How Rejection Feels For The Artist Living With Mental Illness

By Samantha Pugsley

Having a mental illness and being an artist is an interesting dynamic.

Art is extremely therapeutic. I’ve seen it happen in my own life. When I pick up my camera and have a vision of what I want to capture or sit down at my computer to write and the words come easily, I feel a calm descend. It’s the same feeling I get when I do the breathing exercises my therapist taught me. Not only do I feel better inside, I start being more open about my problems.

I suffer from anxiety – the kind that comes with panic attacks about ‘normal’ things that shouldn’t matter like driving and grocery shopping. The kind where getting out of bed and getting dressed feels too overwhelming sometimes. And while creating doesn’t take away all of these problems, it helps me talk about them.

There are moments like this one, when I’m writing and I can use language to illustrate the aspects of my mental illness that aren’t so easily discussed. There are moments when I’m alone in the woods with nothing but my camera and the images I create perfectly reflect my mental state. Exercising my creativity not only keeps me centered but helps me describe the parts of my disorder that sometimes seem unexplainable. Artists who struggle with a mental illness live for these moments.

As an artist embarks on their journey, there will often come a moment when they decide to share their work with others. Especially as an artist with a mental illness, the desire to share can feel almost as compulsory as the desire to create in the first place. It usually comes from a place of good will. You think, “Maybe there’s someone out there who will see this and feel less alone” or “Maybe this will inspire someone else who’s struggling to start creating.”

Any artist knows that when you put your work out there, someone will eventually reject it. Some just ‘won’t get it.’ Others will make that scrunched-up face people make when they can’t think of anything to say. At the very worst are those who tell you they don’t like what you’re doing, whether it’s your technique, color choice, word choice; I’m sure they’ll have a long list of ‘problems.’ Reactions like this come with the territory and it will hurt every time. After all, rejection is a very normal part of an artist’s journey. Most will persevere. They learn to listen to the criticism objectively, defend their work when it’s belittled, and ignore the naysayers.

What about the artist suffering from a mental illness? For us, rejection is different. It’s almost impossible for us to remain objective. If someone rejects our work, it feels as though they are rejecting us as a person and not just the art. Responding this way isn’t fair to the person who has every right to form an opinion about the art (especially since it’s being shared openly) or to the artist. But some facets of mental illness aren’t so easily calmed and so often we are left to cope with guilt, failure, and maybe worst of all, fear of creating again. Sadly, for some these afflicted artists (myself included), one of the only ways to heal is to make art but creativity becomes blocked when it feels like others don’t find value in us or in our work. What’s worse is that much of the time, we know it’s not true. We tell ourselves, “This is just the illness talking. Your work is worthy. You are worthy” to no avail.  For most, the feeling will subside. A day will come when need to create returns and the longing to share comes back despite the bad experiences. And then the next rejection comes and the cycle begins again.

I don’t have any advice on how to overcome the effects of rejection as an artist with a mental illness. It’s something that I struggle with in my own creative journey frequently, especially since I want to make a career out of my art. But I can tell you that if you ever feel this way, you aren’t alone. When you get rejected, you’ll want to quit. You’ll want to stop putting your work out there for others to see. Don’t let your mental illness talk you into doing this. You need to share. For every rejection, there could be ten, twenty, a hundred others who saw your work, felt inspired by it, and didn’t have the words to tell you how it impacted them. Rejection will never be easy for us. And when it happens, our mental illnesses will attempt to keep us shut off from sharing for fear of the pain that comes along with it. Just try to remember that staying silent helps fuel the stigma associated with mental illness. By sharing, we’re giving a voice to those who are struggling and making it easier for these issues to be discussed openly and honestly.

As a note, there are communities and safe places for artists living with mental illness to share their work and receive encouragement. Broken Light Photography Collective is one exclusively for photographers. If you’re a writer try Open Minds Quarterly. If visual art is more your style, check out Fountain Gallery.

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