Mary squirmed in her chair as she continued, “I just don’t know what is
wrong with me. Why can’t I just do it? I feel stressed all the time when I’m not writing. ‘I should be writing’, I say to myself, but I don’t.”
“I think, if I just get the laundry done, then I’ll be free to sit down and write the next chapter. But then I don’t. Maybe I need to exercise first, and I go for a run. I get back home, fully intending to sit down at the computer. But I don’t. And all the while I’m feeling bad and stressed about not writing.”
“What is wrong with me? Maybe I’m just lazy. Or maybe unconsciously I don’t really want to write. Or maybe it just means that I’m not really cut out to be a writer…”
Through thousands of hours of psychotherapy with artists, I have found that most are quite familiar with the experience of being artistically blocked, or of procrastinating and avoiding their creative work.
“If only I weren’t so distractible,” or, “I must not really want to succeed” are common complaints I’ve heard. These blocks can lead to non-productivity as well as to more serious problems such as depression and addictions.
Until now, most experts have offered behavioral strategies to help artists initiate and sustain their creative process. They suggest setting aside a time and place to be creative, or promote positive thinking and self-discipline.
While structure can certainly help artists to focus and to optimize their time, many artists do not find the strength to overcome deeply embedded blocks with this advice. “If it were that easy, I’d do it,” they say.
New research in neuroscience and human development show that these strategies are only part of the answer. Revolutionary understandings in clinical psychology now suggest that healthy interpersonal relationships are the fuel for optimal emotional, cognitive, intellectual, behavioral, and creative functioning.
Contrary to how we’ve been taught to value independence and autonomy, this new scientific evidence is showing that we are at our best when we are connected with others. When we apply these findings to the secret, internal world of the artist, we see that the capacity to be creative is actually generated by the experience of connectedness with others.
When we feel lacking in self-confidence and vitality, we need to look at the state of our relationships, rather than think that we must somehow find strength and courage from deep within ourselves. We cannot create in a vacuum of isolation. We are helped along in the creative process by certain kinds of emotional support from others that help us to be at our best and to realize our full potentials.
When we shift our focus away from searching within ourselves, and towards reaching for healthy connections, we will be propelled through the creative process to complete a work of art.
To fully immerse ourselves into creativity, we need to feel strong, inspired, and comforted. But rather than existing as static “traits” in ourselves, these feelings of strength, inspiration, and comfort are generated in our relationships with mirrors, heroes, and twins.
Finding strength in mirrors:
An artist finds the strength to create through feeling special, recognized, and appreciated by others. Share your ideas and your work with others who are likely to appreciate your talents and your efforts.
Allow yourself to “take in” this kind of psychological nourishment. If you don’t have this kind of support, imagine it.
Finding inspiration in heroes:
Artists find motivation to create through admiring, respecting, and hoping to please a parent, teacher, mentor, or idol.
Inspire yourself by reaching for a connection with your “real life” hero, or immersing yourself in your idol’s work, ideas, or art.
Finding comfort in twins:
An artist finds comfort through the creative process by feeling understood and understandable by others who are in the same boat. Connect with “like-kinds” (for example, join a writer’s group, take a painting class, or go to conferences, artist retreats, or galleries).
Share your hopes and dreads, triumphs and defeats, with these empathic others—who have been there—they understand.
During any creative project, you are likely to grapple with core feelings of safety, trust and hope. When you become aware of how your relationships with others impact your ongoing sense of self, you can then try to elicit more of what you need to carry you through the myriad of emotions involved in the creative process.
There is no weakness in needing others. In fact, being able to create and sustain mutual relationships is the key to our continued growth as artists and as individuals.
In the end, it is not really how much willpower or discipline we have that determines our capacity to enter into a creative state. Standing at water’s edge, looking at the vast unknown and uncertainty involved in the creative process, it is our relationships with others that will empower—or inhibit—our dive.
Dr. Anne Paris is a clinical psychologist and the author of “Standing at Water’s Edge: Moving Past Fears, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion.”