The Creativity Conundrum: An Ugly Mix of Endorphins and Self-Sabotage

Whether you’re a graphic designer, marketing executive, or entrepreneur trying to launch the next big thing, we all have something in common: we’re creative souls. That creativity may not always manifest in the same way, but without an active imagination, none of us would ever achieve anything worth anything. Though science certainly plays a role in our work, especially in the era of big data, it’s still that spark of madness within that helps us truly shine.

And engaging in creative work isn’t just a really cool profession — it should also help your emotional and mental well-being, which in turn should help your work. It’s a cycle of wonderful. Psychologists and researchers have found time and time again that creative activity can help diminish stress and anxiety while boosting endorphins. And who couldn’t use a few more of those in their system?

So, in theory, we should be really, really relaxed.

Did you just laugh? I laughed typing it.

Because as we all know, the life of a professional who banks on creativity to make their way is anything but stress free.  If anything, it’s intensely stressful, largely because critique of our work is inherently personal. Sure, every now and then the critique we face will be over a typo or wanky pixel. But quite often, the criticism we face is nonspecific, subjective, and directed at a form of personal expression and creativity. It can be hard not to internalize that in ways that counteract all the good creative expression is supposed to be doing for us.

But learning to process that criticism without compounding it internally may be the only way to get those warm fuzzies creativity is supposed to give us. When we take critique personally, punish ourselves again and again for what we see as failure, we’re never going to get back on our feet in a way that makes us happy. As Stanford researcher Emma Seppala puts it, we’ve got to go easier on ourselves:

Research shows that self-criticism is basically self-sabotage, whereas self-compassion – treating yourself with the understanding, mindfulness and kindness with which you would treat a friend – leads to far greater resilience, productivity and well-being.

That’s easier said than done though, right? For many of us, that self-criticism has become a learned behavior. We receive negative external stimulus and we double down inside. That hurts our creative expression and hurts our health. So how can we change that?

1) Take a deep breath. When the criticism hits, remind yourself that it’s feedback, and an opportunity to learn.

2) Think about the context of the critique. Was it subjective, just a matter of preference? Then it’s not about you.

3) If the critique contained more technical substance, cut yourself some slack. You’re not going to get it right all the time, and that’s ok.

4) Set aside some time to be creative without direction. Take a dance class. Write a short story. Buy an adult coloring book (no, seriously, those things are awesome). Do things where no feedback is required to recharge the creative batteries.

The work we do is awesome, but it can be draining as well, especially if your perspective is skewed. Make sure to take stock of how you’re engaging your work periodically and correct course as needed. You’ll be happier and more successful in the long term if you do.

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