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Overcoming Creativity Anxiety

Five things you need to know to realize your creative potential.

Key points

  • Understanding the nature of creativity can help one avoid misinterpreting its challenges as lack of skill.
  • What is most difficult about creativity is committing to original ideas and developing them through a non-linear process.
  • Creativity requires a willingness to tolerate a level of risk and a variety of emotions.
Edu Lauton/Unsplash
Edu Lauton/Unsplash

Part 1 of a two-part series. See Part 2 here.

The New Year is an occasion many of us look forward to setting new goals and aspirations. Disconnecting from our digital devices before bedtime. Spending more time with friends. Meditating. Exercising. Creativity is not commonly found on the lists of self-care activities. Yet, evidence is accumulating about creativity helping us come up with more effective emotion regulation strategies, enlivening our relationships, improving moods, and enhancing our sense of purpose and meaning in life.

Creativity can be anxiety provoking. It requires us to face an empty screen or blank canvas, literally or figuratively. Because creativity means doing something that has not been done before, there are no roadmaps. And we never know how will others react to our ideas or creations.

These are very real challenges. The good news is that there are two kinds of lessons that can help. To overcome creativity anxiety, we first need to understand how creativity works. Because if we rely on (common) misconceptions about creativity, we might misinterpret some aspects of the creative process, get more anxious, and eventually discouraged. And second, we need to have strategies—things we can do to think more creatively, manage inevitable obstacles and challenges, and finally transform ideas into reality. In this post, I will discuss five things we need to know about creativity and in the next post, I will discuss helpful creativity strategies.

Creativity can be little and big. And different kinds of creativity are important in different ways.

When asked for examples of creative individuals, people readily think of geniuses, such as Nikola Tesla, Toni Morrison, or Antoni Gaudi. These individuals are examples of what creativity scholars often call Big-C creativity. Their creative achievements have profoundly and enduringly influenced or changed culture or the world at large. It is understandable that these individuals come to mind first—their creativity is obvious and we have heard much about them. But if we think that creativity is only or even primarily in the domain of genius, it is easy to get anxious and dispirited about it.

Luckily, there is much more to creativity than Big-C. Creativity happens in mini ways in the learning process, such as when making a connection between new concepts and personal experience or when a child independently discovers a new learning strategy. This creativity enriches and improves our learning. Creativity also exists in our everyday activities and interactions. We can think of an original way to cheer a friend who is going through difficult times. A teen can design her own prom dress. We can share a story at an open mic story slam event. These and similar acts of creativity can contribute to our well-being. And creativity exists in professional settings—contributing original ideas and developing new work processes or products. Recognizing the range of creativity can help us realize that we can be creative too.

Creativity can be learned.

Our culture sends us messages that creativity is an innate ability and that we either have it or do not. These messages are often implicit. That is, we are not directly taught that we have a fixed amount of creativity, but we get this message indirectly. We are not taught creative thinking or strategies for developing creative ideas at school. And schools tend to teach skills that are teachable, right? At least we tend to assume that.

Messages in the media reinforce the idea that creativity is about innate ability. For instance, the “Got Talent” show started in Britain, followed by the United States, and from there spread to more than 69 countries around the world and has been named the most successful talent show by the Guinness World Records. The feedback contestants receive reinforces the idea of creativity as a “natural” talent. Comments like, “[...] we need that raw talent to begin with and that’s what we’ve got” or, “You have genuinely natural soul. You really, really do” make us think that what makes people successful is what they were born with and not what they worked on or learned.

Creativity scholars have repeatedly shown that creativity skills can be taught and successfully learned. Moreover, they can be learned at different ages, from childhood to adulthood. In other words, it is not too late to start learning.

Coming up with ideas is not the most important (or difficult) part of creativity.

Creativity is often equated with coming up with new ideas in our minds and in the media. Interviews with successful innovators or musicians ask primarily about how they came up with their ideas. Yet, anyone who ever took part in a brainstorming session understands that people are good at generating ideas. Indeed, a survey of organizational leaders shows that they believe their employees have no trouble generating ideas; it is bringing those ideas to life that is a problem.

What is most difficult about creativity is committing to original ideas with the potential to be effective for their audiences and developing them through a process that is not linear and is full of challenges. Steve Jobs did not invent touchscreen technology when he presented the first iPhone. Rather, his biggest contribution was to put together different existing technologies, be willing to scrap the initial iPhone design when it was not accomplishing his design vision, and work to develop that vision in full.

It's not just you; creativity is a rollercoaster of emotions.

Just as creativity requires a willingness to tolerate a certain level of risk, it requires a willingness to tolerate a variety of emotions, from anxiety in front of an open-ended task to frustration at obstacles to disappointment or even anger at challenging feedback to the joy of accomplishment. And it is understandable that we might want to avoid unpleasant feelings.

Experiencing difficult emotions can make us doubt ourselves, feel discouraged, and want to give up. It is easy to think that the difficulties are diagnostic of our lack of skills. But unpleasant feelings are not unique to our experience. Artists describe emotions in their creative process from pleasure to melancholia or even desperation, designers talk about anxiety for missing possibilities and doubts about where the work is going, and scientists describe frustrations before getting their ideas and suffering when working on reports of their work. When you know that difficult feelings are to be expected, it becomes easier to remind ourselves that they are temporary once we experience them. This, in turn, can help us wade through them.

Creativity is related to both vulnerabilities and strengths

The idea about the connection between mental illness and creativity is widespread. We have seen movies about famous creators who inflicted self-harm (e.g., Vincent Van Gogh), experienced psychosis (e.g., John Nash), or committed suicide (e.g., Sylvia Plath). Do we still want to engage in creativity considering this?

Although creative individuals do show higher rates of mood disorders than non-creative individuals, the story does not end there. In addition to higher psychological vulnerabilities, creative individuals also have strengths which can help them deal with their challenges. For example, creative individuals have a sense of personal agency—the ability to contribute to achieving their goals—and they can think of different ways to get to their goals. They also have attributes of psychological well-being, such as a sense that they have grown and developed as a person over time and a sense of direction and purpose in life, as well as attributes of resiliency (i.e., getting over and recovering from difficulties).

Psychologists have repeatedly shown that how we think about something greatly influences our actions. This general lesson applies to creativity, too. If we think creativity is innate, any difficulty or obstacle can seem to confirm our doubts and anxieties. Knowing that creativity can be learned can make us more likely to try. And in those times when we have doubts about whether we want to be creative, we can remind ourselves of the potential benefits it can bring to our well-being.

Part 2 in the Overcoming Creativity Anxiety series here.


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