Embracing the shadow side — fear, shame, self-doubt — of creativity

In a blog post, “What is Creativity?,” Maria Popova quoted designer Charles Eames on the cultural obsession with the creative process:

“Recent years have shown a growing preoccupation with the circumstances surrounding the creative act and a search for the ingredients that promote creativity. This preoccupation suggests we are in a special kind of trouble — and indeed we are.”

The proliferation of web sites, blogs, MFA programs, and art schools teaching creativity suggests Eames’ concerns have gone unheeded (thankfully). Nevertheless, he was correct to point to the shadow side of constantly striving “for the ingredients that promote creativity.”

It’s not that there’s a problem with the desire to learn

the nuts and bolts of a craft or art, but rather the constant pursuit of artistic habits can often become a defense against the inevitable shadow side of the creative process.

To master a craft or art, or finish a long project, you can’t avoid the shadow — the fear, shame, loneliness, and self-loathing that can cause you to waver in commitment and doubt your abilities. And yes, quit if you don’t learn how to deal with the shadow.

Although I doubt this was the point Eames was making, it’s the one I want to make. Many people are preoccupied with the creative process and for good reasons. There’s a potential for lasting transformation and a deep sense of accomplishment when we master an art form or complete a long project. Yet reaching the point of mastery isn’t easy, and the journey is littered with emotional obstacles most of us prefer to avoid.

If you have a history of childhood trauma, or adverse childhood experiences, it can be particularly difficult to deal with feelings of fear, shame, and self-doubt sparked by the creative process. These feelings often resonate with past experiences of abuse, which is why creating can be such a wonderful way to transform painful memories. Through creative acts, difficult emotions are given expression in non-threatening ways, releasing their grip on our bodies and psyches.

Yet these emotions can also get in the way of mastery, or longer projects, that need acceptance of fear and self-doubt as part of the creative process. Rather than managing such emotions, or overcoming them, there is often a need to work with them, even befriend them. There is healing here too. Through mastery and sustained efforts, there is the possibility of learning how to integrate all aspects of self, which is a great benefit to a person who can commit to a life centered on creating.

In what follows, I share a few resources that address the shadow side of the creative process. I hope they teach that the feelings, sensations, and thoughts causing self-doubt and discouragement are actually part of the journey towards mastery, and not signs to give up on dreams.

A Few Helpful Books

• Perhaps the best book I have read on dealing with the shadow side of creativity is Janna Malamud Smith’s An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way To Mastery. The title of her book comes from Henry James’ Roderick Hudson:

“True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out — you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.”

Malamud Smith believes mastery of an art or craft is perhaps the best way to be absorbed in life. As well as a writer, she is a psychotherapist, and is skilled at examining the role of emotions and the unconscious mind for the creative process. She discusses many of the shadowy aspects of mastery, including fear, anxiety, self-doubt, shame, and ruthlessness, as well as the desire for recognition, the need for creative solitude, and the problems encountered when going public. While she gives helpful advice, Malamud Smith also looks at the lives of artists who lived rather tragic existences, and how adversity played into their creative processes.

Malamud Smith’s hopeful attitude may be enough to inspire you to read her book:

“Particularly, you may be unaware of how the necessary struggles of your own unconscious mind, if misunderstood, will bruise your heart, arrest your efforts prematurely, and prevent your staying absorbed in your errand. Yet the same struggles, appreciated, will enable your creativity and the larger process of mastery.”

• When it comes to healing the wounds of the would-be artist, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is a classic. Whether your interest is music, writing, or visual arts, Cameron’s book revives the artistic spirit, healing the ‘child within’ shamed from a life of art.

• Martha Beck is also another guru for devotees of creative, authentic living. Her book Finding Your Own North Star is particularly helpful if you feel stuck living other people’s’ dreams for you and not your dreams for yourself.

Being authentically yourself is the fertile ground of mastery and sustained work. And it is the ‘real’ you — warts and all — that is the source of your best work.

Beck is particularly adept at teaching how to listen to your innate wisdom and how to create a life centered on passion. She suffered through severe childhood abuse and has courageously created a unique life (including being credited with founding the profession “life coach”). Beck knows firsthand what it takes to develop an authentic self. Finding Your Own North Star is a thoughtful, action-oriented guide to the process.

• For writers, I recommend Kenneth Atchity’s A Writer’s Time. Atchity’s book is great for working with the inner critic. Folk wisdom says we all have an inner critic, but for persons with histories of childhood abuse, this voice can be particularly harsh, if not paralyzing. Paradoxically, the situation can be the same for someone neglected as a child. In efforts to fit in society and learn the ropes of life (lessons not forthcoming in the home), persons with histories of neglect will often become super “normal” or super “good” — in effect, over-compensating for the guidance missing in their lives. A critical inner voice can emerge from this process of self-parenting. (There can also be shame and a fear of criticism and rejection.)

With a hyperactive critical inner voice, its crucial to learn how to relax into the creative process and accept mistakes and messiness as a natural part of the journey. Atchity teaches how to work with the inner critic in constructive ways rather than completely silencing it. I think this is the correct approach, since it’s based on full self-acceptance, including the parts of ourselves that seem the most problematic.

Creating Order From Chaos

For a child trying to develop in the face of adversity or abuse, chaos is often seen as the normal order of things. Not surprising, many people with histories of childhood abuse experience monkey mind as their natural mental state, rarely mentally resting in any one place for very long. If this is your norm, creating a life and mind settled enough to master a craft or art can seem daunting. Too often, time is wasted trying to find a system to organize your life and thoughts that leads to progress and not more chaos — and preferably a system that doesn’t provoke feelings of shame or guilt when you fail to meet your goals.

Enter Ryder Carroll’s bullet journaling, a great approach to creating order from chaos. It can even accommodate random thoughts important to your project. Bullet journaling also addresses the pesky task of aligning your creative projects and ideas with the rest of your life. Here’s an introductory video to the process:

You can learn more about Ryder Carroll’s intuitive system at his website, bulletjournal.com. He gives a more detailed description of bullet journaling there, so it’s worth a look if you are seriously considering his method.

Karma Points

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to mastery is over-emphasis on the outcome, especially early on when you are initially learning a particular art form or just starting that big project. Making messes and discarding dross are part of the creative process. With this in mind, please step lightly on the environment (e.g., writing or drawing on both sides of paper), recycling when you can, and using nontoxic supplies when possible. Having the time and resources to create is a gift, one we all deserve, although not available to us all. Gratitude for the opportunity to create and environmentally responsible practices also offset the shadow side of a creative life.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a mental health scholar and registered marriage & family therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.

8 responses

  1. Pingback: Elation and Despair – The Highs and Lows of Blogging |Reblog | WorkplaceWise

  2. OKa well we need date and experimental evidence to make progress on the medical problem of adult effects of abuse and the brain processes of behavior we label as creative. This article has none of this so we have mainly personal opinion and some cultural beliefs/ platitudes. The citing of books without evidence just compounds the problem, since most books tell people what they want to hear to sell more

    For example the correlation, we don’t yet know causation, of brain disorders and creativity seems common. The correlation between writing and family schizophrenia is being found. BTW, bipolar is now being looked at as a “milder” form of schizo.

    In terms of analogical, accessible and non-scientific works Alice Miller’s “The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness ” has a sober look at creativity as blocking healing by avoidance and repetition compulsion. As a European, she avoids happy-talk. instead of healing, she sees art as mainly just recycling the pain and avoidance of childhood abuse – to a bad outcome.

    We are in America where “happy-talk” ideas about serious problems always sell best. It is simply a sales scam and false promise (lying) – but it does sell well. However, it does block and hinder real problem-solving. I am an artist and work with many artists, all of whom are wounded. Medical treatment is what’s needed – not more art or pop discussions of creativity.

    Without experimental, peer-reviewed research, we have no idea what is true or useful for treatment. Better to review the literature than rattle off personal opinions and airport books on “creativity” that are just selling easy ideas and pretend solutions.

    • You reach a lot of conclusions quite quickly. And share some wonderful resources.

      Having been a scientist (BS, Physics and MS, Atmospheric Science), I was fortunate to learn firsthand both the advantages of a scientific worldview as well as its limitations. “Truth” comes in many forms and is verified in many ways, often without the aid of a laboratory.

      Thank you for your reply.

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