Embracing Pain in My Creative Process
Recently, one of my clients, who also participated in the 30 Day Self-Love Challenge, said, “You’re so creative! How do you come up with these things?”
I told her a little bit about how I got the idea for the program, how brainstormed the tasks, and how I filmed the videos. Her eyes sparkling, she said, “I don’t know how you do that! I couldn’t do that!”
I hesitated. There was something I wasn’t saying. There was something I was leaving out. I took a breath in and set it free.
“I don’t think you understand how torturous the creative process is for me,” I said.
“It hurts. I judge myself. After I finished the first few videos for the Challenge, I laid in bed for almost two days crying, thinking I didn’t make them well enough.”
Her surprise was punctuated by a visible sense of relief. I could see her having the same realization I had once upon a time about people who share their creations with the world: we have doubt, shame, and pain too. We have the same self-judgments everyone else has.
We just embrace pain as part of the creative process rather than taking it as valuable feedback about our creative abilities.
Being creative hurts. Maybe not for everyone, but it does for me.
There are two kinds of creative pain that I go through:
- Blank paper panic—I must write, I can’t write, but I must write, so on and so on.
- Post-posting depression—I share a book, a really raw article, a meditation, a video; then, immediately after, I’m hit with a flood of judgmental thoughts that rip what I’ve just made into tiny little shreds.
Post-posting depression hit me really hard after I sent The Love Mindset to my editor. As I wrote in a post around that time, I wanted to delete it off my computer, destroy it so it would never see the light of day. I was knee-deep in shame. I read the first sentence and thought: “This is the ugliest, stupidest, worst first sentence of a book ever! Who would ever write this?! Who would ever read this?!”
I realized I was thinking the same shameful thoughts about my work that I once thought about my body. I began to consciously practice healing and self-love when triggered into creative shame.
Since then, I’ve become better at dealing with those thoughts and emotions, but I can’t tell you they’ve disappeared. Not every single time I create, but definitely every single time I do something really big—something bigger and scarier than I’ve done before—there they are.
Here’s what I’ve realized is happening: when I create something, I’m always asking, “How can I make this better? What can I share? What can I do? How can I fix this? How can I add to this? How can it be more helpful or more useful?”
These questions help me create. My mind stays in that state for days, weeks, months—however long the creative process takes.
Then, after I release the meditation or the book or the program, my mind just keeps on asking those questions. At that point, they do more harm than good. If I ask, “How can I fix it?” about something that can no longer be altered, all I’m doing is judging.
So, what I’ve learned to do is be gentle with myself. I accept that those thoughts might come, and I am ready if they do. I clear my schedule. I don’t try to “push on to the next thing” anymore. I let myself take a break, go to nature, get away from the computer, and experience closure on what I’ve made.
Yes, my mind still tells me about what I could have or should have done better. Maybe, one day, it will not. It certainly doesn’t scream these things like it used to. But, for now, it is still a vulnerable time for me. It’s a part of my creative process no one sees except my partner.
And I’m not alone.
One of my favourite quotes by Tennessee Williams says:
“I don’t believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.”
And you know what I’ve learned absolutely does not help? The worst thing is to lather, on top of those doubtful and judgmental thoughts, positive thinking platitudes.
The worst thing I could possibly do in that state is try to cover up my thoughts with some inspirational mantras about how many people I’ll help, how done is better than perfect, how I shouldn’t judge myself, etc.
The best thing I can do is just be gentle with myself, recognize those thoughts for what they are (i.e. thoughts, not reality, and toxic thoughts at that), remember that I’m a beautiful piece of nature, and put as few demands on myself as I can.
The more I’ve allowed myself to just feel that state after I release something, the easier it’s been on me. Now, I think of it as a riptide after the wave. I rush in with all my creating and then I have to let go, to pull back, to surrender. It’s all part of the same beautiful cycle.
All I need to do is go with the flow.
I think the saddest thing about post-posting depression is that many people get it pre-posting. They judge their ideas, judge their work, and take that judgment as valuable feedback on their abilities or ideas.
I’ve met hundreds of people with unwritten novels, unsung songs, and untold stories inside of them.
The key to liberating creative potential, I’ve realized, is to understand that the experience of judging your work can be a healing opportunity.
Expect doubt and judgment and fear to come rather than assuming that those thoughts won’t bother you when you have a truly good idea.
And you should create anyway.
As I was searching for the Tennessee Williams quote above, I found this incredible one by William Goldman:
“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”
The key is self-acceptance.
It’s the same for blank paper panic, which I’ve been getting pervasively over the past two weeks.
I’ve begun writing my second book—The Art of Talking to Yourself. Just thinking about its potential to change the world makes me smile. I know what I’m going to share in it. I know what I’m going to teach. I know how much it will help people.
And yet, each time I sit down to write it, I suddenly remember that the CSS for my website banner needs updating, that my tax receipts need to be organized, and that the alt tags on my blog images should really be more SEO friendly.
Since I’ve promised, exactly two weeks ago, that I’d start the book, I’ve organized my music library, fixed all the broken links on my website, sorted out my email folders, optimized the SEO for all three websites I run, written two poems, edited and published 4 stories by incredibly inspiring people on The Real Us, organized my desktop, created the Free Stuff section of this website, folded all my clothes (really neatly), and done dozens of Sudoku puzzles.
I’ve written a grand total of about 3 pages.
And, you know what? I’m okay with that.
I’m okay with whatever is happening right now. I’m not going to do what I did before—judge myself, blame myself, point the finger at what I “should” be doing, and criticize myself ceaselessly for not sticking to my creative plan.
If I’m not ready, I’m not ready.
If I need more time, I need more time.
And people will always tell you: stay on schedule, don’t let yourself be distracted, stick to your task, etc. And maybe that’s useful advice for someone who always procrastinates. But for me, I don’t need to be pushed by anyone, especially not myself.
That’s what I spent most of my life doing—pushing. I pushed myself to be skinnier. I pushed myself to be smarter, be more popular, be more articulate. I pushed myself to go, go, go.
And it paid off in some ways. Pushing myself in school always put me at the top of my class. Pushing myself to lose weight made me skinny. Pushing myself to be more popular made me lots of friends. Pushing myself to be smarter made me learn a lot of facts.
But then, I realized I hated the school program I was in. I realized I had a serious eating disorder. I realized I was actually quite introverted and, even then, the friends I had didn’t really know or understand me. I realized my “smart” was an act and that I wasn’t honouring the real intelligence in me—which is a process of lifelong learning, not rote reciting.
Pushing myself always got “results,” but then I realized I didn’t even want them.
So what sort of creations will I make if I push myself?
Not authentic ones, that’s for sure. I don’t want that and neither do you.
I want to be real, and you want me to be real. So why push? Why judge myself for not being ready? Why not shrug, laugh it off, and say, “Well, all those things I’ve been stalling with had to get done, didn’t they? Great that I have the opportunity to do them now!”
And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
And you know what else? I’m going to get some novels, and I’m going to read them because I love literature and, as a full-time author, I don’t read as much as I want to.
I’m going to let this be a break because that’s what I feel is really going on here—I need a break. I don’t just preach the stuff I teach. I practice it. Sometimes, I feel like I work 24/7. It’s okay for me to take a break.
Sometimes, that means sorting out my tax papers. Sometimes, that means doing things that have no immediate purpose. Who am I to judge? Why shouldn’t I take a break however I want?
And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
I’m going to organize whatever needs to be organized and tie up loose ends. And then, I’m going to read. I’m going to sing. I’m going to draw pictures (even though I’m appallingly bad at drawing). I’m going to do as many Sudokus as I want.
And I’m going to trust that, soon enough, I will feel ready to create. I’m going to trust that, by not pressuring myself, I will clear out space in my mind and in my life for that creativity to flower naturally.
And of course I feel guilt about this. I get thoughts about how I should be doing better things, how I’m wasting time, how I should be doing this and that, how life is too short to not spend every single moment being productive.
But those are just thoughts. And thoughts aren’t always real.
Just like the thoughts I get post-posting, my guilty thoughts in blank paper panic might be inevitable (for now), but they don’t have to inform my decisions or control my life.
Those voices in my head can say whatever they want.
I’m going to do what I feel like doing.
And that’s that.
I hope you will too.
(Photo by Drew Koffman)