For my previous post I experienced a real challenge in writing about Redefining success and it got me thinking about when the creative process is excruciating: how we can engage it in healthier ways and not lose any of our creative potency.
In college, I exemplified the struggling artist. I wrangled and wrestled mentally and emotionally with every project. I would agonise over ideas, take criticism to heart and land into places of utter deflation. After the agony, eventually, I would experience the ecstasy of pure creative clarity and flow. It was a roller coaster cycle I rode for years until it became untenable for me emotionally and physically: I had to learn how to stop battling, and develop a new approach.
The new approach started along my journey of learning how to take better care of my body, heart and mind: through therapy, meditation, yoga and conscious dance. I resisted taking better care of myself for many years to begin with; I was afraid that in getting off the roller coaster of agony and ecstasy I would loose my creativity; I was entrenched in the idea that my creativity came from my pain.
I learned very slowly how to care for myself and how to access my creativity in new and nourishing ways. I notice now though, that every time I lean in to a new creative outlet I have the tendency to hit my old patterns, like ‘falling off the wagon’. So this remains an on-going process for me, I take one-step at a time and I have certain practices that I come back to regularly.
Hello discomfort zone!
“The more time you spend in your discomfort zone, the more your comfort zone will expand” Robin S Sharma
To create something new you need to leap before you are ready, and engage new ideas, approaches and ways of thinking that are not always comfortable. The painting doesn’t paint itself. The book doesn’t write itself. If there is no discomfort then there is nothing to challenge and ignite your creativity. And at the same time, extreme discomfort is not a prerequisite for creativity.
It is important to find your balance: get comfortable with your discomfort, learn how to befriend your creative process, build on your own creative capacity, trust the timing of your creative leaps of faith and temper this with dedication to supportive self-care practices for your physical, emotional and mental health.
Return to your senses
A key practice for me is learning to stop, and simply come back into the awareness of my physical body. Bring attention to your breath. Pause and listen to your beating heart. Feel your feet on the ground. Smell the air and listen to sounds around you. Tune in to your tastebuds. Try to regularly bring your attention back to the present in simple mindful moments.
Coming back to your five sense can significantly reduce your stress levels and give you some breathing space, allowing you, over time, to track and understand your own creative process: recognising your own patterns and pit-falls and learning what rhythms and practices work best for you.
When you are stressed, overwhelmed or in a place of excruciating creative pain you are usually frozen, with shallow breathing and clenched muscles. But your body is made to move, and the movement of the body helps you to de-stress, regulate your breathing, stretch our muscles, think more clearly and open up to creative flow.
So, find a tune that you love: clear yourself some space, put on headphones or crank up the speakers and just simply breathe and move your body. [If you’re curious about how dance could resource your creative practice you are welcome come long to one of my Creative nest sessions].
Take a break
Sometimes you just need to rest: take yourself away from what you are doing for even a few minutes, simply close your eyes, if you can, have a siesta and do what you can to get a good nights sleep.
Turn the page upside down
When I’d get stuck on a still life drawing in school my art teacher used to tell me to turn the page upside down and look at the drawing again. Getting a different perspective can be incredibly revealing and liberating.
When you feel stuck, go for a walk and come back with fresh eyes, ask a trusted friend, mentor, teacher or expert for feedback on your progress or find yourself some completed examples of what you are aiming for and take a look at your work from the perspective of that finished place.
For a macro change of perspective: on a clear night find a safe place and simply look up: feel the sensation of lifting your head, the stretch in our neck, the adjustment of your eyes: noticing one or two stars at first and, if you are lucky, getting to see the star clusters that make up our Milky Way. We are on a blue and green planet spinning through space in a galaxy amongst billions of other galaxies: this realisation can be a profoundly grounding and calming reframe.
If you are feeling immobilised by the enormity of what you are working on: ask yourself how you can break it down into smaller more doable creative chunks. By breaking down the work, sometimes like untangling a ball of wool, you can gain a clearer perspective: maybe seeing tasks you can delegate or amalgamate and maybe recognising now unnecessary pieces.
Are you being too hard on yourself?
Oh how I dislike this question!!! I never want to answer it because I have to admit I’m probably back in my old pattern and being a perfectionist. I used to define myself by how much I worked and how hard I could push myself. My drive for perfection was fueled by low self-esteem and a desire for recognition. I didn’t consider the possibility, back then, that the recognition I desired could come from the process of my own self-care.
Drive and perfectionism can be our greatest strength and equally our greatest weakness. A fixation on a perfect outcome can spur us on to achieve great goals but it can also diminish our creative capacities, causing us to loose sight of our basic needs.
It’s important to recognise when you’re truly being too hard on yourself. Learn to tolerate asking this question, as a reminder to come back to some basic and nurturing self care: to take a break, take some perspective and re-centre yourself.
What happens if I do a little every day?
Like a living thing your creative practice requires regular attention and tending. Showing up regularly whether it is a daily painting practice or a weekly writing practice can create a structure and a rhythm that can mitigate against a practice becoming excruciating. By showing up on a regular basis you train the muscles and create an invitation for the ‘muse’.
“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up too” Isabel Allende
Knowing what you need
Sometimes its easy to have a lot of clarity about what you don’t need but it can be tricky to know what you do. This can be key to alleviating some of the unnecessary suffering in your creative process. It’s important to learn to recognise whether you need to stop and rest or change tack, whether you need more specific information or simple to nourish your mind and eat, whether you need to push on through the discomfort or get some good feedback. And its important to recognise that your needs are not always predictable, they can change and evolve over time and with your circumstances.
Hold it with compassion
Looking back now I have huge compassion for that tortured younger version of me and equally I have admiration and pride for her courage, her willingness to put herself out there, breaking barriers and creating way outside of her comfort zone. One of the strongest practices I have found for my self is in developing gratitude for the highs, lows, changes and lessons in my journey and growing my capacity to hold it with compassion.
When the creative process is excruciating it is a strong nudge for you to learn how to engage in your creativity in an holistic, healthy and regenerative way. It is an opportunity to understand your needs and drivers, your pace and your perfectionist patterns, your pitfalls and what gets you in, and out of your creative flow.
So the next time you recognise this excruciating place in your creative process you might remember that “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional” (Anonymous) and there may be some simple practices that alleviate unnecessary suffering and shine a light on a new pathway forward.