The Psychological Reasons For Prince’s Exceptional Creativity, Drug Addiction And Untimely Deathby Dr Emma Gray - 29th April, 2016
As a spiritual person, Prince would often claim his music was a gift from God. However, an exploration into the key factors influencing Prince’s personality reveals helpful clues to understanding his exceptional creativity, tendency toward addiction and probable cause of death. During the following three brief articles, we will explore the structure of his personality, the experiences that informed his sense of self worth, and his learned pattern of responding to (and ultimately surviving) his childhood. In this first article, we shall examine his personality.
Prince’s natural disposition strongly pointed ‘inwards’ (as opposed to ‘outwards’), resulting in a complex set of introverted personality traits, and giving rise to his hyper-sensitivity, deep imaginative states of minds, and high psychological mindedness. We can conclude from the accounts of Prince during his early school years that his natural personality was unusually sensitive. Likely further exacerbated by his diminutive stature, he was typically portrayed as painfully shy, socially awkward and (perhaps understandably) somewhat withdrawn. While Prince would later become outwardly ambitious both on record and especially on stage, such extroverted behaviour was not the result of his natural personality.
A goldmine of privately recorded rehearsals (collected and shared amongst hardcore fans, but not available to the public) intimately reveal that Prince’s performance and showmanship were in fact a result of the meticulous planning of his highly introverted mind. As Prince’s artistry developed in early adult life, we can see that he channeled his sensitivity and imagination into envisioning other, more ideal, worlds (which he referred to as “Uptown”, “Paisley Park”, and “The Dawn”, among others). Prince’s imagined worlds would powerfully create an inner state of mind where it would appear people could be accepted for who they were, where good would conquer evil, and where love above all else rules, echoing his Christian upbringing.
Prince’s inner psychological state contain all the textbook markings of a highly psychologically-minded and gifted individual. The result of the above factors working side by side each other will likely have enhanced Prince’s strategies for survival, especially during childhood, and also marked him out as carrying the potential for exceptional creativity. We can see from his career that he went onto fulfil his potential creative trajectory, dipping into his main creative well within his first decade. However, this was not purely the result of his inherent nature. In the following article, we briefly explore the factors which helped create the necessary motivation for his artistic growth. The clue would reside in Prince’s psychological response to childhood trauma.
We have briefly explored the factors likely present in Prince’s psychological make up which laid the foundations for his potential creativity. Now we will explore the factors which transformed his psychological potential into success.
It is widely known that Prince suffered from a difficult early childhood, involving his parent’s divorce, isolation at school, running away from home, and navigating multiple family homes. Whilst it cannot be concluded that he was subject to abuse in a traditional sense, it would be apt to conclude that the psychological conditions in which he grew up were nonetheless ‘felt’ by Prince as harrowing. He would himself write, “Don’t abuse children. Or else they will turn out like me”.
Before being able to settle down as a teenager in the supportive environment of a motherly neighbour (Bernadette Anderson), who he would later describe as like a second mother, Prince had been required to survive intense feelings of emotional deprivation and poverty. A poignant memory he would recall involved standing outside the windows of a McDonald’s in order to simply smell the food. A known coping strategy for children to survive distressing environments is to develop patterns of control, both real and imaginary.
Within the sphere of combining his immense ability of escaping into his own imaginative world and similar abilities to naturally excel at music, we can predict that Prince was able to create exceptional control mechanisms as an artist to survive (and continue to live with) his intense feelings of vulnerability. Notably, inside his world of music, Prince would describe feeling free. It begins to make sense then that outside his world of music, he would seemingly never allow anyone or anything in, lest he should feel vulnerable to abuse again. And so we might predict a learned pattern of coping in adulthood based on control (a consequence of mistrust), mimicking the likely strategy for survival used by Prince as a young boy.
It is often considered that exceptional pain is necessary for exceptional artistry. Indeed, Prince would state that he would do anything to never go back to the pain of his childhood. However, had Prince not developed his world-class work ethic, as great as anyone known in the musical world, it remains unlikely that we would have the legacy of what we might now regard as ‘musical genius’. In Prince’s case, we might conclude that those who have the greatest talent and greatest work ethic, like a simple mathematic formula, will then exert the most significant motive force in this nature versus nurture question.
Finally, we explore the psychological Achilles’ heel which created a vulnerability to addiction and likely led to his untimely death.
As a reclusive lone male, without a family of his own, we might predict that Prince’s sense of self worth would build from where he derived the greatest appreciation and validation, namely, the area he truly excelled at, his work. Without ‘normal’ protective developmental factors growing up, and therefore left with a fragile core sense of self esteem, we might predict a dependency to feel loved by others.
Any vulnerability to low self esteem would persist past Prince’s artistically acclaimed decade. However, Prince’s unique creativity, like any artist’s, would only have a certain bandwidth. Beyond its limits, we might nonetheless find a tendency by Prince to create and recreate external conditions of validation and praise, but with increasingly diminishing returns. This would produce the Achilles’ heel for Prince, manifesting in his workaholism as an apparent conduit for success and happiness.
As a workaholic for over forty years, infamously recording music around the clock (often without sleep or food), Prince would later develop symptoms of chronic physical pain. Against the backdrop of a pharmaceutical industry able to profit within existing regulatory healthcare from the sale of painkilling drugs (despite known addictive properties), Prince would eventually only feel able to continue working by using such legally prescribed medication. Psychologists might consider Prince’s inability to overcome his principal addiction (to work) as an issue of esteem. However, there are other angles to consider, including a spiritual one. From Prince’s viewpoint, to work was to be at a higher state of consciousness – to serve God.
In the end, Prince’s psychology would prove to be that of an exceptionally gifted young boy who would develop a chronic working life as a means to escape the pain of his childhood, and that is perhaps the most poignant aspect of his very human story. Honorary Professor at New York University, Amir Thompson, would sum it up most aptly, “Sometimes I think that the thing that Prince shared with other geniuses – Ray Charles, Bessie Smith, and James Brown – is that they were abandoned, at some level, by their mothers. Many artists in black music were abandoned by fathers, but an absent mother creates a faultline that runs much deeper.”
Without the early stability of a loving family home, Prince would return time and time again to seek refuge and sanctuary in God’s grace. We might conclude that this young boy, known to his mother simply as ‘Skipper’, quietly managed to craft a way back home.