How to understand and overcome “creative dysmorphia”.
For some of us, creativity can be both a beloved and much needed companion while simultaneously, acting like an unrelenting berating beast, a harsh judge and critic.
For a decade, I have walked over coals trying to find a place of peace when I create work, whether it’s writing, printmaking or even cooking.
I’ve read almost every book on the fear of art making and creativity and while the advice was helpful and I’d be enthused for a few days, I’d inevitably slowly slip back into loathing my work and by extension, into self-loathing. It was a perpetual cycle of Make. Hate. Loath. Stop. Make. Hate….you get the idea.
I’ve struggled with this for a long time, but I recently had an epiphany. As a beginner, what you produce isn’t going to be anything like the image inside your head, to produce the type of work that requires years of practice. Ira Glass refers to this as “The Gap”. He beautifully explains that you have good taste but the work you produce as a beginner disappoints you. He says a lot of people ‘never get past this phase; they quit.” Hello!
But I take it one step further. Those of us who are highly self-critical, self-judgement, perfectionists, can harbour distorted beliefs and thoughts, but I also think this can lead to literally seeing things in a distorted way, what I call Creative Dysmorphia.
This is a really challenging dysfunction, hard to change, but an interview I listened to recently broke through.
A little background first. Like anyone who grows up with overly critical parents, I believed that making mistakes was to be avoided at all costs, and as I kept making them, (show me a child who doesn’t), I naturally associated this inability to do things right the first time, as a flaw in my capabilities, including my intelligence. You know the internal dialogue, “Are you kidding me! You stuffed that up again? What the heck is wrong with you? Seriously, how many times do you have to be told?”
Anyone who’s had these conversations in their head and done some work to understand these voices, will know that these are not our original thoughts. This is NOT how a child thinks. A child will say, “Oops, I spilt my milk. Ooh, look at how it flows around the table and makes a funny pattern!”
Let’s be clear here. I’m not blaming parents who do the best they can with what they know. Nor am I saying we shouldn’t teach children to take care or avoid dangerous places, people etc. In many households, spilling milk can be a very big deal if you don’t have any money and each drop of milk is as precious to you as gold. But there are gentle ways of helping a child understand consequences. Both my parents grew up with very little money, plus they both had dysfunctional parents themselves, so they did not learn how to inform and educate their children without using harsh language.
While it’s helpful to know this, those early ingrained messages are cemented into our subconscious, and therefore are harder to shift, and finding new ways of changing our deep-seated beliefs takes time and effort.
The other downside of constantly feeling like you’re incompetent and not good at anything, is that for some of us it can lead to feeling not just hopeless, but helpless too. Feeling hope-less means that you no longer allow yourself to hope that things can change or get better, and that includes your own creative output.
When I started learning to draw as a teenager, I was eager and thought I could improve with time. But as the criticisms started to bite hard, I associated my other failings in life, with everything I did. In her book, Change Your Thinking, Sarah Edelman refers to overgeneralising as drawing “negative conclusions about ourselves, other people and life situations.” Common terms include, ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘everybody’. ‘I always mess things up’ is one I know well, particularly when it comes to creativity.
Clearly perfectionism is at play here and because it’s such a hard demon to beat, it can lead to a sense of disempowerment and and so we give up. I write more about this here. And, no I’ve not posted a story in…forever…due to perfectionism and hating my work!
Feeling helpless to change situations as a child also leads to feeling helpless as an adult. While some parts of my life succeeded, eg: work and relationships, the thing closest to my heart, the thing that made me who I am, a creative person, failed miserably. I‘d subconsciously convinced myself that it was better not to try anything creative, rather than discover that my deepest love was unattainable. I was convinced, that I would never be good enough at creative pursuits. I’d believed I was totally flawed as a human being.
So, what was it about that interview that struck a chord?
The interview was conducted by Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard and her guest was Turia Pitt. The talk was called Turia Pitt on determination, defying expectations and taking up space.
Despite learning about how many people overcome challenges over the years, like a slow water drip forming a hollow in a rock, it was Julia’s interview with Turia that finally cracked the concrete in my subconscious brain and let in the light of awareness.
For a start, Julia Gillard is a tower of strength in her own right. As PM, She endured constant critique about her appearance and was subjected to horrid misogynistic behaviour.
Her guest, Turia is also a prime example of grit and determination. She had not only become a successful mining engineer in a male-dominated space but she also defied the odds when at 24, during a marathon, she was caught in a grassfire and sustained burns to 65% of her body.
Turia not only survived but she also returned to work, became a mum and returned to running, her determination helped her defy the odds of not just basic survival, but she has gone on to grow and flourish. Her story was so inspiring it made me reflect on what my own response would have been if I was in her shoes.
I hate to say it, but while my instinct would have been to fight for survival, my response to recovery might have been one of helplessness because that’s all I knew. Self-determination and strength were not qualities I learnt growing up.
So, what do we do when we discover that as children, we were not gifted the most essential life skills we need, to not just survive but to thrive as adults? We read books, get help from a counsellor and listen to interviews with people who show us that there are other ways to respond to life’s challenges.
Well meaning people often tell me that I just need to keep practicing, keep making my art and I will improve. Until now, this kind of advice has not helped because more often than not, my beginner art looks so ugly to me, and I just toss the thing out in disgust and walk away, vowing to never return! But I do. What’s in our hearts will not be denied. The pain associated with these feelings tells me that this is important to me and I have to find a way to remove the shackles.
When I recently reflected on my ‘hate’ reaction to my art, I saw it almost like some kind of body dysmorphia except it’s a “creativity dysmorphia”. Could it be that my brain has internalised so much of the criticism I heard as a child that it now view even my art in a distorted way?
According to neuroscience, yes it does. We all have brains with a negativity bias, but layer this with negative conditioning and of course you’ll double the effect of this bias and distorted way of thinking and seeing.
I’m sure you’ve seen this in action. You’ll be with a friend and comment on what a beautiful day it is and her response? “Yeah, but it won’t last. I heard rain and storms are coming.” Or, say to your friend’s father, “Your daughter is a good woman.” Her father’s response, “Oh yeah? You should have seen how naughty she was when she was a little girl.”
People with a strong negativity bias, are unable to say, “Yes ,it is a lovely day” and leave it at that, or “Yes, she is a good woman” without going to the past and focussing on the negative.
So, my dear friends who have inherited strong negativity biases and negative self-talk, I invite you to use Turia’s or any other strong person like Nelson Mandela, or a survivor of war, injury, or abuse, someone you can relate to, and try to embody some of their strengths and skills. Let’s channel the strengths of our Inspirational Person.
This week I’ve landed a horrid flu and have been feeling sorry for myself, but I remembered Turia’s fight against her horrific burns and I felt a bit ridiculous for whining like a baby. I thought of Turia, had a pep talk with myself, and found a little nugget of strength rise inside of me. I stopped complaining immediately. If a young 24-year-old Turia can do it, so can I.
So how does this relate to creativity? Very nicely in fact. Here’s how I use this new information.
Being aware of my negativity bias and possibly some kind of “creativity dysmorphia”, I visualise myself doing some much-needed and well overdue repairs inside my brain. I see myself culling and replacing those thick negative neural pathways and replacing them with life-affirming, helpful ones. I know those old thoughts were developed to help me as a child, but they no longer serve me and they have to go.
Emotionally this is painful work, but I remind myself of the courage of people like Turia who have to not only fight challenging emotional battles, but physical ones too. Again. If she can do it, so can I.
I don’t want to diminish the pain of self-loathing but in my new attempt at restoring some positive thoughts, I’m making an effort to focus on the gifts in my life, like family, friends and physical health.
So, how to accept and not loathe what you make?
Before I start any creative pursuit, especially the ones I know might trigger me, try the following:
- Put on some music that you love. Dance a little and shake out any tension.
- Light a candle and take a few deep breaths. Close your eyes if possible and visualise releasing all expectations. You might want to see your high expectations as a prickly seed pod that you place on a large leaf and send it floating away down a nearby stream. Or perhaps you can visualise an elephant stopping on it and crushing it to pieces. Whatever works for you.
- Grab an A5 or A4 piece of paper, and in large letters, write, “Whatever comes out of my efforts today, will help me move forward”, and place the paper next to where you’re working. Look at it regularly especially when those icky feelings start bubbling up into your head.
The last point is important. My well-meaning friends and mentors were right, the only way to improve is to practice. At times the work will sing, at other times it will totally suck! But, the key is to nuture that growing seed of determination and strength, channel your inspirational person and keep going!
I’ve realised that as we improve, we will naturally want to push the boundary a little, so in effect, we are constantly beginners. But, each time we master a skill, we are one step further up the ladder. Here’s the thing, the climb upwards never ends if we are to pursue growth and improvement.
Don’t be disheartened by that last comment. It’s also ok to stop and enjoy the view for a while when you succeed at reaching the next step. Just remember that the gift of climbing a staircase is that you are going up, and the view is way better up there.
Accepting even our ‘ugly’ work is essential to improving. Without ‘mistakes’ we don’t know what works and what doesn’t. So keep gently climbing friends and I hope the self-loathing eases and the visual dysmorphia morphs into loving eyes that see things as they really are, not distortions from old demons.