It’s in there somewhere. For all of us. There is a creative part. It may be a faint ember. It may be less than that but it’s in there somewhere. Often layered over the top of our creativity is our inner critic, self-doubt or critical parent. On top of that is daily routine and a mountain of responsibility which further dims the possibility that your creative self should be given any rein at all.
‘It’s not grown up.’ ‘They will laugh at me.’ ‘You’ll never be any good at it, so what’s the point?’
The ‘it’ is unimportant. It could be singing, acting, writing a proposal, a poem, crocheting. Whatever. In today’s world the high importance that is placed on perfection diminishes the joy of failing – a crucial part of learning.
A previous psychotherapy client of mine comes to mind (anonymized to preserve confidentiality).
Suzanne possessed a brilliant brain. She had come through the state education system, having been raised in a low-income, hardworking family in the Cheshire area. It was through sheer hard work that she graduated in languages from Cambridge University. Despite all this seemingly glowing achievement; part of her felt like an imposter. We worked through that deep part of her that had embraced what she always told; ‘work hard, get a job and stay in it.’ So that’s she did. She graduated and took a job. Three years later she appeared in the therapy room asking a central question; ‘Why have I ended up doing other people’s expenses in an office? I wanted to write. I’m stagnating.’
We worked through what I term ‘the potential gap.’ Gaps in potential are wonderful places for anxiety and depression to flourish. Buried parts of us say ‘I can’t do this’. ‘I shouldn’t do that.’ They don’t die; they get suppressed. Like placing a finger over a bicycle pump and pushing the plunger, the pressure inside the pump goes up. The same happens with our denied potential. The pressure builds and it has to come out somewhere.
Suzanne wanted to exercise her creativity. She knew she had the capacity to write but the perfectionist side of her dimmed her inner creative voice. ‘What if it’s no good?’ ‘No-one will publish it.’ Failure is part of learning and we encounter it in our earliest moments such as constantly falling down when learning to walk. We just don’t let it stop us when we are at the infant stage as our inner critic is undeveloped.
After discussing this, Suzanne and I decided to put in place exercises to hone her creative muscle; her creative self. No different from going to a gym.
Prior to being in psychotherapy I had (and still do have in parts) a twenty-year career in the creative arts as a writer. I know what I needed personally to be in a good place for me to access my creative self. It was therefore useful to draw on this experience in order to create a mind-gym for Suzanne’s creative self.
It looked like this:
1. Know That You Are Creative
It is there but you have covered it up. You have the potential to be creative provided you want to give it a try and believe in your potential. It is true there are naturally gifted athletes, singers and performers and you imagine that creativity is as natural to them as breathing. Not so. It is a constant battle to stay in peak form and in peak creativity. We only have to look at the history of how many wonderfully creative talents have struggled with this in their own lives. Your creativity is a route to knowing yourself better and denying yourself this part of yourself is a freezing of a part that yearns to express itself.
You are creative. Know it.
2. Space To Think
It’s time-out. It’s sitting quietly. It’s listening to music with your eyes closed and ear phones on. It’s Mindfulness. It’s focussed but quiet letting go. It’s deep breaths.
So many people describe that they wake up by picking up the mobile phone and then they are ‘on and available’ all the way through to when they go to bed. Core creativity will flow when we give is space to do so. To do that something has to change in our rhythm. In the way we do things. There are so many apps to help with this. Even just saying to a smart speaker (eg Alexa or Google Home), ‘help me meditate for five minutes’ will bring up a simple soundscape to help sharpen your focus.
What you are really doing is helping your conscious self, concerned with bills, money or routine to get out of the way. In doing so, space is created for tapping into your unconscious where your creative self lives.
3. Get Out There / Get Inspired
When your creative self begins to emerge from the weight of denial, often curiosity beings to peak. Get out in the world. Look at things. Get inspired. Keep a diary or note of what affects you and why. Concerts, exhibitions, talks, knitting groups, reading groups, walking groups. Change something. Do something you have not experienced before. Do anything to give yourself the chance to experience something that makes you feel. Something to make you spark. Get out of the everyday. It’s that ‘wind in your face’ feeling. It’s looking at the majesty of a starry night. For me, I can listen to ‘Lacrimosa’ in Mozart’s Requiem and hear the eternal. I imagine Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel depiction of God’s finger touching Adam but instead of Adam it is Mozart receiving the divine inspiration to write what he did.
It makes you feel something beyond the everyday.
This is where inspiration lives. And yes, it is unlikely that you will go home and compose a requiem, but you might be inspired to do something. And that is all you need. Some inspiration.
4. Embrace Your Imagination.
After the above three steps you might start to know now what your creativity feels like and then something strange happens. An idea pops into your head. Your immediate reaction is to dismiss it as silly. Your inner critic tries to kill it before it is even born. The hardest part of the Mind Gym is to give your imagination some rein. Some space. It is hard because our inner critics are so strong. But we can diminish their impact. Indeed, the more ideas one has, the more exercise the creative muscle gets. There are techniques to this; for example
The outrageous idea method. Let yourself think the crazy, usually unacceptable ideas and then pare them back. Lewis Carroll once said that “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”
Cross fertilization method: many creative methods, techniques and approaches are to be found in areas that are not necessarily your core interest or work department. However, the creative solutions to problem solving might well be applicable to you and your own creativity.
What would my hero do method: We all have heroes. A joyous and fun technique to beat your inner critic is to imagine your own hero’s response to your inner critic’s negativity would be.
5. Simple Is Beautiful And Hard to Achieve
Personally, I have never been able to be creative when surrounded by distraction. Noise, unpaid bills or unfinished work loads in other areas of life. I like to create space in my life for creativity because I imagine I can fill that space with imagination.
- Space – find a space in the home, the library or the office that is good for you. A space that makes you feel comfortable.
- Be healthy – if you can eat well and look after your body with some exercise you will have a well-nourished mind. This includes good sleep which is crucial to a healthy creative self.
The above five steps formed the basis of a Mind-Gym for Suzanne’s creativity. It worked for her because it led to her changing the routine in her life which then opened up to her finding a space for her creative self. When that happened she initially battled fighting against her creativity but decided to give it space. The space she created allowed something to flow.
Suzanne is half-way through writing her first novel and has an agent interested based on her initial chapters.
Robert Rees is a Director of The Grove Practice in London. He is a Psychotherapist and Executive Coach and co-founder of The Grove Practice At Work, an organization committed to bringing good mental health to the workplace.
UKCP Psychotherapist, Lead TGP Onsite Executive Coach, Writer and Mental Health Campaigner. Elliot has worked for 20 years leading teams in entertainment and showbusiness. Now he is a leading thinker in management practices that support good mental health at work.