You may have heard others say that everyone is creative. Little kids certainly seem to be. And yet, so many of us lose that creative confidence as we go through adolescence and into adulthood. We turn into a person who fears creative ideas.
Dr. Will Schutz, a prominent psychologist and pioneer of the human potential movement, believed that fear is the biggest block to creativity. Rather than creating something new, many of us are held back as we do our best to avoid the consequences of our fear.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love says that “Fear and creativity are conjoined twins. What holds people back from being creative is that in order to murder the fear, they end up killing off the creativity as well.”
Messages which encourage conformity and control pervade our schools and our workplaces. Yet we crave creativity. Innovation is admired and held up as a model for us to follow. If only we could stop fear from holding us back.
Here are the most common fears and how to tackle them:
1. Fear that you are not a creative person
People with this fear don’t believe they are creative in the first place. They have created a self-definition that excludes even the possibility that they might be creative. Sometimes they see themselves as too rational, or too dull, to be creative. They might say things like, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.”
Often these people forget the ways that they demonstrate creativity every day, but dismiss it.
One woman told me of a time she had run out of lipstick and couldn’t afford to buy more. But her appearance was important to her so she used a brush to combine tiny amounts from the bottom of two old lipstick tubes, and created a new color with just enough to wear for the rest of the week.
All day she received compliments on her lipstick. Her creativity naturally responded to the circumstances she found herself in.
What you can do:
Universities and consultancies that support people who want to be more creative have learned that their job is not to teach them how. Instead they help them re-discover the inherent creative confidence they had as children.
Start by widening your definition of creativity. You don’t have to be Van Gogh. Look around at the ways you overcome difficulties and see how creative you already are.
Are you someone who can work around a computer glitch? When you don’t have an ingredient for a recipe do you know what to substitute instead? Can you build spreadsheets from scratch? All these are creative activities. You may not be a visual artist, but that doesn’t mean you are not as creative as one.
2. Fear of failure
We are told again and again that the best way to learn is by doing. Yet, throughout our lives we are criticised when we get things wrong.
No wonder we fear failure. No wonder that perfectionism (excellence distorted to the point of paralysis) is rife.
The consequences of failure seem huge. Fail our exams and we are told we will never get a job. Fail in our job and we lose our livelihood. Failure makes everything precarious.
And yet, the greatest entrepreneurs and innovators fail often. They cultivate the resilience to deal with failure, because the only way to do something new is to learn to cope with failure.
What you can do:
“Fail, fail again, fail better,” said Samuel Beckett.
Find ways to try out new things, without reaping consequences of failure that are too big to cope with.
Start by calling the things you do “experiments” rather than failures. You are testing something out, and learning from it. By redefining success as the process of exploring and learning rather than the result, you can cultivate your curiosity.
Try creating a new meal at a time when you are the only one who’ll have to eat it if it is disgusting. Play with paint or clay and keep the results to yourself.
And remember, mistakes can lead to the best results. Famously, Post It Notes were created when a new type of glue being developed by a scientist at 3M was not sticky enough. Who knows what innovation might your mistakes lead to?
3. Fear of the unknown
Creativity requires people to be unclear about the eventual shape of their creation. Whether they are creating a picture, a computer programme or starting a new business, the new design frequently takes a form that was unanticipated by its designer.
Amazing creations are often those furthest from their starting point. Being willing to take the journey of creativity demands that you let go of your pre-conceived ideas and be willing to go to places you have not explored before.
This is hard when staying in control seems to be how we manage our busy lives and get things done.
What you can do:
Acclimatise yourself to doing things without a plan. Finger paint. Go for a walk in a new environment without a map. Visit shops, museums and galleries you’d wouldn’t normally do to.
Try to include people with different ways of seeing the world in your life. They will open your eyes to new possibilities.
Find the enjoyment in these new activities, then start letting go of control in some of the more tightly managed parts of your life. Remember the words of Margaret Attwood:
“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
4. Fear of being unstructured and illogical
Rationality is highly valued in our culture. But while the left brain can make logical connections, it is the right brain that truly allows our creativity to flow.
Albert Einstein put it like this,
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
What you can do:
“Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes,” said composer John Cage.
Remember that both right and left brain processes have a place in your life. Use your unstructured side to generate a wealth of ideas, however silly they seem. Allow each to become a jumping off point for further creativity.
Only when you let your right brain have free rein do you let your left brain loose, to hone those ideas and decide which have merit.
5. Fear of being judged
It can hurt to feel judged. It can leave us embarrassed, or worse, cut to the core. We’ve all experienced times when the judgement of others has hurt us.
Sometimes even the judgements that are not intended to hurt, still do. Sometimes we feel unappreciated or ignored. Or, even when someone praises our work for what we think are the wrong reasons we can feel stereotyped or misunderstood.
It often seems like the way to avoid judgement is to never do anything that can be judged. But by doing this, we keep ourselves small. We waste the huge potential that resides in every person.
In fact, your biggest critic is likely to be your own mind. We all have an inner critic, nagging at us and feeding our fear.
Your inner critic is trying to keep you safe from the judgement of others. But in the process it can stop you from taking even reasonable risks or trying something new. It will always default to the patterns it knows, long after you have outgrown them
What you can do:
Defer judgement on your creative output. As you create, just let yourself try things out, letting your creativity flow. During the process your only job is to keep things moving.
Only after you are done do you get to edit. This way, you have something to work on and improve, rather than stifling the creative process.
When you are evaluating your efforts, be careful about the language you use. Treat yourself kindly, avoiding unhelpful criticisms like ‘this is crap.’ Instead, be specific about what needs to be improved.
6. Fear of revealing yourself
Creativity can feel very personal and that can leave you feeling vulnerable if you show it to others.
The harder you’ve worked at something, the further you’ve reached out of your comfort zone and the more it matters to you, the more risky it can feel to open it up to external critics.
What you can do:
The more a work matters, the more vulnerable it makes you feel. Turn this truth on its head, as Steven Pressfield recommends in the War of Art:
“The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
Rather than getting stuck in the fear, reconnect to why it matters, and what it makes possible. Use that as fuel to push through the fear.
7. Fear of rejection
Human beings are social animals. Loneliness has been shown to affect not only our mental health, but our physical health – and even our life expectancy. So, is it any wonder that we are so scared of rejection?
Our schools teach us to conform to social norms. Creative people are often written off as weird, quirky or freakish.
This is not new. Pioneers have been dismissed throughout history as they challenge convention and disrupt the establishment. Galileo was forced to recant his proof that the earth went round the sun, not the other way round. Van Gogh, one of the most admired artists in the world, only sold one single painting during his lifetime.
What you can do:
In the modern world, we have one big advantage that neither Galileo nor Van Gogh had. The internet and other modern communication technology has made the world smaller. Now it is possible for us all to find a group of like-minded people to share our passions with, however weird they are.
Remember, as Henri Matisse, himself a ground-breaking artist, said “Creativity takes courage.”
Take a step by step approach to the risk of coming out of your creativity closet. Start by creating in private. Then choose a safe group of supporters to share your work with. As you gain confidence that you have not been rejected, gradually extend the circle of people that see your creations until you are no longer hiding it at all.
8. Fear that you are not worthy
So many of us compare ourselves to others and find ourselves wanting. In fact, even very successful business leaders can find themselves feeling like they are only successful by accident, that they have tricked others and don’t really deserve to be in their roles.
They feel this despite evidence to the contrary, which might include praise, qualifications or positive results.
This feeling, of being a fake, is sufficiently common that it has been given a name: imposter syndrome. It is particularly prevalent in women and minority groups – people who has directly or indirectly had their ability questioned throughout their lives.
People with imposter syndrome can take any sign that their work isn’t as perfect as they hoped to ‘prove’ their belief that they are not good enough. And this can deter them from even trying.
What you can do:
Remember, a creative idea in our minds is never as good when it is realized. Inherent in any creative endeavor is imperfection. Rather than being a sign of your unworthiness, this is normal.
The poet, Robert Browning, mourned the inevitability of imperfection, but also pointed out “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”
Even the most creative people can find it impossible to fully realise their visions. It is the nature of being human. Aspiring to more does not mean that your efforts are not worthwhile.
9. Fear of no reward
The conventional image of the starving artist living in a garret dominates our culture. It leaves us believing that indulging our creativity can only lead to poverty and obscurity.
To get ahead, or even just to feed our family, we believe it is necessary to follow ‘rational’ career paths such as business, law or medicine. Anything else is a recipe for financial hardship.
What you can do:
Remind yourself of the many successful and financially sustainable creative careers. Film-makers, advertising creatives, graphic designers and others do make a living from creative pursuits.
Some of these include a measure of luck. Not all actors, painters or sculptors hit the big time. But combining creative pursuits with a job that pays the bills is a strategy successfully used by many, and keeps their creative options open.
These alternative jobs don’t have to involve waiting tables. An actor can do voice-overs, teach kids or work with business people on their presentation skills. Film-makers who don’t make it in Hollywood can create campaigns for charities or advertisements for businesses.
And don’t forget, creativity is an inherent part of almost every job. If you can find a better way to do something, even if you are working in a factory, you are being creative.
Shutting off the inherent creativity of human beings makes us more easily replaceable by robots. Make yourself invaluable in any role by using your creative potential.
10. Fear of the first step
Starting is usually the hardest part of anything worthwhile. Before you start, the sense of anticipation gets your fear going, without engaging with the real issues yet.
This is the time your monkey mind goes wild, filling you with anxiety rather than action. Or worse, your mind goes completely blank and you are frozen.
Writers block is well known, but the same effect applies to all creative pursuits. It leaves people procrastinating and ruins reputations.
Creative block affects even well known and genuinely creative people. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, had his book editors confine him to a hotel suite for three weeks to get him to finally write So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, the fourth book in the Hitchhiker series, because he had put it off for so long.
What you can do:
Many authors say they don’t believe in writers block. What you need, they say, is discipline to just start.
Write anything that comes into your head, even if it is nonsense. Describe the scene outside your window. Imagine yourself starting in the middle of the story rather than the beginning. Don’t worry about quality. Just start.
The same applies to other creative endeavours. Pick up a paintbrush and splodge something on the canvas. Play a note on your instrument. Try a solution to a problem, even if you think it won’t work.
Rather than anticipating problems, grapple with them. Fix a time when you make a commitment to do something, even if you know it will be no good. After all, you can edit later. Writers often cross out their entire first paragraph, or even a whole first chapter.
Franklin D. Roosevelt reminds us:
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
How will you convert retreat into advancement? Let go of the fear holding you back and embrace the creativity you already possess within.
Featured photo credit: Where is the Creative Spark? Photo: Morgan Sessions via unsplash.com