How Fear Chokes Creativity and What to Do About It

by Shelley Berc


The Scream

What are some of the things that get in the way of us being our creative best? There are many culprits, like procrastination and having an over-scheduled life, but I think that Public Enemy Number 1 is Fear.

We are afraid to be wrong. We are afraid to make a mistake. We’re afraid of not being perfect. We’re afraid of looking stupid and being laughed at or being rejected. There are a million scary things out there and inside us that make us say to ourselves, “pursue creativity? I don’t think so.”

“Fail, fail again, fail better.” Those are the words of Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature, when asked what was the secret to being creative. So why do we shun the necessity of failure? What scientist would refuse to go to his lab for fear of not getting the test results she wants?

Fear of expressing our innate creativity as a thinking tool is counterproductive and often leaves us unable to think clearly and deeply at all. It doesn’t help us to be better workers, it doesn’t help us be better parents, and it doesn’t help us have better lives. As a matter of fact, rejecting or ignoring your creativity can leave you frustrated and feeling a great emptiness in your life.

Learning to pay attention to and use our natural born creativity is an enormous advantage to us personally and professionally, regardless of whether we see ourselves as ‘creative types’ or not. Many evolutionary biologists view creativity as an inherent asset that has helped our species survive. Why? Because using our creativity makes humans flexible in their thinking and adaptable to surprise and change. Creativity is what helped our distant ancestors figure out how to get out of a bad situation when face to face with a saber tooth tiger.

Using your creativity means welcoming trial and error into our lives. It is common knowledge that most people who succeed brilliantly have failed devastatingly, yet they keep going, keep insisting on their vision, on their right to explore, question and yes, make mistakes. Pursuing their ideas and following their ‘gut feelings’ are more important to them than worrying if they are right or not.

Being wrong can be very useful for the creative person. It is one of the ways we learn what direction to go (or not go) forward. If it weren’t for getting things wrong, we would never make unexpected discoveries, which can lead us in fascinating directions we never dreamed of. How many times in the history of science has a scientist failed to accomplish what she was trying to do, but through the process discovered something even more valuable than what she had in mind?

What if instead of calling projects that don’t pan out ‘failures’, we call them what they really are: Experiments. No new ideas, small or large, come to fruition without experimentation, without trial and error. In the world of creativity, there is no wrong; there are only possibilities that need testing. The Muse has no concept of petty notions, such as  “If I don’t get my invention to market or my pastel finished in x amount of time, it’s no good and I should scrap it.”
Creativity is no respecter of clock time or superimposed deadlines. It only respects imagination and the tenacity to follow the course upon which your creative work is taking you. And the stress is on “where the creative work is taking you”, not where you are trying to take it.

Why is it so hard to find and follow your Muse, no matter how seductive or inspiring she is? Think back to when you a kid, chances are you shelved many of your creative gifts forever because of a cutting remark that an adult or another kid said to you about your imagination. How can anybody possibly know what you will turn out to be good at when you are six?

If you were a child who always drew trees that looked like Jackson Pollock abstractions and you had a teacher who said, “You know, you really need to learn how to draw a tree,” you might never draw again. What about a child who is supposed to be writing a story for school and it’s not logical–the ideas and images seem to skip around? Then I would advise the child’s teacher to have a look at the structure of poetry. Maybe that child who can’t write a linear story is on her way to becoming an amazing poet, changing our hearts because of the things she writes. How many great scientists, artists, and thinkers do we lose because of shame?

So many things get erased from us, and I mean really erased early on, not only because of what other people say, but what we feel about what they say.
We are pigeonholed so early in our lives that many of our talents have gone untapped and leave us yearning, wondering what we are missing. As we grow up, we internalize those judgments people made about us and we become very good at crushing our own creative aspirations. We become our own most vicious critics. How do we create when a part of us is choking that impulse?

John Cage had an excellent solution.  He said: “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.” The creating comes first and the analyzing later. That leaves the creator in a place of uncertainty, an exhilarating position for a creator, but a situation our inner critic can’t stand—a good reason for her to stay out of our way at this point in the creative process.

Creativity thrives on uncertainty. If we always knew the outcome of our creative endeavors we would probably be too bored to complete them. Uncertainty, curiosity, stumbling one foot after the other, we create our own unique yellow brick road of imagination. We can live gracefully with uncertainty when we stay connected to the part of ourselves that gets joy from the act of creation, rather than always looking to what its product is going to be.

We find wonder and beauty, new ideas and images everywhere when we allow our senses to experience each moment fully. When we shut down our perceptiveness and our sensitivity and only look to the finish line, our creativity has no access to the very elements that make it enriching and deep.

Taking delight in the creative process will nudge us to keep coming back to it, even when it gets so hard or frustrating we’d rather do just about anything else. Playfulness, curiosity, and surprise can steer us through the quagmire of inner babble, doubt, drudgework, and yes, the failures that must be experienced to realize a truly creative life.

Our lives are the research laboratories of our unique possibilities. The worst thing that we can do to our creativity is to be ashamed of it; to believe that what we create, or want to create isn’t good enough and will never be good enough, and therefore we have no right to do it. This is when we need to get out our tenacity and put it to work in service of our imagination, regardless of what we are feeling.

Our imagination, whether we use it in raising our kids or making the next big discovery in science, returns us to our true selves–half wizard, half clueless hero on an unknown journey of discovery. Our imagination is our magic wand and our touchstone. It is a potent elixir that energizes spirit, mind, and body into profound transformation.

To stay with our creative journey, we should celebrate our quirks, our idiosyncrasies, our unique and weird ways of perceiving and expressing. They are our staunchest defenders against the destructive aspects of self-judgment. They are the qualities that make our individual creativity unlike any other. They are, in fact, each creator’s home.


 

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