Mindful Painting: Turning Anxiety Into Art

By Monica Kovach

If you’ve had any experience trying to develop a mindfulness practice, you know it can be hard work. Mindfulness, by nature, illuminates whatever is present - the good, bad, and the ugly. Learning to face all parts of ourselves with compassion and equanimity is no easy task, especially when we’ve learned to hate, fear, and avoid parts of ourselves.

Growing up, I was a pretty anxious kid, but you probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. I was afraid of doing anything wrong, and I got really good at flying under the radar. I learned to value “goodness” and “niceness” so much, that when any aspect of my personality showcased any opposite qualities (like anger or impatience), I worked hard at denying them, and thus, buried them. If you’re having a hard time picturing what this might look like, think: UniKitty from The Lego Movie.

And just like UniKitty, these buried parts of myself were destined to boil over at one point or another, and when they did, it was extreme. Not extreme as in I unleashed hell on everyone around me; because, I was still deeply afraid of negatively affecting anyone. It was extreme in the way that I reacted toward myself.

Self-deprecating shame spirals were a common occurrence, as were migraines and emotional breakdowns in the form of uncontrollable crying. And later, panic attacks.

All of this self-inflicted abuse continued until I learned how stop avoiding the parts of me I didn’t love, and ultimately, accept and love them instead. How did I do this? Mindfulness. And therapy, let’s be honest. But mindfulness was a big part of my therapy journey as well, so yeah… Mindfulness.

This concept and practice of mindfulness is really just about observing what’s happening in the moment - thoughts, sensations, and emotions - without judgment. It’s the “without judgment” part that really tripped me up at first; I would immediately label my thoughts or emotions as “bad” because I learned to do that at an early age.

The thing that really helped me break free from the automatic judgment response was art - specifically painting. I never considered myself a painter; in fact, I went to school for photography and was pretty attached to that identity for my creative outlet. But when I started experimenting with watercolors as a medium to express my inner experience, it just clicked. The way the colors blend, move, and spread across the page matched my inner thought-scape. Their watery nature felt like an accurate representation of subtle, elusive states of mind, body, and spirit. Their fast, fluid unpredictability said “Yes, this is what emotions feel like.” And after a while, I realized that I was practicing mindfulness.

By representing my thoughts and emotions as abstract, fluid swatches of color, I was able to literally observe what was happening in the present moment. I was able to release judgment, knowing that unpredictability is just part of the watercolors’ nature, and that it would be silly to judge a watercolor painting for doing what it does best. How easy it was, then, to replace key words in that sentence: It would be silly to judge a mind for doing what it does best. There’s a fascinating thing that happens when we create something that resonates so profoundly with our inner experience. It’s like looking into a mirror, and seeing all your flaws, strengths, and features. Then, magically, we look at the image looking back at us, and see ourselves with fresh eyes… With compassionate eyes… With loving eyes. It’s this compassionate and loving experience that I was a stranger to for most of my life.

Watercolor painting opened up an avenue for self-expression, authenticity, and ultimately, self-love. And while I still dance with anxiety, my relationship to it has changed; I now realize that it’s just part of the masterpiece that is my fluid state of being.

Monica is an art therapist and career coach, based in Detroit, Michigan. She runs TheGrowthStudio.org, where she helps dreamers, doers, and change-makers find and live their calling.