Margaret Cho Wants You to Embrace Your Darkness

Using creativity to cope and connect

Posted May 11, 2016

“Made a decision, with some derision,
I had a vision about some killing.”
— I Wanna Kill My Rapist, Margaret Cho


Margaret Cho has been finding ways to entertain us for decades. From her stand-up routines, such as The Notorious C.H.O.; to her books, such as I’m The One That I Want; to her roles in films such as Face/Off, Cho continues to come up with new ways to explore and share her artistry.

A major reason why Cho continues to be so prolific is the same reason why she is so beloved by her fans — she is willing to tackle and speak out on difficult issues. Cho has been an advocate for LGBT rights, has opened up about her having experienced sexual abuse, and about hersexuality, as well as her consequent struggles with an eating disorder,addictiondepression and suicide. In doing so, Cho has given voice to people who feel alone and invisible in their struggles with social and emotional issues.

And with her new album, American Myth, Cho is continuing her message: Don’t run away from your darkness — embrace it.

Cho explains how this is a central approach to her life and art. She told me, “People should be conscious that pain and suffering are essential to living. We need it as much as we need happiness and joy and pleasure. There would be no contrast in your existence if the bad and dark parts didn’t exist.”

For Cho, this stance is personal. One of the painful issues with which she has struggled over the years is depression. People who struggle with depression — even only sub-clinical depressive symptoms — may experience significant loss of physical, social and role functioning. And the loss of functioning associated with depression appears to be comparable to or worse than that of other chronic medical issues.

“I think I’ve always had it. It’s something that sounds familiar when people talk about their experience of depression,” Cho explained. “But I’ve never been diagnosed or medicated or anything. It’s not weeks; it’s more just like it’s parts of days.”

Cho describes her depression as feeling like existential dread, also referred to as existential angst. “There’s always been this existential dread that I’ve had, not knowing what the future is going to bring,” Cho explained. “And not knowing how you may have done something in the past that’s upsetting, or regret something that you’ve done.”

Like many others who experience depression, Cho also experiences rumination, which is to compulsively and repeatedly think about something. Rumination can be useful if one is attempting to deliberate over possible solutions to a problem. But it can also take the form of obsessing and amplifying a problem without arriving at a solution.

“It becomes something amplified in your mind to obsess over. The tiny slights that build up – like someone doesn’t email or text you back,” she explained. “Something that you obsess on, and then you realize that the other person has no idea that you’re going through this crazy thing. And it’s just strange how certain facts or details about your life become amplified.”

Managing one’s negative experience can be difficult enough, but Cho felt that while she was growing up there were many social signals that she and her feelings didn’t matter. This first came with observing the underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in popular culture. Research suggests that even subtle forms of racism can result in negative psychological consequences.

In Cho’s case, she described the feeling of invisibility — like she was not there and she didn’t matter — that can arise from these forms of racism.  “I think you feel betrayed and shocked when you realize that you’re not what’s being represented or you don’t feel included. It’s just this strong feeling of invisibility. And it can be very hard to explain to other people.”

One of Cho’s first negative experiences with popular culture came from watching the 1970s TV show The Brady Bunch, in which the cast was almost entirely white. “Speaking specifically about the Brady Bunch, I remember feeling very cheated,” she said. “Like I was cheated in life that I don’t get to be this white girl. It was a weird thing that I was very scared of. That I’m never going to matter. I’m never going to mean anything because I don’t see myself reflected back.”

Cho also described how these media portrayals influenced her body image. Research suggests that media portrayal of specific “thin” body ideals perpetuate body-image dissatisfaction among girls. “You feel invisible if there are not other things. If there’s not another kind of beauty, another kind of aesthetic,” she said.

Moreover, Cho felt that Korean culture had a certain set of values around education andcareer that did not match her resume. “In Korean culture, you’re always valued where you went to school. And I have none of that,” she said.

Unfortunately, Cho felt that her parents agreed with those cultural values. “I think, for my family, all of the love and all of the accolades were very conditional on my behavior and my excellence, especially academically. I think they don’t exactly understand my career or they don’t understand my work. They just are happy that I am able to make a living, and that I am able to be an adult,” she explained. “But it’s always this thing that I know, that it would have been better for them if I had done some of the things they wanted me to do.”

Furthermore, Cho felt that her family encouraged her to be very private with her feelings. “I think my family history is very private, not being willing to speak about anything negative in our history,” she said.

Taken together, Cho often felt invisible, and one of the consequences of feeling invisible or not important is that one may be at risk for suppressing, rather than expressing, feelings. If people feel that their feelings will be ignored or criticized by others, it may seem like the best course of action is to hide or suppress one’s feelings. However, research suggests that suppressing emotions, such as sadness or anxiety, can actually worsen negative mood.

In contrast, expressing emotions through activities such as writing down one’s feelings can improve mood and reduce stress responses. Accordingly, one of the ways that Cho has always coped with depression and other negative emotions has been through her comedy and music.

“I think that when I feel very uncomfortable, my form of therapy is just to write about it. Whether that’s in my comedy or in my songwriting. There is something good there, I think, to kind of welcome pain and to welcome these feelings of dread, to use them as a creative outlet,” Cho said.

And research supports her choice of coping. Evidence suggests that creativity promotes improved health and well-being. For example, research suggests that laughter is the best medicine, with evidence showing that humor can improve feelings of pain and loneliness. Similarly, evidence suggests that music therapy in the form of listening or playing music can improve symptoms of depressionanxietychronic pain and schizophrenia.

Cho has found specifically that embracing her darker, more negative feelings is particularly useful in her creative process. “I can usually snap out of it during the day by trying to do something creative — especially, if I can put whatever the fear is or whatever the dread is into words.”

In fact, she finds that after exploring a creative outlet for her dread or anxiety, Cho experiences a particularly positive or elated mood that motivates her to work harder. “Often, I’ll be so elated because I’ve created something that it takes over. And so, I used to be really afraid. I’d have stage fright, or I’d have some kind of performance anxiety,” she explained. “I feel like after I have a performance, I have a great rush of adrenaline. I feel very positive after. I get scared of doing it, but when I do, it does make me feel a lot better.

“That’s what makes me want to work every day.”

And yet while some of Cho’s negative feelings may be caused by negative social interactions, it is critical to her that her art not be geared towards pleasing others. Thus, one of the keys to Cho’s success in her work is to focus on her own internal process of creativity rather than being concerned about the audience response per se.

“I would make music, I would write comedy — even without an audience. To me, it’s just part of the way that I live and survive. And it’s as essential to me as breathing or water or anything,” Cho explained. “To me, it’s part of who I am. The audience is a wonderful bonus and that affords me a career and this wonderful charmed life that I do have. But I’m just devoted to the process and less attached to the outcome.”

Perhaps paradoxically, the art that Cho makes for herself does in fact help her socially connect with others. “It’s my social life, too. I’m pretty socially awkward. All of the people that I know — comedians, musicians and actors — we all have an issue with connection. So having this art between myself and other artists is sort of a jump-start to conversation and connection.”

Even though Cho has found her outlet, she still faces pressures as a celebrity. Specifically, like many other celebrities, Cho is celebrated for being a divergent thinker who challenges conventional norms, and yet is criticized if she is perceived as going “too far.” Cho recently faced criticism for a recent performance in which she discussed issues of rape and raceprompting news outlets to declare that she’d “lost it.”

“I feel like social media now [have] become this kind of moral arbiter. It’s sad the way that artists are dissected by all of these opinions and views. And for me, I just have to try and block that out if I can for myself,” Cho explained. “I used to never read any kind of reviews or anything about my work. Now, I’m a little more open to it. I really want to communicate with fans. I really want to talk to people who like what I do. But at the same time, you feel like you have to protect yourself, because there’s so much out there that seems pretty dangerous, in terms of social media.”

Cho continues to share her story in part to help others not feel as invisible and alone as she has. “And what drives me too is that I want to be out there for people who are different or feel cheated, that there’s nobody like them represented out there,” she said.

And Cho’s new album American Myth continues in this tradition of Cho sharing her triumphs and struggles. “I am extremely proud to release American Myth. This is an album of anthems and showcases my first efforts as a composer,” said Cho. “I made it with my longtime collaborator Garrison Starr and an incredible and inspiring crew of artists. It is my glamorous and glittering tribute to family, comedy, anger, fame, gayness, grief, fat pride, love and hate.”

She encourages others to find their creative outlet so that they, too, can make good use of their darker, more negative emotions. “You can’t be attached to whatever the outcome is — money, fame, or success or anything. There’s a way of expressing yourself that doesn’t necessarily need an audience except for you,” Cho said. “You can do something that expresses your creativity and your healing.  And using creativity for your healing — that doesn’t necessarily have to be mainstream art, or art for anybody but yourself.”

Acknowledging that expressing yourself and taking risks can be scary, Cho encourages people not to fear failure, but to embrace it just like other negative feelings. “To me, failure is just not trying. Failure is a success because you tried. Not trying is actually the ultimate failure. You have to give it a shot,” she said.

Cho cautions people that this is no easy process, but adding that struggling with difficult emotions is what connects us all.  “Growth is painful. Don’t be afraid of suffering. Facing darkness is always really uncomfortable. It’s better to go into the suffering and figure out what it really feels like instead of being afraid of it,” she said. “This emotional pain is what binds us all. Everybody is a human being. We all have the capacity of really good and really bad in us. We all share the same range of emotions.”

But Cho encourages us that embracing our inner creativity is worth it, despite the pain. “You have to allow yourself to be that artist and grow,” she said.

“That part of the process and part of the truth is being an artist — a true artist.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedmanand EHE @EHEintl.