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Should Being Creative Feel Good?

Being Creative and Anxiety

Being Creative and Anxiety


This morning when I sat down to write this blog post I had no idea what I was going to say.

As I stared at the blank digital page, the curser blinking and I started to feel tense.  My body felt anxious and my mind was swarmed with thoughts like:

  • I have nothing to say
  • I have run out of things to say
  • This blog isn’t very good
  • Everyone else can think of good things to write but you can’t
  • There is something wrong with me

When we show up at the gate of a creative act, our mind spins thoughts of self doubt, perfectionism, anxiety and hopelessness and releases them into our awareness.  Why would your own brain do such a horrible thing to you, day after day?  Isn’t being Creative Supposed to be fun?


Creativity and Uncertainty


When you sit down to make art, you are intentionally putting yourself into a situation steeped in uncertainty.  You can’t guarantee that what you make will be perfect .  You can’t know all the steps to get from the blank page to first draft.  You can’t promise yourself that everyone will love what you make.  More on perfectionism and creativity

The brain is a thinking machine, designed to make connections, assign labels, make judgements and above all else, avoid risk.  Since the days of cavemen, the oldest parts of the brain have worked hard to keep us safe and uneaten by prehistoric beasties.  Unfortunately, those parts of the brain are still active now. The uncertainty of the creative process is perceived as a threat by the brain.   Here is how it works:

  1. You sit down to make art
  2. Your brain becomes aware of the uncertainty, ego vulnerability and risk of judgement when other people see what you’ve made
  3. The brain interprets this mix of uncertainty and risk as a threat to your safety, like a rabid sabertooth chasing you into a pit of snakes
  4. The brain, more specifically the amygdala, produces a fear response in the body (anxiety) and mind (negative thoughts) to get you to stop

Exhausting, huh?

So what can a brave artist like yourself do to deal with this problem?

1. Mindful Acceptance


As crappy as it sounds, the process of your brain interpreting creative action as a threat is a natural one.  It’s built right into the structure of your brain.  It will never go away.  but…

You are not powerless.  You are not stuck.  

Do this:

Before you sit down to work on your art, remind yourself that you will probably have some negative emotions, thoughts and body sensations come up while you’re trying to be creative.  Think about how this is just your brain trying to protect you from risk and accept it as part of the deal.

More on mindfulness and acceptance of negative emotions.

I love being a therapist.  I work with teenagers who have experienced trauma and are having a hard time as a result.  When I show up for a session, I remind myself that sometimes I will be yelled at, called names and told that I’m stupid.  It’s part of the deal of being a therapist…and I love being a therapist.  It’s worth it.

You can bring the same acceptance to your creative process.

2.  Action


After you accept that negative emotions, body sensations and thoughts are a natural by-product of being creative, you can commit yourself to action in the face of fear.   Or put more simply:

Do it anyway

I call this practice action oriented creativity.  As you sit in front of the blank screen, notebook or garageband session, just start typing, writing, or playing.  When you take creative action in the face of negative emotions three things will happen:

1.  The negative feelings will eventually fade into the background, replaced by a sense of playful engagement with your art

2.  You will start to develop the habit of working on your art no matter how you feel.  You will say “so what?” and get to work.

3.  You’re confidence in yourself  and your ability as an artist will grow.


When we accept feelings of self doubt, confusion, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, anger, frustration and boredom as natural by-products of the creative process, we can look at them, say “So What?” and learn to work along-side these thoughts and feelings.

  • You will make more art
  • You will finish more projects
  • You will make better, more interesting art

who doesn’t want that?

What sort of thoughts come up in your mind when you first sit down to be creative?  Leave a comment below and tell us how your brain tries to keep you from your art?


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  • Gene Goodale

    One of the great things about making photographs is that you don’t just sit down and decide to make Art. It is a very spontaneous act. You bring your camera with you and it seems to happen without any notice. You are immersed into a trance-like act – much like driving a car you know the route so well that you don’t remember the trip specifically you just know you are in a place where things happen. The editing and decision making comes much later and seems retroactive.

    • Branden Barnett

      I love thinking about the differences in process that different methods of creating have built into them. It sounds like photography has quicker access to a flow state than other creative practices. Agree?

  • Jessica Baverstock

    I often feel the anxiety of sitting down to a page (even if it isn’t blank) and trying to put words on it. As you say, acceptance is important. Expressing understanding of the emotion helps to move from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I understand this emotion and I can move past it.’

    I then acknowledge that what I write today probably won’t be up to scratch, but remind myself that it doesn’t have to be. I just need to fiddle, to paint with my words and continue trying things until something clicks. Repeating phrases like ‘I’ve had success with my writing before and I shall have it again’ helps me remember that this session doesn’t define me as a success or failure.

    Thank you for such a balanced post. I love the way you put this subject across. :)

    • Branden Barnett

      Thanks Jessica.

      I love your idea of fiddling, and painting with words until something clicks. It’s so hard to silence perfectionism in our brains to get to that kind of play.

      • Jessica Baverstock

        Yes, I feel like there’s a constant battle with perfectionism and it comes down to trusting the process. You can always polish words, but only if you’ve written them first. You can’t polish a blank page.

    • brandenbarnett

      Thanks so much for the kind words. As a new father I’ve found that the super-tiny amount of time I have to sit and write is packed with more anxiety because there’s this “I only have this 20 minutes and that’s it” feeling. It’s crazy. I’ve really had to ramp up the mindfulness and focus on things like painting with words and just fiddling. I’ve noticed that most anxiety I feel is based on focusing on myself and not the art at hand.

  • Minette Riordan

    Great post, Branden. Found you through LinkedIn group and totally agree with what you are saying here. I am teaching a workshop right now on using art and journaling for meditation and the first night the attendees were so worried about having to create something beautiful or perfect. It takes time to relax into the creative process and Mindful Acceptance is such a huge piece of that process.

    • Branden Barnett

      Thank you Minette! I’m super fascinated about your technique on fusing art and journaling for meditation. As a practicing Buddhist/songwriter/therapist/blogger… that really sounds awesome. Let’s keep in touch and collaborate if possible.

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  • Joel D Canfield

    Superbly practical. I’ve long been fascinated by how our minds work, and the various ways we can skirt the challenges, face them head on, or make them irrelevant. Excellent stuff, Branden.

    • brandenbarnett

      Thanks Joel,
      The strange yet intensely useful intersection of creativity, mental health, buddhism and neuroscience is something I love dearly. It’s a pretty niche area but it’s really how I think about these things. I hope it’s coming across as direct and helpful and not “foo foo” and new age-y”