The Magical Healing Powers of Art

Art is a specific empathic healing practice

This month’s newsletter about art has started a lot of conversations; this post expands on the healing power of art (artistically)!

Artistic expression is a wonderful and soul expanding thing for anyone, but it has a particular healing quality for anyone who wants to understand and work with empathy, because art helps you express and channel emotions intentionally. Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill, and learning how to work with and understand emotions is a vital part of developing healthy and intentional empathy.

Photo of colorful fruits in an artistic arrangement
Art can also be edible!

Whether you write, draw, paint, sing, compose, play an instrument, design, do metalwork or paper arts, work with fabric or jewelry, create with wood or ceramics, dance or do martial arts, do graphic arts or photography, do math or science, or work in your garden or your kitchen – artistic and creative expression will give you a way to connect with yourself and tangibly symbolize emotions, thoughts, and ideas.

And the wonderful thing is: this art doesn’t have to be any good!

So many of us avoid our art because it has been ruined by perfectionism. We want to sing, but our voices aren’t “good enough;” we want to paint, act, or dance, but we’re not “talented;” we want to design gardens, build structures, or decorate our spaces, but we’re not “properly trained.” Nonsense. Nonsense, I tell you!

Art is an innate human skill, but our cultural focus on perfectionism has taken art away from so many of us. This is a shame, because we need more art and more beauty in the world, but it’s also kind of a tragedy, because art is a specific empathic healing practice, both for highly empathic people, and for people who are currently having difficulties with their empathic awareness.

Art helps you express yourself, and art helps you understand your emotions, the social world, the natural world, and your place in the grand scheme of things. Art also helps you express the unspoken and those difficult-to-explain-in-any-other-way ideas that tend to be more important than ideas that make sense in the light of day. Art can help you understand who you and are what’s important to you, and it’s a delightful mindfulness practice.

I write a great deal about the specific healing qualities of art in The Art of Empathy:

Artistic expression can deepen and coalesce you – it can expand and focus you – and it can embolden you so that you can take the pain and trouble in your life and immerse it in the beauty and depth of your soul. Art can be a sacred, alchemical healing practice – and it’s a specific practice to deepen your empathy. ~ Karla McLaren

Artistic expression is specifically healing practice for hyper-empathic people, because it helps us bring balance to our highly receptive bodies, and it helps us utilize our empathic Einfühlung capacities in self-nurturing ways. Hyper-empathic people tend to spend a lot of time in receptivity, and if there isn’t a healthy way for us to express and channel all of the emotions, sensations, and impressions we receive, we can become overwhelmed and exhausted.

We can head toward burnout if we have no expressive practice to balance our natural tendency to be highly receptive to our environment and continually aware of the emotions, needs, difficulties, and wishes of others. Artistic expression can help us express things in a sensual, visual, auditory, intellectual, tactile, or kinetic way – and it can help us develop an internal dialogue and deeper intrapersonal awareness.

Artistic expression can also help people with low empathy develop the intrapersonal skills and awareness that lead to stronger Empathic Accuracy and Emotion Regulation skills. Artistic expression is a vital aspect of empathic self-care – and luckily, the art doesn’t have to be any good.

When I was a hyperactive and emotionally volatile little hyper-empathic child, I was fortunate to have artistic parents. My dad was a writer and singer, and my mom was a painter and singer. Art and music, wordplay and singing – these were normal parts of every day. We had a piano, and when I was completely overwhelmed, I’d go and sit at it and try to learn a song I had heard somewhere. I’d play parts of the melody over and over again, training my fingers and my ears to memorize the song – and once I got it, I’d play the entire song over and over again to get the right cadence and emotional expressivity.

I’m talking hours on one song. It must have been excruciating for my family, but no one made fun of me or complained, because artists understand that practice – and being bad at first – is a part of the process.

Although my early music was probably a form of water torture for any listener, the process of creating music was magical for me. I was able to train my hands and my ears to home in on specific sounds and actions, I was able to exercise my memorization and sequencing skills, and I was able to express emotions in many different ways as I played and replayed my songs.

I was also able to spend significant time away from the needs of others, and to focus on the exact ways that I wanted to express myself. Art gave me a way to utilize my intense Einfühlung capacities in a safe, intentional, manageable, and tangible way. Art and music helped me learn about myself as an individual, and they helped me develop grounded intrapersonal empathic skills.

Artistic expression is a specific healing practice for hyper-empathic people – and it’s also a wonderful way for people with currently low emotional and intrapersonal awareness to engage with and develop their interior lives and their emotional awareness.

What is your art form?

As you search through your home for your artistic practice, don’t be too upset if you don’t find anything except some old art supplies at the back of the closet, covered with a layer of dust, hope, and faint shame. Very few of us were raised by artists, and very few of us have ever been able to set aside time for an artistic practice. Even my intensely artistic friends have unfinished projects that collect dust for months or even years. Modern life is busy and hectic, and there’s always something dragging us away from self-care, from interiority, and from our art.

Fantasies of perfection are also a big impediment, because many people don’t want to do art unless they can do it perfectly. If that’s what’s stopping you, then please burn your contracts with art-as-perfection. Unless you’re out there trying to make a living as an artist, you don’t have to be concerned with perfection; the point is to utilize art as a supportive expressive practice that is uniquely healing for your empathic self.

You need as many forms of healthy expression as you can get, because empathy is a highly receptive process. Expressive practices will help you create balance, and they’ll help you avoid (or heal from) burnout.

If you don’t currently have any art or craft that engages you, take some classes! Supporting other artists and helping them make a living is a wonderful way to perform empathic activism, and it’s a great way to meet people who share your interests. Of course, classes are social activities where you’ll need to be empathically receptive for at least part of the time, but gaining artistic tools and skills will help you embark on your own artistic practice.

If you can’t make time for a class, then try a simple expressive art form and discover what you like and what speaks to you. Even if it’s dancing around the living room to your favorite song, writing a short poem, or creating an interesting display on your refrigerator – find a way to express yourself through art and movement, and find a way to make time and space in your home for art. Art heals. 

Creating an expressive practice in a receptive life

I notice that many highly sensitive and hyper-empathic people tend to get stuck in a feedback loop that looks something like this:

Receive, receive, receive … get overwhelmed … isolate. (Take a bit of down time and then:)

Receive, receive, receive … get overwhelmed … isolate. And so on….

In many cases, people end up in empathic burnout or compassion fatigue, at which time they isolate more and more. Here’s the problem:

Isolation is not a healing practice for receptivity, or sensitivity, or hyper-empathy.

The healing practice — and the balancing practice, and the mindfulness practice — is to express as much as you receive. And art can help you express yourself in deeply mindful, enjoyable, ceremonial, and meaningful ways. That’s what art is for.

If you’re a highly receptive person, you can dance around — not perfectly, but truthfully — and you can express emotions and physical movements to explore what’s going on inside and around you.

Or you can sing — not perfectly, but deeply and honestly — and you can use sounds and words and melodies to express emotions and ideas that can’t be expressed half as well in other ways.

Or you can paint, or design, or sculpt, or build, or write, or draw — even if it’s just crayons on a piece of office paper — and you can express yourself artistically, mindfully, and meaningfully.

Isolation is not a healing practice for receptivity (though isolation can help in many cases); the specific healing practice for receptivity, sensitivity, and hyper-empathy is to express as much as you receive, and to do so in ways that are mindful, ceremonial, and soulful. Art is a specific healing practice, and a fascinating benefit is that art gives your soul a way to communicate with you.

The song that sings you

Besides writing, singing is one of my favorite artistic practices. I have a lot of artistic practices because I tend to be hyper-empathic, and I need to express constantly to keep myself well. I love singing, and I like to work on songs that have very specific emotional tones such as great sadness, great joy, anger, recrimination, expressions of loss, expressions of love, and so forth. I love to play with emotional expression, and I know a lot of songs.

Art gives your soul a way to communicate with you.

Sometimes, my brain will start singing to me (or it will wake me up with a song!), and if I sing through the song and feel my way into it, there will be something specific there — in the words or in the emotional tone — that needs my attention.

Often, things will be going well in my life, yet my brain will start singing a song of deep despair, such as “‘Round Midnight.” I once treated these songs as if they were meaningless ear-worms, that is, until I slowed down and dropped into them mindfully.

Sure enough, there’s always something there — some loss that hasn’t been expressed, some piece of information, some pull toward depth and introspection … and it is my brain and my soul that are using my specific art form to communicate with me.

So find your art, or let your art find you, and give your soul a way to contact you.

If you’re a sensitive, receptive, and empathic person — or if you need to understand emotions and the world around you in a deeper way — art can lead you into understanding, and depth, and meaning in a way that nothing else can. And luckily, this art doesn’t have to be any good. Art is an innate human skill, and it’s a specific healing practice.

It’s why I called my book The Art of Empathy. Art is a specific empathic healing practice that will help you safely and mindfully express as much as you receive; that’s what art is for!

26 Responses

  1. Sylvie
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for helping me to understand what I feel. I recognize myself in these lines : Receive, receive, receive … get overwhelmed … isolate. And so on…. and recently I discovered with amazement that I could play music on my piano, that something could pour out of my hands and make music I didn’t know I could hear inside. Thank you for the extraordinary job you did by writing these great books. I just turned fifty and I have been looking all these years for understanding why I was different, why I was always the only one having so intense feelings and why I wasn’t able to make anything out of them but being tormented and unbalanced. I’m very grateful for everything I realize thanks to you ! Please forgive my english, I’m French. By the way, are your books going to be translated in french ? Many of my friends are looking forward to it.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Sylvie, and thank you so much for your kind words. We hyper-empaths have to stick together and support each other in doing art, art, art!

      About a French translation: I’m not sure yet if one is in the works. I can check with the foreign rights department at my publishers and let you know!

      Thanks again,

  2. Sylvie
    | Reply

    Hello Karla, I’d love it! Please check with your publishers about a french translation and let me know.
    Also I would like to know if other empathy retreats will be organized soon ?
    I couldn’t attend the one this week in Hollyhock and I keep hoping there will be another one, maybe nearer to the east coast (much nearer from France!)
    Thanks a lot,

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Sylvie,

      I’ve sent a message to my publisher, and I’ll let you know what they say. And yes, there is an East Coast retreat scheduled!

      It’s at the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts, January 4th through January 9th, 2015. It’s a lovely yoga retreat with wonderful food and very sweet people. You can see it here. I hope you can join us!


  3. Sylvie
    | Reply

    Hello Karla,
    This is a terrific piece of news !
    If not before, I’ll meet you there.
    Thank you for everything and have a very nice week in Hollyhock.
    Looking forward reading from you,

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Sylvie — I look forward to seeing you in January!

  4. kathy smiley
    | Reply

    i love your work and the way you explain things! in my 60’s, you inspired me to draw and learn to paint with watercolor. prior to that i was not very good at stick figures! painting has proven to be quite cathartic. i was brave and created a facebook page to share my art, as it unfolds, photography and some inspiring words. i have a link to this article for others who may be called to your work. blessings to you karla, kathy

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kathy, how wonderful! I once heard about “Bad Art” parties where people could get together and create things without all those silly perfectionist ideas. Artistic expression is so important; I’m glad you’ve found the one that speaks to you!

  5. kathy smiley
    | Reply

    BAD ART PARTIES sounds perfect – I must have one for my friends and a few of my old clients. Who knows, it just may catch on!

  6. Paula
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    I wanted you to know how much I love your books and your approach re. understanding emotions. It makes so much sense to me and I have referred your site and books to several friends and students.

    I am a professional classical singer and relate very strongly to this article. I love what you have said because it makes complete sense and I have experienced the balancing effect of creating as a way of working through difficult emotions firsthand. For instance, a few years ago, my father passed away during production week of two shows I was performing in. For the next month, I sang an opera almost every night and put all the grief and overwhelm into my art. It was immensely healing and I was able to transform something very uncomfortable into something with beauty and value. It was empowering.

    All the best – I’m sure I will be sharing more thoughts as I continue reading your posts and revisit your books. It’s been a while and it’s time to delve more deeply into this topic again. 🙂

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Paula, and thank you for your wonderful story of loss and art. I’m so sorry to hear of your father’s death, and at the same time I’m in wonder at your being able to sing at volume in deeply emotive ways every night during your early grieving. Wow, what a gift.

      Your story made me think of the grief rituals of the West African ritual keeper, Sobonfu Somé. During the ritual, we sing the same song over and over for hours at a time — but in her village in Burkina Faso, the song goes on for three days. When I first encountered her ritual, I thought, whoa, three days is a long time! But now I don’t see how people do it in less time than that. There is so much that needs to be expressed from the body during grief, and our western funeral rituals don’t really make space for that.

      Thank you for sharing your art of grieving, and thank you for bringing more art, and beauty, and emotional awareness to a waiting world!

  7. Paula
    | Reply

    Thank you for your response, Karla.

    I think it’s time for this world to embrace more artful ways of communicating and integrating information and emotions. I love the story of the West African ritual because it acknowledges the depth of the emotions that must be processed. I think it is sad that our society encourages a ‘stiff upper lip’ but ignores the cost of that. There is a way to be honest and vulnerable while also being strong and grounded.

    Thank you for your infinite wisdom – you are inspiring and do such important work. Blessings!

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