flow Psychology and optimal experience, based on many years of studying and interviewing people engaged in creative activities: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

In his article “Ten paradoxical traits of the creative personality,” he describes a number of complexities.

Writer Juliet Bruce, PhD summarizes his list:

A great deal of physical energy alternating with a great need for quiet and rest.

Highly sexual, yet often celibate, especially when working.

Smart and naïve at the same time. A mix of wisdom and childishness.

Convergent (rational, left brain, sound judgment) and divergent (intuitive, right brain, visionary) thinking…

Both extroverted and introverted, needing people and solitude equally

Humble and proud, both painfully self-doubting and wildly self-confident.

May defy gender stereotypes, and are likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other as well. A kind of psychic androgyny.

From post: The Complex Personality of Creative People.


Insecurity and Androgyny

Over the years of reading biographies and interviews with many highly talented and creative people, it has often struck me how many of them talk about being self-critical and having poor self-esteem, along with high confidence at times.

John Lennon once said, “Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.”

Writer Larry Kane commented about his bio Lennon Revealed: “People would be surprised at how insecure John Lennon was, and his lack of self esteem. Throughout his life, even during the height of Beatle mania, he had poor self esteem, even though he exuded confidence.”

Another example: Nobel Prize laureate poet and writer Czeslaw Milosz confessed: “From early on writing for me has been a way to overcome my real or imagined worthlessness.”

Tilda SwintonOne of my favorite actors, Tilda Swinton, won an Oscar for her role in “Michael Clayton.

She once commented she is “very often referred to as ‘Sir’ in elevators and such…I think people just can’t imagine I’d be a woman if I look like this.”

Part of her power as an actor and many of her characters is in their androgynous looks and energies.

Swinton has said she is fascinated by the question, “How do we identify ourselves, and how do we settle into other people’s expectations for our identity?

But androgyny is more than appearance.

Kathleen Noble, PhD, a professor and psychotherapist who works with many gifted clients, said in our interview, “Gifted women tend to be highly androgynous… they tend to combine qualities that we ascribe to both genders.

[See several lists of interviews in the menu at the top of pages on this site.]

Stephanie S. Tolan – co-author of the book Guiding the Gifted Child – finds that “Many gifted adults seem to know very little about their minds and how they differ from more ‘ordinary’ minds. The result of this lack of self-knowledge is often low, sometimes cripplingly low self esteem.”

Related posts:

Creative But Insecure.

‘I’m a Fraud’: Gifted and talented but insecure.

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High Sensitivity

Here is another version of the presentation [expand to full-screen mode to hear audio]

Psychologist Elaine Aron, PhD summarizes high sensitivity: (sensory processing sensitivity):   “Your brain processes information and reflects on it more deeply.”

Elaine AronShe  thinks all Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) “are creative, by definition.”

In her famous quote on the subject, writer Pearl Buck said, “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.”

While I appreciate her perspectives, there are parts I don’t agree with: What does “truly creative” even mean, and is she implying that only those who are highly sensitive qualify as “true” creators?

Also, she says “inhumanly sensitive” as though it were some extreme condition – but research by  Elaine Aron, PhD and others indicates the trait occurs in 15 – 20 % of people (and animals).

In an edition of her newsletter Comfort Zone, Dr. Aron writes that Buck “was saying all creative people are highly sensitive. I don’t know about that, but I know ALL HSPs are creative, by definition.

“Many have squashed their creativity because of their low self-esteem; many more had it squashed for them, before they could ever know about. But we all have it…”

From post: Elaine Aron on Creativity and Sensitivity.

Elaine Aron is author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.

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Article: Highly Sensitive Personality and Creativity  by Creativity Coach Lisa A. Riley, LMFT – she confirms many of her clients are highly sensitive people and creative, and notes “This characteristic does not discriminate between painter, actor, or musician—they all appear to have one thing in common: they experience the world differently than the average individual.

She adds, “Creatives often feel and perceive more intensely, dramatically, and with a wildly vivid color palate to draw from, which can only be described as looking at the world through a much larger lens.”

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Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain-150Post: Jessica Chastain and High Sensitivity, Crying and Creative People.

“I’m very sensitive in real life. I cannot not cry if someone around me is crying…even if it’s not appropriate. I have that thing in me, a weakness or sensitivity.”

“I was the girl who cut school to go to the park, and the other kids would be smoking and drinking and I’d be reading Shakespeare.”

Her comment about “weakness or sensitivity” probably reflects the kinds of often disparaging attitudes and criticism many non-sensitive people have about those who are sensitive.

Crying is a form of being intensely emotional that many highly sensitive people share. Over the course of some twenty years reading interviews with talented actors and other artists, I have been struck by how many of them talk about crying as almost a part of their personality.

Dr. Aron declares that highly sensitive persons) “do cry more readily than others. It was a strong finding in our research.”

Her Self-Test “Are You Highly Sensitive?” on her site includes some items that indicate the kinds of intense feelings which can lead us to cry, or become tearful, more easily – such as “I am deeply moved by the arts or music.”

Winona Ryder : “You go through spells where you feel that maybe you’re too sensitive for this world.”

This quote is another possible reference the kind emotional or sensory overwhelm that highly sensitive people may experience, and need to be aware of.

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Many people, including actors and other performers, identity themselves as shy – although some of them may actually be talking about being introverted. Shyness and introversion may seem to be the same in some ways, at least on the surface.

They can overlap, and we may have both traits – but they are not the same thing. And they are not the same as the trait of high sensitivity.

Kathryn Bigelow Zero Dark ThirtyDirector Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”) has said, “I’m kind of very shy by nature.”

The star of her movie The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner (who was reportedly shy as a child) has commented that “in social situations she can be painfully shy.”

From post: Gifts and challenges of being highly sensitive.

Ang-Lee-Sigourney-WeaverSigourney Weaver: “I remember when I met director Ang Lee and we were left alone … I was so shy and he was so shy neither of us said anything to each other for about 20 minutes. Finally, we started talking about “The Ice Storm.”

[From article : Keeping us guessing – Drama? Comedy? Sci-fi? Nothing is too alien for Sigourney Weaver – by Susan King, Los Angeles Times Jan 30, 2005.]

I’m bringing up this term “shy” because I think many people may use it when they are really introverted or highly sensitive – or have all three qualities.

Elaine Aron, PhD, in her book The Highly Sensitive Person [link above], notes this term shy “has some very negative connotations. It does not have to; shy can also be equated with words such as discreet, self-controlled, thoughtful, and sensitive.”

Another example is actor Claire Danes. In an interview when she was about 15, she said, “I never thought of myself as shy, and then I realized I am kind of shy; I’ve just built defenses to hide it.”

Musician Gwen Stefani, according to a British newspaper profile, was a “shy girl who spent most of her time in a bedroom plastered with Marilyn Monroe posters, who nevertheless assumed she was destined for greatness.”

I have often been struck by how many apparently very self-assured performers and actors have been shy or introverted as children. Many still are, as adults.

Read more in post: Creative and Shy.

[Photo from post: Highly sensitive relationships – Gwen Stefani: “I’m really emotional”]

Shyness and introversion may seem to be the same in some ways, at least on the surface. They can overlap, and we may have both traits – but they are not the same thing. And they are not the same as the trait of high sensitivity.

Elaine Aron notes “Because HSPs (highly sensitive persons) prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called ‘shy.’ But shyness is learned, not innate.”

See my post with more, including a video: Shyness, Introversion, Sensitivity – What’s the Difference?

A lot of people may not be familiar with high sensitivity or introversion, including journalists, may use the term “shy.”

Also see the Highly Sensitive site and Highly Sensitive / Facebook

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Our Shadow Self

Post: 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.”

Cheryl AruttPsychologist Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D., agrees that is both a funny and a provocative remark.

She is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, specializing in trauma recovery, fertility and creative artist issues.

I have had the privilege to interview her several times, and we share a number of interests in how people can better access their creative talents.

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 less comfortable sides of ourselves – and doing this also gives us more power to make aware choices rather than just react to life unconsciously.

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 other experiences), probably have a relationship with those feelings.

A number of actors confirm that idea, saying they are drawn to a role because they feel a strong personal connection with the emotional aspects of that character and story.

Carl Jung: “The shadow is the negative side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide.”

“Our ‘shadow’ is the collection of negative or undesirable traits we keep hidden—the things we don’t like about ourselves or are afraid to admit: egotist, non-‘PC’ proclivities, forbidden sexual desires. But it also includes our positive, untapped potential—qualities we may admire in others but disavow in ourselves.”

– From description of book Shadow Dance: Liberating the Power & Creativity of Your Dark Side by David Richo.

Joss Whedon is among many other artists who have acknowledged the value of exploring the darker sides of human experience in their creative work.

But some kinds of “darker side” can be destructive.

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.

[See posts: Anger and creativity and Shia LaBeouf on fame and meaning and insecurity]

Dr. Arutt talks about the fears many artists have about treating their anger, depression, anxiety or other challenges, and thus numbing or losing their creativity.

She 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.”

[Read more about Dr. Arutt and creative artist issues, and listen to our interview: Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Mental Health and Creative People.]

Colin Farrell said he is finding that he is more creative being sober and happy.

“I was terrified that whatever my capacity was as an actor would disappear when I got sober,” he admitted. “I ascribed to the notion that to express yourself as an artist, you have to live in perpetual pain. And that’s nonsense.”

– From post: Pain and suffering and developing creativity.

Ane Axford“I think many of us feel like we must wear a happy face all the time and overlook the cracks. This is not true. You can own the cracks, be with them, listen to what they have to tell you, and use them.”

Speaker/ writer/ coach/ therapist Ane Axford

[From her Facebook post.]

“I’m interested in people’s darker side, the ones that aren’t easy and well balanced. The cracks.”

Noomi Rapace []

Photo from article: 3 Things To Learn From The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – A Gifted Trauma Survivor, By Lisa Erickson, MS, LMHC.

Related articles :

Dancing With Our Shadow to Develop Creativity

Collaborating with our shadow side

The Shadow Muse — Gifts of Your Dark Side, By Jill Badonsky

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Creative People and Madness

Related post: Madness and creativity: do we need to be crazy?

Director Tim Burton may be acclaimed for his films, including “Alice in Wonderland,” but has also been called ‘crazy’ (at least in part for his appearance) or at least ‘eccentric’ – perhaps a polite cover label for ‘mad.’

He has even exploited that sort of reaction, he says: “If you want people to leave you alone then appearing to be crazy is a good thing. If you’re walking down the street talking to yourself people tend to give you a wide berth! But I’ve always been blessed with being easily ignored or avoided. I think maybe it’s because people think I look a little crazy.”

He added, “I have always been an outsider. As a kid I identified with the monsters in the old horror films, like the ‘Creature from the Blue Lagoon’ and ‘Frankenstein’.” [From post ‘Crazy’ Tim Burton,]

The mythology of the mad artist continues in various forms, supported to some extent by research.

For example, there are studies indicating writers are more susceptible to depression.

Judith Schlesinger, PhD notes the widely-circulated Swedish study [by researcher Simon Kyaga, a Karolinska Institutet doctoral student] mentioned in the video has significant issues in terms of scientific validity.

She is author of the book The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius.

She also said in her article “The Continuing Adventures of the Mad Musician and the Bipolar Genius,” “There’s still no concrete, empirical proof that highly creative people are any more likely to be mood-disordered than any other group.”

I don’t agree with her opinion of “no empirical evidence” but she does raise some important criticisms of research.

Here is another quote from her article:

“A careful look at the so-called “landmark” studies in the field—the work by psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold Ludwig, and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison—reveals gaping holes in their design, methodologies, and conclusions.”

Wu Zhenhuan Artist Studio

Creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton, PhD notes, “Few creative individuals can be considered truly mentally ill. Indeed, outright disorder usually inhibits rather than helps creative expression. Furthermore, a large proportion of creators exhibit no symptoms, at least not to any measurable degree.”

Scott Barry KaufmanCognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., addresses this topic in a post of his.

“I do believe that If the mental processes associated with psychosis were evaporated entirely from this world, art would suck. But so would a lot of other things that require imagination.”

He notes that psychosis is on a continuum: “Too much psychosis and one is at high risk of going mad. But everyone engages in psychosis-related thought any time they use their imagination.

“This type of thought activates particular regions of the brain and is especially prominent while day-dreaming and night-dreaming.”

Read much more in the post: Madness and creativity: do we need to be crazy?


Post: Certain mental disorders are linked to creative genius

Includes video: HuffPost Live program segment: “A Brilliant Sacrifice”
Hosted by: Janet Varney. Originally aired on October 24, 2012

From program description: “A new study confirms that certain mental disorders are linked to creative genius. Can this change the treatment of patients and our perception of brilliance?”

Guests included Cheryl Arutt and Judith Schlesinger – see their quotes above.


Post: Do We Need to be Crazy to be Creative?

“Creativity is a divine madness… a gift from the gods.” Plato

This mythology of madness as a fuel for creativity continues to affect how we think of artists – and ourselves as creative people.

One of the dangers of this mythology is that we may consider ourselves “not crazy enough” to be creative, or that our mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression should be endured, in order to “protect” our creative power.

StingMusician Sting admits he bought in to the myth for a long time: “Do I have to be in pain to write? I thought so, as most of my contemporaries did; you had to be the struggling artist, the tortured, painful, poetic wreck.

“I tried that for a while, and to a certain extent that was successful. I was ‘The King of Pain’ after all. I only know that people who are getting into this archetype of the tortured poet end up really torturing themselves to death.”

Post: Therapy Would Kill My Creativity

“I want to keep my sufferings. They are part of me and my art.” Painter Edvard Munch

Referring to Munch’s statement, psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison notes in her book Touched with fire: Manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament: “This is a common concern. Many artists and writers believe that turmoil, suffering, and extremes in emotional experience are integral not only to the human condition but to their abilities as artists.”

Another issue is diagnosis and misdiagnosis of creative people and traits of giftedness.

In his article “Mis-Diagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children” (and related book), James T. Webb, Ph.D. notes, “Many gifted and talented children (and adults) are being mis-diagnosed by psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, and other health care professionals” as having ADHD, OCD, Mood Disorders and other conditions.

He says, “These common mis-diagnoses stem from an ignorance among professionals about specific social and emotional characteristics of gifted children which are then mistakenly assumed by these professionals to be signs of pathology.”

Read more about gifted people on my site High Ability and High Ability / Facebook

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Anxiety often shows up as writer’s block.

Post: Eric Maisel on anxiety and developing creativity

Nicolas Cage in AdaptationThis photo is Nicolas Cage as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in ‘Adaptation.’

“Only a small percentage of creative people work as often or as deeply as, by all rights, they might be expected to work.

“What stops them? Anxiety or some face of anxiety like doubt, worry, or fear… anxiety is the great silencer of the creative person.”

Therapist and creativity coach Eric Maisel, PhD adds there are many different kinds of anxiety reactions, including confusion and a “weakness of mind and body” and persistent worry.

“But one of the most common anxiety reactions is a phobic reaction… many cases of creative blockage — perhaps most — are phobic reactions to the creative encounter.

“These real, painful, persistent phobias affect many creative people and help us better understand why creative people are prone to addictions.”

His books include:

Fearless Creating: A Step-By-Step Guide to Starting and Completing Your Work of Art.

Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Actors from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach.



Pretty much all of us experience some kind of trauma in life; how does creative expression help people heal and recover? And how do people make use of traumatic experiences in their creative work?

Niki de Saint Phalle - shootingSeveral years ago, I did an interview with psychologist Stephen A. Diamond that probably started my interest in this topic of trauma and creativity.

[Audio & text interview: Stephen A. Diamond, PhD on Anger and Creativity]

He writes about a number of prominent and accomplished artists who express their demons, their inner and outer conflicts, in positive ways.

One example he gives is French sculptor, painter, and film maker Niki de Saint Phalle (‘du san fal’, 1930-2002).

He noted her famous ‘shooting paintings’ resulted from firing live ammunition at paint-filled balloons mounted on canvas.

Dr. Diamond commented that “rather than becoming a crazed killer or vengeful victimizer of men, de St. Phalle’s fury — some of which stemmed from having been sexually abused by her father — fostered a fecund creativity, that served her well throughout her prolific career.”

He talks about how rage, when “channeled into their work, gives it the intensity and passion that performing artists such as actors and actresses seek.”

Halle Berry-200“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.”

That quote by Halle Berry about being abused as a child, indicates how much impact trauma can have.

She commented about acting in her intense movie “Gothika” (2003): “Although physically I would feel exhausted and tired, my back would hurt, my arms would hurt and my feet would be raw from running through all the stuff, there was still something about it that felt good, like I had a cathartic experience.

“I got a lot of stuff out of me that was pent up in little corners of myself, so I felt good at the same time.”

SARKSARK (Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy) is an artist and bestselling author of fifteen books. She notes, “I’m a survivor of incest. That was a period of seven years and it pretty much, at that point, destroyed my life. Then, from the ages of 14 to 26, I had 250 different jobs because I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do [with my life].

“During that time period I was also living a very self-destructive life and I wasn’t at all creative in any kind of physically manifested way. At 26 I finally turned to dedicate myself to art and writing, and proceeded for the next ten years to be rejected in every way that you could be.”

She said she knows that art is healing “because of how it heals me and how I see it healing other people every day. Through art, we come alive through the deep connections to our souls and spirits.”

The late actor Charles Durning suffered traumatic experiences in the war, include killing a young German soldier

“There are many secrets in us… horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”

Read more in post: Creative People and Trauma

Rooney Mara in Side EffectsRooney Mara earned an Academy Award nomination for her acting in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and in her movie “Side Effects” her character apparently struggles with severe depression, anxiety and the harmful effects of her medications.

She has commented, “I think everyone has at some point in their lives been depressed, or at least sad. I had a lot of anxiety growing up because I was so shy…I think that’s part of the reason I like acting. I can be someone else.” [ article]

Related site: Depression and Creativity.

Dr. Arutt comments about artists working with challenging emotions, while staying psychologically safe:

“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.”

Post and audio interview: Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Mental Health and Creative People.

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Viggo MortensenThe beginning title slide has a photo of Viggo Mortensen in one of his movies – he is an artist in multiple fields and head of a publishing company, and has commented, “Photography, painting or poetry – those are just extensions of me, how I perceive things, they are my way of communicating.”

He has made many comments about his creative life, including these:

“If I don’t get a little time by myself every day, it makes me uncomfortable. I really need that. Even if it’s a minute or two.”

(That might be a reference to introversion – one of the topics of my site Highly Sensitive.)

“I think it was Robert Louis Stevenson who said this. It was about meandering through a career, or the arts in general, without seeming to have a deliberate plan. He said, ‘To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is in the labor.’ That’s a great line, ‘To travel hopefully.’ That’s what I’d like to do.”

Many more quotes in post: Viggo Mortensen: “Why just one thing?”

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What do you think about these topics?