Unused Creativity Can Make You Sick
How to Spark Your Imagination
Back when I first qualified as a psychologist I heard a colleague trying to explain depression to her nearly 80-year-old dad.
“I don’t understand why people get so down,” he said. “They should go out in the shed and make something.”
He was mystified by the concept of low mood. To him, the cure for all melancholy was to engage physically, to use your hands, to make or build something.
It took me years to understand the truth in his words.
Psychologists have to be careful here. It would be irresponsible to cite “making stuff” as a substitute for the specialist intervention required to treat moderate to severe depression.
But you can’t work with people therapeutically for more than a decade and fail to notice creative expression is vital to robust health — both physical and mental. And to stifle it, is to risk sickness and malaise.
I recently listened to author Elizabeth Gilbert’s interview with researcher and storyteller Brene Brown on Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons.
“Unused creativity is not benign,” Brown said. “It festers, it metastasizes into resentment, grief and heartbreak.”
It struck me as a big call to align creativity with harmful illness, such as a cancer.
Yet it reminded me of the many unwell people I’ve seen over the years who had let their creativity dry up or — perhaps even worse —had never tapped into or acknowledged it. And the even greater number who, once they engaged in ideas, in doing and making things, began to feel better, healthier and more alive.
But I Can’t Draw!
Many who claim a lack of creativity can track their Art Scars to childhood.
Brown’s research showed 85% of people (surveyed) remembered an event at school so shaming it changed how they thought of themselves and the rest of their lives. And half of them said their shame wounds related to creativity — being dismissed, embarrassed, or belittled in their attempts to “make things”.
For those who carry those creative wounds into adulthood, it can be a source of regret or deep resentment. Sadly, it can also lead you to close down your imagination, to think and behave by rote, so that your days are drained of colour and life.
Equally, using your imagination to make things can distract you from your problems, keep you in the present moment, allay your overthinking and fill your time constructively.
Making Stuff is the simplest Mindfulness exercise of all.
To have a new experience, to bring something into the world that has been dreamt up or made by you, can bring you a sense of accomplishment you can’t get any other way. It’s a means, however small, of making your own unique mark on the world.
So. Just Do Something.
Too many of us deny our creativity with statements such as I can’t draw. I’m not imaginative. I don’t have any original ideas. Enough with the excuses; everyone is creative — those who say they’re not are either not tapping into their own source or not noticing it when they do.
It’s never too late to open up your creative side or, if its been dormant, to give it a reboot. Here’s a simple exercise to help.
- Write down all the things you enjoy doing. (e.g. coding, cooking, sports and physical activities, playing with kids, Lego/model making, sewing, crafts, doodling, designing/organising your house, building, gardening, sports or fitness training, cleaning, running your business, driving or working on your car, writing poems, blogging, playing music and the like).
- Pick one of them and brainstorm one fresh way you could approach it. Say try a new recipe or pattern; a better, faster more efficient, more attractive way of doing or making something? Add a new exercise to your training or a new component to your business?
If it feels hard or stressful, trace or copy someone else’s work or use a pre-made pattern and just join the dots. Whatever it is, you’ll put your own spin on it. And if you don’t get a buzz out of it, try something else — and challenge yourself to keep going.
Tapping into your creativity is not a catch-all cure for depression even though therapists see the evidence it offers for improved mental health, over and over again.
But if you neglect the artist within, whatever he or she looks like, you’re denying yourself one of the most powerful natural medicines of all.