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Running on Empty

This month, Lyn highlights some of the feeling states featured in our recently published A-Z of Emotions, exploring how feelings of emptiness or vulnerability contrast with holding onto youthful ideals.

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Image illustrating EMPTY © 2014 Matthew Krishanu View (detail), Acrylic on board

Matthew Krishanu grew up in Bangladesh but now lives and works in London. He creates paintings from memory and photographs.  Re–imagining events through editing, simplifying and layering, the themes he explores are resonant of the kinds of emotional experiences we lay down in our memory in childhood.  Often painting people he knows, and places he has lived in, Matthew’s emotional connection to the subject contributes to the atmosphere of his work. His images have a reflective quality that capture the state of reverie, hinting at the importance of staying in touch with, and paying close attention to, our internal world.

His painting illustrating the letter E in the A-Z of Emotions captures inner emptiness. The lone figure is sketched in delicate colours and stands with his back to us. The blank blue horizon, washed out and transparent, could suggest how we might feel if our life is not populated with people and experiences which are meaningful to us. To understand what we mean when we talk about feeling empty inside, it is useful to begin with an exploration of our internal world.  We all have an internal world comprising known and forgotten aspects of our felt experiences. It includes our inner thoughts and feelings; the ways in which we use our mind to make sense of our life experiences; our reflections on who we are and who we want to become; and our memories, both the good and the bad ones.

Good feelings are pleasant and usually do not need to be thought about in any depth.  Having uncomfortable feelings such as anger, jealousy, shame, fear or despair may not be so easy to own up to or to describe. Building the language to describe our feelings and getting used to talking about them is a skill we continue to develop throughout life. Younger children are not yet able to think about their emotions or give words to their experiences.  However, childhood experiences, especially those involving strong feelings, stay in our memory.  Most of us can easily recall times when we felt very happy as a child or the opposite – full of rage, upset or distressed.

These memories influence our inner thoughts including how we feel about the people we are close to and about ourselves. For example, how ‘loveable’ we imagine we are depends in part on the kinds of memories we have of how people treated us as a child as well as how we are treated now and how we see ourselves in the privacy of our inner thoughts.  Such thoughts and memories are added to or changed over the years and become part of our internal world. They give shape to our inner picture of ourselves and of those around us.

When we want to learn more about ourselves, we might choose to reflect on questions such as:  What makes me ‘me’?  What is ‘selfhood’? What aspects of my past or my family’s past have shaped who I am? How do I imagine I’m seen by others? How does this affect how I see myself?  What is my place in the world?  Who do I want to become?’ and so on.

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Image illustrating VULNERABLE © 2014 Phoebe Boswell Vulnerable, Illustration – Pencil on Paper

Self-reflection carries some risks – we may discover things about ourselves that we don’t want to know or be reminded of painful chapters from our past.  It can put us in touch with difficult feelings which can foreground our vulnerabilities.

Phoebe Boswell’s illustration for the letter V highlights how exposed we can feel when our vulnerabilities are on the surface. Phoebe was born in Kenya to a fourth generation British Kenyan father and Kikuyu mother. She grew up as an expatriate in the Middle East and now lives and works in London. Drawing is at the heart of her practice, which encompasses hand-drawn animation, projection, and installation to form multi-layered narrative languages through which to tell complex contemporary global stories. Such stories cannot always be adequately told in a single image or a single screen film. Propelled by the contradictory nature of her own fragmented upbringing, her practice is imbued with a yearning to explore what it means to belong.

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Image illustrating YOUNG AT HEART © 2014 Chila Burman Youth Power – The Voice of the Future, Mixed Media

Yearning is a powerful sentiment.  We might yearn for acceptance which is at the heart of belonging.  Having a place in the world means knowing that we have links or connections to those around us, regardless of our age or our background history. Chila Burma’s collage illustrating the letter hints at the kinds of ideals which are often forged in our adolescent years and continue to form the foundation of our values and political leanings in later life.  Chila was born into a Hindu-Punjabi family in Liverpool and now lives and works in London.    She has worked experimentally across print, paint, photographic and mixed media. A physical engagement with materials and the pleasures in visual enjoyment are central to her art making, bringing a vitality and playfulness to it.  

‘Youth power’ doesn’t belong only to the young. Age and experience tend to temper our teenage convictions. However, we need to be mindful that we don’t become too jaded or cynical. When we find ‘our tribe’, or create our family of choice, there are always opportunities to make a difference and to contribute to social change.  George Elliot famously said, ‘It is never too late to become the person you might have been’. This astute quote heads Margot Waddell’s chapter of the last phase of life in her book ‘Inside Lives: Psychoanalysis and the Growth of the Personality ‘.  In talking about the later years, Waddell says, ‘Development, at whatever age, is founded in the capacity to go on engaging with the meaning of experience with imagination, courage and integrity. Freud’s exhortation that ‘one must try to learn something from every experience’ remains as true in the last part of life as it has ever been.’

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Image illustrating ZEST FOR LIFE © 2014 Matthew Krishanu Bird (detail), oil and acrylic on board

Occupying the last place in the alphabet, Z reminds us that all things must end. However, endings can signify new beginnings and hope for the future too.  Returning to where we began takes us back to the paintings of Matthew Krishanu. Illustrating the letter ‘Z’,  Matthew’s bird soaring high could symbolise the ‘lift’ we get from taking off in a new direction, whatever our age.

Images referenced above come from Iniva Creative Learning’s newest publication – The A-Z of Emotions – 26 contemporary art cards created with commentary and questions to stimulate creative exploration and build an emotional vocabulary. Iniva Creative Learning also offers art therapy workshops, our spring series, taught from London is now open for booking. 

Written by Jenny Starr