Painting Your Way Through Difficult Emotions

by | Jul 12, 2010 | Articles, WHTTO | 9 comments




I recently got an email from a lovely woman on my mailing list asking me about how to use creativity to work through negative emotions.

Which is a completely fabulous question and one that I have thought about a great deal.

My first response to that question is that I don’t believe that ANY emotions are inherently negative.

Now I know why she used that particular word. It’s a common way that everyone talks and thinks about feelings. Over the years I have had to train myself to NOT use that word because it’s the one that my mind automatically goes to.

But it’s a word that carries a lot of unconscious judgment with it. It creates a dichotomy of good and bad, right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. And since as human beings we experience “negative” emotions on a regular basis it means that we are relegating at least half of our emotional life to the emotional dust bin.

Certain emotions are painful, yes. Difficult, often. And not always what we WANT to be experiencing.  But they are not intrinsically bad.

The emotions themselves are not really the problem. All emotions and feelings are a source of energy and offer us ways that we can be fully alive in the world.

But we get the message early on that certain feelings or emotional states are dangerous or forbidden or shameful and so we never learn how to be in a relationship with them in a way that allows us to access the energy that is available to us.

We don’t realize that EVERYTHING that we feel is ultimately an opportunity for healing, self love and empowerment.

The other thing that I hear in my students question when she asks how to “work through” negative emotions is a subtext of how do you get RID of those unwanted feelings and moods.

That’s something that comes up in my painting classes a lot. Someone will encounter a feeling as they are painting, either fear or sadness, anger or shame and often without even realizing it, will automatically recoil from it.

The red flashing danger lights and blaring sirens of the psyche  go into overdrive to give them the message: “WARNING! WARNING! This is bad. Get away as fast as you can. Find a way to stop this NOW.”

Which is the judgmental fear response to intense feeling states. It’s related to the belief that there is something wrong just because you are feeling uncomfortable or distressed. That the appropriate response to that discomfort is to shut it down or turn it off if at all possible.

But we can’t ever really get rid of feelings.

If we try and stomp them out they just go underground and attempt to find other ways to express themselves. And the ways that they show up when they have been smooshed down are usually not very productive.

Like developing a splitting headache. Roadrage. Overeating. Or finding yourself inexplicably depressed.

When people are painting I try and support them to view everything that shows up, whether it is a feeling or an image or a color, as an invitation. And an invitation is always about opening a door.

When you have a strong feeling, you are being summoned by your intuition and your soul to a deeper level of connection with yourself.

The invitation is always an invitation into love. To love and practice the art of radical self acceptance for WHATEVER presents itself. To embrace what’s happening in a spirit of kindness, surrender and exploration.

Now all that being said there ARE skillful and unskillful ways of being with your emotional process as you create and I want to talk about what some of the more skillful approaches look like here.


The first skill you want to develop is the ability to be present to yourself in a spirit of curiosity and compassion no matter what you are feeling. It’s practicing a certain willingness to try and meet yourself exactly where you are with as little judgment as possible and without trying to change anything.

It’s trying to remember that there really is no “better”. There is only here and now and what you are experiencing.

You can use your creative process to thoroughly express all that you are capable of feeling. Through your creations you can give yourself full permission to witness your emotions, to dive into them, to allow them to pour out of you and through you.

It’s helpful to remember that feelings are by their very nature fluid…  like water. And if you allow them to be fully expressed in a creative way they will completely transform on their own. No one ever cries forever.

Creation is also a practice of nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. When you are being creative and you are expressing from this deep and authentic inner-world place you are face to face with what is most real and true for you. You are doing the exact opposite of trying to get rid of your feelings or attempting to push them away.

When you put your feelings into a visible form through your creative work you are choosing the path of courage by facing them and yourself in living technicolor.


One of the concerns that I hear from my students is that they will get caught in a negative, or as I prefer to call it, painful or uncomfortable emotional cycle if they allow the full expression of whatever they are feeling. They imagine that if they really let themselves go towards what is arising they will get stuck in a never-ending loop of anger or grief or fear.

But feelings are designed to move. They are not innately static. They are nothing if not constantly changing.

When we find ourselves entangled in a feeling state it’s because we are caught up in the STORY behind the feeling. What traps us in an unchanging cycle is our fascination with the narrative. We get mesmerized by what happened. By who did what to who and why it happened and why it shouldn’t have happened and on and on. We get obsessed.

In other words when we’re in this state we’re actually not just feeling. We are thinking about the feeling. We are trapped in our mental machinations. Our mind won’t let it go. Our mind won’t ALLOW the feeling to change.

We have a vested interest in holding on to what we’re feeling in an effort to figure things out. Because we are convinced that understanding something will make everything OK.

One of the things that is so great about the creative process is that it can get you in touch with feelings in their very purest state. You are painting some red and all of a sudden you feel like crying and you don’t know why.

The good news is that you don’t NEED to know why. All you need to do is to cry. And continue to paint.

The practice here is to try to allow whatever you are feeling as you are creating to just be there as much as possible without the story. Without being in your head.

If you find that you ARE chasing some story round and round in your mind try to bring yourself back to your body. To the paintbrush in your hand. To the color or image or shape on the paper in front of you. Let it be simple.

That’s why it’s so important to allow feelings room to be even if and ESPECIALLY if they make no sense at all.


Feelings can often be covered up and obscured by the fault-finding mind. If a feeling is trying to come through that is threatening to you for some reason you can find yourself all of a sudden bombarded by a cascade of inner criticism.

Judgment is a very convenient and compelling distraction when you don’t believe that it is safe to feel.

So if you are in the middle of creating something and you are overwhelmed by thoughts like: “This is so ugly. And trite. And let’s not forget kitschy. Now you’ve ruined it. I absolutely hate this. This is the worst thing I’ve ever done.” and on and on… it’s always a good idea to be more than a little suspicious.

When you find yourself in the grip of this kind of negative mind chatter (and here I think the word is appropriate) try this as a practice.

Instead of IMMEDIATELY taking those messages at face value and diving into believing them whole hog, try slowing things down, taking a deep breath and asking these questions:

“What’s the possible emotion that is lurking underneath this judgment? What is it likely that this judgment is trying to keep me from feeling? What do I need right now that will give me the safety to allow me to feel?”


When a feeling DOES have the audacity to show up and we can’t seem to stop it, there is another very popular suppression strategy that many of us resort to which is to at least try to hold the intensity of it back some.

If we MUST feel then we’ll put the brakes on and simply let as little of the feeling as we can get away with trickle out.

Just so much and no more. We cry a few tears or feel a few sparks of anger or outrage and then shut ourselves down.

Which means that we never get the full benefits that a more complete emotional release can offer us.

The way that this shows up creatively is through the tactic of trying to control the feeling by keeping the thing that has allowed you to feel the feeling in the first place as small and contained as possible.

For example, say you’re painting and you put a certain color on the page. It could be anything…. black, green, pink, gold… any color imaginable… but it touches something deep in you.

So you put a few dots of the emotion laden color on the paper or canvas and then stop. Some part of your fearful psyche gives you the message “That’s certainly enough. There’s no need to go overboard now, is there?” successfully limiting this chance for full creative and emotional expression.

A more skillful way to approach this opportunity to open yourself to feeling as you create is to ask some of the following questions:

“How can I intensify this? How can I go into this energy more deeply? Can I let myself have even MORE of this color, this experience, this feeling?”

What that often looks like creatively is simply adding larger swathes of the color, letting it get bigger and giving it room to take up more space in your painting which leads to allowing it to take up more space in your heart.

This list of ways to approach dealing with difficult feelings and emotions through your creative process is far from exhaustive, but I hope you find some of these tools and suggestions helpful as you continue on your journey of greater and more fulfilling creative and emotional expression.



  1. Thanks Chris,

    These were some great tips to avoid letting the thinking mind take over. I have definitely experienced that judgement thing where all of a sudden everything that was fine is awful. I will have to practice moving forward as you suggest. xox Corrine

  2. Chris, there are wonderful suggestions here as to how to work with these lovely feelings when they present themselves. i’m going to print and bring with me on Thursday! ;-)

  3. Good schtuff here Chris.

    I like what you said about feelings and how they’re designed to move. That’s so true in my experience. And it seems like the more room we give them to move the faster they do just that (vs trying to stuff them down and hope they’ll quiet down).

    And this?

    All you need to do is to cry. And continue to paint.

    Sometimes that really is all you can do, isn’t it?

    Right on, as always. You rock the Casbah!

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head – there are no such things as negative emotions. There are just emotions. It’s so important to give our selves time to experience sadness, or fear, or anger. They are all there to take care of us and allow us to adjust to the circumstances we find ourselves in. Nice post :)

  5. Great post Chris – It’s no mystery why people love to come to your workshops. I’ll add a little here from our lunch discussion :)

    look at emotions as energy, like you do. I think of them as vibrations with frequencies and those we habitually call negative emotions are those with a low frequency while the so-called good emotions have higher frequencies.

    I also divide emotions into authentic and inauthentic. Inauthentic emotions are those that are masking the truer emotion (for example: guilt). They are coming from an aspect of us that wants to keep us from being with the true/authentic emotion. They tend to keep us stuck, stagnant and in story. Our attachment to victim or martyr will also keep us stuck in false (inauthentic) emotions.

    When we allow ourselves to be with the true emotion (as you so wonderfully encourage) we discover that we won’t, as you say “cry forever” and that we will not scorch the earth with our fury. We discover that there is pure emotion, pure frequencies to release and that it all can happen pretty quickly. That’s what we work with in sound healing too.

    We can inhabit our current emotion fully, wherever it is on the frequency range, and gradually, consciously raise our vibration which is to say our emotion.

    Wishing I could come to the workshop – will be in another. So happy to have made a connection with you – beautiful being that you are!

  6. The second is the way I’m able to take something very personal in my life, something quite specific, and use it as a starting place to arrive at something much more universal that the viewer can tap into. And why it works in such a strong way for me is because all those years of honing my techniques allows the paint to become the emotion I want to express.

  7. Wnnderful

  8. I found this trying to find a way to handle my grief after my younger brother’s recent suicide. I just want you to know how much your words have legitimately helped me deal with my emotions and translate them onto the canvas.

  9. Thank you for a beautiful article. As an abstract artist, I truly believe that all forms of art are all about expressing our feelings and self-discovery. But where I believe the added advantage of abstract art is that there is no reference to use, i.e. there are no rules to follow and you are totally free to create whatever you want. Using the vocabulary of colours, shapes and lines totally free allows us greater freedom. It’s all about the process of letting go rather than the end result.

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