When I introduce myself and my work, I’m typically met with lots of curiosity and some confusion.
Here’s what I hear a lot: That sounds great, but sadly I’m not creative. I can’t draw for the life of me. That’s so interesting, is it mainly for blocked artists? Do you work with children?
Listening to a conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown, I came across the term creative midwifery. Brené Brown spoke about her inherent ability to tell stories, but when writing her first books she struggled. Only when she realised that her creativity needed a midwife, was she able to fulfil her potential. She simply asked colleagues to join her in a weekend getaway and listen to her stories, as if they were sitting around the campfire. Sharing her stories, in an auditory format, and receiving her colleagues’ suggestions and questions helped structuring her knowledge and research into what, in the end, became very successful books. The term creative midwife resonated strongly when I thought about my work.
Now, you might ask: if we are all born with creativity and it is an inherent ability, why would some of us need a midwife to give birth to it (again)? Isn’t creativity alive in all of us? Well…
Sadly, creativity is something we unlearn.
Putting my researcher hat on, I was delighted to find evidence that this isn’t just a hunch based on the typical answers I get from people who don’t consider themselves creative…. A longitudinal study by George Land, developed for NASA, assessed children’s creativity. Among 5-year-olds, a whopping 98% of kids were categorised as creative and imaginative. This percentage dwindled as the children grew older: 30% when they were ten years old, 12% when they were 15 years old. In a separate group of adults, who have been asked to complete the same test, a shocking 2% remain who call themselves creative. Against the trend we see with most other skills and talents, we don’t expand our creativity as we grow older, we unlearn it. And this explains why some of us need to tease it out again, later in life, when we want to re-connect with our creativity.
I come across three typical reasons why someone has lost their creativity:
Many of us lose our creative confidence and our self-belief. We have art scars from experiences when we were told we had failed at a creative endeavour and that we were clearly not talented in this field. Whether that’s the teacher who criticises a drawing or essay; or the ‘banter’ stating jokingly that we shouldn’t give up the day job; or a parent who, often with good intentions, reinforces other talents over our creative ones.
Another reason why we unlearn our creativity is purely neurobiological. Whenever our brain encounters a problem it searches through our database of experiences and knowledge to find an answer. When we are young, this database is naturally tiny and needs to be built. We play to explore the world, ask a gazillion ‘why’ questions and our brain busily files everything for later use. If all goes well, we emerge from childhood with a database grown in size and complexity, ready for solving the challenges of adult life. And now that it has grown into a substantial knowledge base, our brain develops ways of tagging and filtering this database to rapidly access the information that seems most relevant. This is useful as it makes for faster decisions and saves energy. Remember that the brain represents only 2% of the weight of an adult but consumes 20% of the energy produced by the body. To limit this significant need for energy, we develop automatic behaviours and muscle memory, such as being able to tie our shoelaces without having to think about it every day. And our brain develops narrow search algorithms to find useful information quickly. If we are in the process of learning a new computer program, it’s more useful if our brain sifts through what we know about user interface and software and ignores our memories of family gatherings in the 90s.
And then there’s the conditioning and expectation of being fast and efficient in our problem-solving. It’s easy to understand why very unfamiliar and creative solutions to problems are less likely to see the light of day. They carry a greater risk of failure, push-back or rejection. Our creative muscle weakens. Pathways of ‘tried and tested’ become grooves, then deep canyons. Our brain gets a bit stiffer. And just like we end up unable to touch our toes, we struggle to put pen to paper and scribble away, or we feel inhibited to write a story, even though we write tons of emails, articles, and reports every day.
How can we re-learn creativity?
There are three key ingredients to strengthening our creativity: inspiration, process and encouragement. All of these can be initiated in creative coaching and then practiced going forward. We need to train our brains for a wider search, even though this is harder work and often more time consuming. Making time for divergent thinking is a key step in creative coaching. I cultivate openness and soft thinking around anything that can serve as inspiration and a starting point. That’s why I share books, quotes, TED talks, random questions, or different frameworks, whether from the therapeutic or coaching world, in my sessions. I also have a set of what I call ‘poetic prompts’ which often yield unexpected and delightful results.
Then we need process – not in a formal, rigid or technical sense, but in a sense of offering a safe space, some structure and guidance. This ensures that every inquiry gets wrapped up safely and captures the new insights. We often begin by exploring our own creative process, where we tend to get blocked and how we most easily achieve the state of creative flow. And it includes a big selection of creative processes and reflective exercises which allows us to remain open without losing ourselves down a rabbit hole and stalling our progress. This is the area where I hugely benefit from my Art Therapy training, bringing together creative process and psychological expertise.
And lastly, we need encouragement, back-up and support, a cheer squad, and someone who can ask the right questions, including those that feel a little uncomfortable to begin with. Creativity requires risk, and it is easier to do something that feels a bit risky with someone in your corner.
Of course, working with a creative coach or art therapist can support you in the process of bringing your creativity back into your life. Especially if you want to explore and heal deeper art scars. But also, because creativity usually brings up fear.
They can offer a safe and supportive exploration of these memories and the emotional risks of creativity as well as the emotional cost of suppressing your creativity.
But re-connecting with your creativity as a hobby is a great way to start. It’s how I started again after years of disconnection. And it’s the reason why I love that part of my practice: delivering creative workshops, workshops that don’t dive more deeply into the therapeutic territory, but a gentle portal back into the world of creative strength. I encourage you to find your portal back into this world! Whether it’s a workshop, a self-paced, pressure-free online course, a guided journaling exercise – anything goes. And as you practice your creative muscle, you might find that it contributes to all areas in life. You’ll be more creative at work, in your parenting, in your relationships and friendships. It makes for a richer, more varied life. It supports you in taking transformative decisions and navigating change with a new resilience and robustness. Creativity certainly takes courage; we need to be willing to take a risk or make a mistake. But it also builds courage through greater self-awareness. It makes us braver in our choices, in asserting our boundaries, in staying true to ourselves.
Start with these two writing prompts:
For me, creativity is ….
When I can be creative ….
And feel free to get in touch with any questions you might have around creativity. The lockdown has proved that Zoom-based sessions are working well! And if you worry about requiring a huge range of art materials to get started with an online session, have a look at this video where I share a glimpse into my studio.
Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space