How Creativity Makes Us Feel Alive

Adapted from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

Our selves are constantly evolving as we learn more about the world and our own identities and seek meaning in our experiences.

According to Michael Piechowski, the process of inner transformation is itself a creative process, for through the process of advanced inner development, you are literally creating a new self. Similarly, Rosa Aurora Chávez-Eakle and colleagues note that “the creative process allows self-reorganizations that makes [it] possible to experience states that seem to be pathological. . . . A highly creative individual is in constant self-actualization. . . . Creativity makes life worth living, and involves a strong sense of being alive.” Or as Nietzsche put it, those who actively create and re-create themselves are truly “free spirits” — artistic creators of their own lives.

This sense of aliveness is beautifully captured in a seminal theory by Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowski. Through decades of experience with clinical and biographical studies of patients, artists, writers, spiritual teachers, and developmentally advanced children and adolescents, he became interested in understanding why some people’s interactions with the world seemed to be higher in intensity than others. Why do some people seem to fall in love, experience happiness and sadness, and engage with life with greater depth than others? And why is it that some children exhibit significantly higher levels of intellectual curiosity and imagination?

For Dąbrowski, the answer to these questions was overexcitability. He believed that “overexcitabilities”—heightened reactions to both the internal and external world—guide the self-transformation process to a higher level of development. According to Piechowski (who collaborated with Dąbrowski), these overexcitabilities intensify experiences, and are “channels through which flow the colors, textures, insights, visions, currents, and energies of experience.” Overexcitabilities are critical to becoming an authentic and autonomous individual.

Overexcitability can lead to inner emotional tension and constructive conflict with one’s environment, as well as the means to resolve these conflicts. In this way, intensity and sensitivity were believed to increase the likelihood that people would blossom into the fullest expressions of themselves—taking risks, seeking meaning, expressing themselves creatively, and seeking out opportunities for self-improvement. Of course, intensity and sensitivity do not automatically lead to personal growth. Indeed, writers and artists who concentrate on the muck of life, the ugly, and the brutal without any sign of hope or redemption aren’t necessarily reaching the highest levels of personal growth. Nevertheless, for Dąbrowski, the ability to intensely experience the world was a critical part of the capacity for inner transformation.

If you’ve tapped into your creative side, there’s a good chance that you’ll see yourself in at least one of Dąbrowski’s five types of overexcitability—psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, or emotional. Psychomotor overexcitability involves a surplus of physical energy and expression of emotional tension, expressed in rapid speech, compulsive chattering, intense physical activity, nail biting and picking, pencil tapping, and workaholism. With sensual overexcitability comes an appreciation of simple sensory pleasures arising from touch (feeling fabric or skin) and smell (perfumes, food, gasoline), and a delight in the aesthetic (music, color, sounds of words, writing styles, and other beautiful things). Sensual overexcitability can be exhibited in a tendency to overeat, attend musical concerts and art museums, and a high sexual libido. This enhanced sensitivity can also manifest itself as intense displeasure for overpowering smells, distasteful food, or as Cheryl Ackerman puts it, when “the seams on your socks don’t line up just right.”

Imaginational overexcitability suggests richness of imagination and the capacity to live in a world of fantasy. This is expressed through vividness of mental images, rich associations, use of metaphor in communication, and detailed dreams or nightmares, along with an interest in fantasy, poetry, magical tales, magical thinking, and imaginary friends. An overexcitable imagination can also give rise to a fear of the unknown. In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Imp of the Perverse,” Poe expresses the way that intensified imagination can lead to great anxiety:

“We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape . . . far more terrible than any genius or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought… it is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height.”

Indeed, a heightened level of imaginational overexcitability has been linked to higher levels of insomnia, anxiety, and fear of “the ultimate unknown” — death. But it also has also led to the creation of some of the greatest art, poetry, and literature.

Introspection, engagement in independent, reflective thought, and enjoyment of solving intellectual challenges are common indicators of intellectual overexcitability. This type of overexcitability can be expressed through curiosity, a need to search for truth and understanding, love of theory and analysis, conceptual integration, criticism, voracious reading, keen observations, and asking probing and insightful questions. Intellectual overexcitability is distinct from IQ — the latter involves general cognitive ability, while the former involves a love of engaging in the intellectual universe.

Finally, emotional overexcitability involves characteristics and behaviors that many artists embody. Intensified feelings and emotions, deep relationships, and feelings of compassion and responsibility toward self and others are hallmarks of this type of sensitivity, which can provide the fodder for great works of literature, music, and other forms of art exploring the human emotional landscape. Potential manifestations of this quality include deep and meaningful relationships, strong emotional memory, empathy and compassion for the feelings of others, shyness, depression, need for security, difficulty adjusting to new environments, critical self-evaluation, blushing, sweaty palms, and a racing heart. Piechowski writes of emotional sensitivity:

Combined with great imagination and intellectual power, [emotional sensitivity] may lead to brooding and devastating self-criticism. It may turn morbid or neurotic. Or it may mobilize one’s whole psyche toward the goal of self-realization in creativity.

The strongest support for these overexcitabilities comes from studies on highly creative adults, who show evidence of elevated levels of multiple overexcitabilities. These studies are consistent with research showing that openness to experience is a strong and consistent predictor of everyday creativity as well as publicly recognized creative achievement.

The overexcitabilities (and the sensitivity that gives rise to them) can be important contributors to personal growth. Through the process that Dąbrowski calls positive disintegration, the individual’s internal psychic landscape is fragmented and dismantled. This occurs when a lower-level personality (conforming and insecure) gives way to a higher-level personality (creative, passionate, and authentic).

Both positive and negative emotions play a critical role in the positive disintegration process. Even emotional experiences that we tend to think of as negative, like neurosis and inner conflict, can contribute to personality growth. These conflicts, if we engage with and learn from them, can set the stage for emotional development, creativity, and a rich inner life.

This disintegration process can occur at any age or stage of life. And when individuals bring more conscious effort and self- awareness into their personal growth, higher levels of personality development — and creativity — become possible. As we learn, grow, and transform, we can achieve higher levels of consciousness and authenticity, and live with greater agency, choice, and direction. Sensitivity, intensity, and inner conflict are required for us to transcend to greater levels of growth, self-awareness, and compassion.

At later phases of personality development, a quest to find the true self emerges. The individual no longer passively accepts external authority, but starts listening to his or her inner voice and making judgments based on his or her own standards. Through the process of transcending to the “higher self,” people often become aware of what Robert Greene refers to as the false self—“the accumulation of all the voices you have internalized from other people—parents and friends who want you to conform to their ideas of what you should be like and what you should do, as well as societal pressures to adhere to certain values.” Becoming intimate with these voices helps the individual to transcend them. As Joseph Campbell said, “It is by going down into the abyss that we discover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”

What lies at higher stages of this journey of personality development? Self-actualization and a desire to help others and solve problems in the world, rather than a preoccupation with one’s own petty concerns. Here, people develop universal compassion, service to humanity, and the realization of timeless values.

The culmination of the most advanced phase of personality development is the achievement of a guiding “personality ideal,” meaning that the ideal by which a person lives is inspired and fulfilled. At this phase, there is no longer inner conflict because there is no longer a difference between “what is” and “what ought to be.” The notion of a personality ideal is similar to Greene’s notion of the true self, whose “voice comes from deep within. . . . It emanates from your uniqueness, and it communicates through sensations and powerful desires that seem to transcend you.”

People who achieve extraordinary inner transformation find creative ways of solving problems, coping with emotional challenges, accepting themselves and others, and giving back. They seek to constantly give new meaning to their lives and discover their true selves — the self becomes an object of ongoing discovery and creation. They also discover that one’s inner world determines his or her external reality, that we each create our personal and collective reality, that our lives are interconnected, and that the choices we make shape the world toward war or peace. In other words, they discovered that “inner peace is the foundation of world peace” and that “everything we need is within us.” Indeed, after his review of these extraordinary lives, Piechowski concluded, “If we accept their discovery that we create our own reality, and that all the ‘material’ can be found within the inner self, then we have come upon creativity in the ultimate sense.”

An exemplar of self-actualization is Eleanor Roosevelt because of her “striving for independence, overcoming her great fears, development of her talents as a public speaker, writer, and politician, and her unswerving dedication to goals outside of herself.”

Roosevelt notes the importance of personal growth in her book The Moral Basics of Democracy: “Laws and government administration are only the result of the way people progress inwardly, and that the basis of success in a democracy is really laid down by the people. It will progress only as their own personal development goes forward.”

Transformation can come from nearly endless sources. Elizabeth Gilbert is often asked how people can go on a journey of self-discovery as she did, famously documented in her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, in which she spent a full year journeying through Italy, India, and Indonesia. In response, she notes:

The last thing I ever want to become is the Poster Child for “Everyone Must Leave Their Husband And Move To India In Order to Find God.” . . . It was my path — that is all it ever was. I drew up my journey as a personal pre- scription for solving my life. Transformative journeys come in many forms, though, and often happen without people ever leaving home.

Conscious personal development through the process of positive disintegration can be compared to how Swiss-American psychiatrist and grief researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously described the making of “beautiful people”:

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

Knowing loss, struggle, suffering, and defeat is crucial to the positive disintegration process and acts as catalyst for personal growth, creativity, and deep transformation. Rather than some- thing to be avoided or denied, it is the hardships and challenges — both internal and external — that make us beautiful. As Nietzsche poetically said, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

Though living with intense sensitivity often makes life more difficult, to be sure, psychologist Sharon Lind implores us to remember that being overexcitable also “brings with it great joy, astonishment, compassion and creativity.” And if we can make the best out of our difficult experiences, we are in an even better position to create meaningful work and develop a more complex identity.