“Don’t try to steer the river.”
– Deepak Chopra
Have you ever come across an old drawing or story that you abandoned because you thought it was trashgarbage only to realize that it was actually pretty dang good? Too often, the ability to appreciate our own work comes to us only in hindsight. But such is the nature of creative anxiety blockage: stopping a project before it can even begin.
Creativity and anxiety have gone together hand in hand (er, pencil in hand?) skipping off into the sunset together since 40,000 years ago when cave paintings first appeared. Anxiety’s all about self-protection; creativity may have even developed because of anxiety, our ancestors using their fear to imagine creative solutions to future problems. And it still protects us, either by helping us do our best work or by preparing us for if our work doesn’t do well. Worriers are the warriors of the modern age, constantly innovating to thrive.
Creative anxiety is the ultimate double-edged sword, it’s self-protective function becoming either helpful or suffocating. On the one hand, it can fuel our art. Cartoonist Gemma Correll creates super relatable (and hilarious) cartoons about her anxiety all the time. And way back when, Edward Munch painted his infamous “The Scream” after becoming overwhelmed with anxiety one day.
But then there’s the other kind of creative anxiety, the hindering kind. The little negative voice in the back of your brain that hitches a ride on your creative flow, all the while pointing out the flaws in your work and whispering “Nobody’s going to like this. Are you sure you even want to put it out there? What if it fails? Not good enough not good enough not good enough.” Like Gollum talking to himself in Lord of the Rings.
If creativity were a barefoot marathon, this kind of anxiety would be like stepping on a rock every other time your feet touched the ground, holding you up every time you try to move forward. A little anxiety is good for creativity; it helps us improve. But Creative anxiety also makes you your own worst judge. And judgement isn’t just telling yourself your work isn’t good enough – it’s also getting caught up in overthinking what designs you “should” make because you think they’ll sell better rather than making art you are passionate about. But as a musician friend of mine always used to say about his music, “who are you to judge your own work?”
To judge our work is to judge ourselves, to try to be something we’re not. Trying to steer your creative mental stream towards what you think will appeal to others or will get you those sweet, sweet ‘likes’ just puts up damns in your creative flow. As Scott Barry Kaufman of Scientific American says: “It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the floodgates and letting in as much information as possible. Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.”
Look at Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. On paper, a hip-hop musical about the first U.S Treasurer doesn’t sound like it ever should have taken off. But rather than let that potential anxiety stop Miranda from innovating, he kept going. Because he was passionate about it. He recently spoke at Lyric Opera in Chicago, and one thing he said really stood out to me:
“You cannot do something because you think it’ll make money. You have to do it because you love it. Or you have to do it because you think you’ll learn from it.”
The constant worry that your designs aren’t good enough or won’t sell can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pretty soon, instead of creating more art or growing your online shop or market yourself better on social media, you’re re-binging Stranger Things on Netflix for the third time rather than trying to improve.
I’m a hypocrite, really. While writing this piece, I bit all my fingernails back down to stubs because my own creative anxiety was getting in my head (really, I did). But that’s the key to facing creative anxiety: don’t let it stop you from creating. With the negative Gollum voice whispering sweet negative nothings in our ear, how can we possibly judge our own work in a non-biased way? We can’t. Don’t let your anxiety judge your work before it’s even started.
Some tips for pushing past anxious blockades:
– Acknowledge it: Ignoring the monster in the closet doesn’t make it go away. Acknowledge your anxiety, try to pinpoint the cause, maybe write down what you’re worried about to get it out of your head. Then you can work on what’s making you anxious and move on.
– Go outside: Or just away from your work. Sometimes the best thing to do is to free-write or draw whatever you want to work on, then walk away from it for awhile and come back with fresh eyes.
– Unplug: It’s amazing how effective turning off your phone, taking out your headphones, and removing distractions can be. Clear your mind.
– Read or listen to podcasts: Sometimes reading or discovering something new can inspire you to create something by freeing up the creative flow your anxiety blocked up.
We’re an artist community built on the power of helping each other succeed — if you’re reading this and have tips of your own to share, please do so in the comments! Thank you!
Illustrations done by the amazing Katie Lukes