Do Negative Emotions Sharpen Perception?

Blurry LightsLots of people carry in their heads the image of the tortured artist: the writer/painter/musician whose brilliant artistic achievements spring from a soil rich with personal failures, miseries, addictions, and/or mental illnesses. Writing guru Julia Cameron persuasively argues that creativity does not require depression. Or agony. That well-adjusted artists are, actually, quite successful and productive–maybe even more so than the sorry cases the media likes to latch onto. And I do think that Cameron is right that building a career in a creative field requires a substantial level of mental health. It’s one’s rationally optimistic side that keeps one sitting down to work day after day, gives pep talks when needed, and also makes sure that one is well-fed, well-rested, and otherwise fueled for the creative act.

But I am not quite ready to let go of the tortured artist archetype. I am glowing with mental health these days (or so it seems to me), and I have been having a productive time of it. I’ve turned out several essays in the past three months, and I’m quite proud of some of them. But, to be honest, my production doesn’t come close to what I turned out in three of the most agonizing months of my life. A few years ago when a long-term relationship of mine came to an abrupt and incomprehensible end, I started a memoir. And in three months, I had written five hundred pages. I haven’t seen anything approaching that level of unrelenting inspiration since I recovered my emotional balance.

Another thing that characterized that period in my life was a rash of synchronicities–meaningful coincidences. One afternoon during that time, I was browsing a used bookstore for a Christmas present for the ex with whom I was still friends. I stumbled upon James Hillman’s superb book The Soul’s Code. I knew it would be perfect for T. and bought it on the spot. The next thing I knew, I was in a coffee shop reading it myself. I read and read and read, and every few pages exclaimed to myself, “This is just perfect for him! He’s going to love this!” I couldn’t wait to send it to him in France. Well, a few days later, T. sent me an email telling me about this great book he’d been reading: Le code caché de votre destin. It was the French translation of The Soul’s Code. Astounded, I asked him where he’d gotten it. He said he’d found it Wednesday morning at a bookstore in a nearby town–a mere 12 hours after I’d been reading the book in the coffee shop. “Well,” I told him, “I figured with mail being so slow over the Atlantic, I’d better send you your Christmas present by mental telepathy.”

Things like that happened frequently in the traumatic months following the end of our engagement. I’d always been pretty skeptical when T. talked about “synchronicities,” but that period made me a believer.

What’s odd is that few such coincidences have happened in the years since. Some have, but their frequency is nowhere near as intense. And the same goes for feelings of spiritual or intellectual epiphany. Those three months when I was rubbed raw by the emotions of confusion and loss produced an amazing crop of insights into the contents of my mind as well as important developments in my views about spirituality, philosophy, and even physics. Though I don’t wish to experience another emotional devastation like that, I have to say that I do miss the apparent window into the inner workings of the universe. And it’s my experience of that time that makes me wonder if there isn’t some important truth hidden in the stereotype of the tortured artist. Could it be that pain and emotional confusion open the mind’s eye?

Some psychological research in the past few decades has linked happiness with extroversion. The happier you are, the more extroverted you are, and vice versa. Even acting like an extrovert when you aren’t one can make you happier, it turns out. But I’m wondering about the flip side of this. Presumably, unhappiness and introversion also correlate to some degree. If unhappiness makes one turn inward (and I think my own experience is consistent with that), might it be that it focuses us not only on the processes of our own psyche but on those of the collective unconscious as well? Might there be something about negative emotions that narrows the mind’s attention and tunes us in to wavelengths that normally go unnoticed? I suppose the mechanism could be something as simple as giving us less motivation to distract ourselves with social activities and more desire to sit around just reflecting. Maybe pain quite simply holds us still–long enough for us to perceive some of the subtle stuff that usually slips by unnoticed.

Do you find that negative emotions reduce your focus on the material world and sharpen your perception of what lies beneath? If you’re relatively free from hurt these days, do you ever miss the clarity that seemed to go with it?

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25 thoughts on “Do Negative Emotions Sharpen Perception?

  1. I tend to agree with your assessment. In times of relative despair, my mind seems more focused, more in tune with the universe as a whole. For me, personally, I presume this is because I am a thinker (albeit, sometimes an over-thinker). But, during those difficult times, I tend to ask myself more questions. Why did this happen? What went wrong? Analysis and insight ensues. And the door to my soul is opened. It has been closed not because I have been consciously avoiding it. Rather, it has always been cracked, but never pushed open due to the distractions around me. When I am given a reason to delve deeper, that door is pushed open.

    As you say, it’s difficult to *wish* for these times as a means of initiating an elevated state of creativity, but I miss those times on occasion too. Maybe, if we realize that door is there and we choose to push it open and peek inside every so often, that would be enough 😉

    Thank you for a wonderful post and a very thought-provoking idea to ponder. Best wishes for an inspired day!

      • You just hit the proverbial nail on the head 😉 I spend two and a half paragraphs attempting to articulate my thoughts and you did it in three sentences:

        “I don’t miss the pain. I just miss the clarity. The intense feeling of aliveness.”

        Thank you 🙂

  2. What an interesting post – thank-you! I think that sadness/depression may have this effect because they loosen our interest and attachment to the world. Jung said the dream (the themes and stories of the unconscious mind in its many levels) is happening all the time in the psyche, but we normally only become aware of it in dreams because when we’re asleep we aren’t distracted by the everyday waking world. A regular practice of dreaming feeds and sustains my writing these days, although when I was much younger I came to it through periods of depression.

    • Yes, like you I really think it’s about sadness’ reducing distractions from the world. The world, perhaps, has let us down, and so we go looking somewhere deeper. And, I think, are almost always rewarded.

    • Yes, like you I really think it’s about sadness’ reducing distractions from the world. The world, perhaps, has let us down, and so we go looking somewhere deeper. And, I think, are almost always rewarded.

  3. Great post!! I read Cameron’s Writing the Artist way anout 10+ yrs ago. IT wad very therspeutic…but I was just journaling then. I find I do write deep…differently when struggling emotionally. Physical paun tol..since I suffer chronic pain and past 2 days non stop migrsine…my muse seems to tske over. Reslly?

    • I wondered if physical pain would operate similarly or differently. I thought maybe chronic physical pain would just shut everything down, but I’m very intrigued by your experience of the muse “taking over” in those times.

  4. You know, I was just thinking about all this, maybe a couple of days ago. I used to be so attached to the idea of the tortured artist. I was so sure it was a prerequisite that I probably sacrificed a whole lot of real happiness so I would fit the mold by, for example, putting off getting professional help.

    But I’ve recently had something of an epiphany–the best writers, or the ones I admire most anyway, have had long careers that have benefitted enormously from the perspective being mentally stable has to offer. The best stories and poems and essays are based on looking out at the world, but depression only allows you to look inward at your own despair. That’s been my experience anyway. So I totally get where you’re coming from about producing more work during periods of suffering, but I’m willing to bet your ability to really think critically about your experience is a hundred times better now that you’re out of the woods. Or at least that’s been my experience. I wrote a lot when I was depressed, but it was always this dark despairing stuff that was ultimately uninteresting to anyone but myself. I feel like I can frame that experience a lot better now.

    Oh wow that turned out to be a long paragraph of thinking out loud! Sorry about that!

    • I love this perspective on it. Maybe it’s a yin and yang sort of thing. You have to have some of those moments of complete immersion in the emotional, intuitive plane. But then, to write lucidly and compellingly about it, you have to come back into your reasoning brain. Something tells me you’re right on.

  5. In my experience, if I’m willing to explore the emotion I’m feeling — to really turn my attention toward the raw sensations that I’m labeling as “emotional pain” or something like that, whether it’s an empty feeling in my stomach, a heat in my forehead, or something else — there are opportunities for discovery that might not show up in “normal day-to-day life.”

    • Yes, I agree with you there. So often in life, we push the negative emotions away as much as possible. But maybe the key to a little extra clarity is letting them stay and finding out what they can teach us.

  6. The happier I am, the more extraverted I become. I think this is why people who know me one on one say I am an extravert. I can be at a party as long as I am happy, but parties soon dilute me, and I am a pumpkin once again. Thinking of happiness as a bridge between intra and extra is quite helpful.

    • I just saw her book yesterday at the store but passed over it as I was focused on other things. I hadn’t thought about it in connection with this post, but now that you bring it up, I think I will have to investigate! Thanks for the lead. 🙂

      • No problem. What I’ve read so far has caused me to reflect. Introversion is not a character defect; it’s a just a different way of being:) I’ve readjusted my thinking.

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