Emerging From Perfectionism Into Spontaneity
Creative blocks come in all shapes and sizes, and I’d love to explore them all thoroughly, but that will take all day. So we’ll just talk about one. This is a place where many people find themselves stuck.
You have lots and lots of ideas when you’re in the shower, or when you’re going for a walk, or when you wake up in the middle of the night. But then you show up to your sketchbook, or your notepad, or your computer - or wherever it is you do your creative work - and suddenly, like magic, all the ideas are gone.
The “evil magician” behind this disappearing act is often our Inner Perfectionist. People sometimes say “inner critic,” but I like to avoid that term. The Inner Critic isn’t just a voice in your head. It’s a whole system - it’s home to your preconceptions, your ideas of yourself, some of your traumas, judges from your past, and, very importantly, your quality control. Part of our work as creative beings is unpacking the Inner Critic. It takes a long time, and a lot of dedication.
But you don’t have to unpack your entire Inner Critic in order to be able do your creative work. In the short term, it’s often enough to foster spontaneity.
Our Inner Perfectionist is part of our “Inner Critic”. It actually has a very important function - quality control. You need your Inner Perfectionist at the end of your work, when you’re sorting out the little details; or when you’re creating an overall structure - like plotting out a novel, or laying out the composition of a painting. At that stage it’s important to make sure everything is just right.
One time you positively don’t need your Inner Perfectionist is at the very beginning when you just sit down at your work. At this moment you need spontaneity - the ability to just splurge everything down onto your page.
As you sit down to create new elements of your project, your creative impulse needs to be free. If every time you try to record something permanent your inner voice starts shouting “This is stupid!” or “No one’s going to like that!” then you’ll never be able to get started.
So how do we work with this situation? I’m going to break it down into two elements.
You know the expression “my mind went blank?” Well, that’s pretty descriptive of that feeling of sitting down and suddenly feeling blocked.
The thing is, it’s not just your mind. Creativity is a physical experience that involves the whole body. And when you feel blocked it happens everywhere, not just in your head.
Here is a personal story. I grew up in a household with a lot of criticism. My grandmother was a literature teacher, and she was a complete perfectionist when it came to grammar. She would pick up on the smallest grammatical error, and would punish or ridicule even a dropped syllable. She was also prone to exploding in anger.
Throughout my life, I found it very difficult to speak spontaneously in social situations. Every time my impulse to say something would pipe up, my Inner Perfectionist would slam down, hard. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make a mistake? What if I phrase it the wrong way? What if I mumble?
This meant I was usually the silent person in any group. But not because I didn’t have anything to say. On the contrary - I had a lot to say, and couldn’t say it, which was agonising.
What I’ve had to do over the years is recognise my own physical response in social situations - the way my whole body freezes if I get scared to speak. And then learn to manage that in order to feel safe again.
This is analogous to slamming down on our own creative impulse when we sit down to record something on the page, canvas, or in our chosen medium. Our creative self doesn’t feel safe to come out and put anything out there. So it just shuts up. But not because it has nothing to say - it’s just too frozen to say it, and this can feel like torture.
How we create safety for ourselves and step out of a fight/flight/freeze response is a whole topic for professional therapists and clinicians - and I’m not going to cover even a fraction of it in a blog post. But I will name one very important element: awareness.
How does your body feel when you suddenly find you can’t put your ideas out there? Do you feel tight? Tense? Do you get a headache? Do you feel breathless? Finding these experiences and naming them is a very big step in the right direction.
You can’t work with something if you don’t know it’s happening in the first place. Once you find some of the physical symptoms of feeling unsafe in your own creative space, you can also explore what helps you step out of that fight/flight/freeze response. You can try going for a walk, stretching, breathing, even bouncing a ball against a wall.
Rhythmic things which involve your whole body - like walking - are often very helpful. If you’re happy to put on some music and dance across your living room, that works great too! So does changing your space - so go outside, go make a cup of tea, just make sure you come back again when you’re feeling better.
Just changing your state isn’t enough, you also have to practice spontaneity. For many of us, just sitting down and putting something spontaneously onto the page can be very difficult.
Spontaneity is a skill that we have to practice. And we practice it through improvisation.
Improvisation is a wonderful tool. Simply, it means coming to your creative medium - whether that’s a canvas and some paints, pen and paper, your musical instrument, your dance studio, etc. - and just playing around.
Playing around means having no goal in mind, no judgment, no idea you’re working on. Just playing for the sake of fun.
Sometimes it helps to approach our medium in the state of beginner’s mind - the attitude that you’re experiencing something for the first time. Beginner’s mind is a concept from mindfulness, and much has been written about it. Here’s a good article if you’re curious: https://mindfulambition.net/beginners-mind/
Approach your practice like you’re seeing it for the first time. How would a child experience the piano if she’s never seen one before? Press on a key, and see what it sounds like. Play a “melody” full of wrong notes. Play with your whole hands, rather than just your fingers. See what happens.
You can apply this principle to painting, dance, music, writing - anything. (For writing in particular, free writing/stream-of-consciousness is a very useful strategy.)
But there is one really important caveat here: privacy.
I don’t just mean literal privacy in the room. I mean emotional privacy to make something without having to worry about anyone’s judgment.
Sometimes if we sit down to write or draw a picture, we can bring the attitude “I’ll just doodle for a bit, but if it comes out well I’ll post it on social media.” This means you’re not giving yourself adequate privacy! Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re piling on the pressure to make a good enough sketch to share it with others.
I strongly recommend that your improvisations happen in a true private space. That might mean you make a pact with yourself that you will throw away the paper once you’re done with it! You can have a failsafe - if you really like something you’ve improvised, maybe you’ll copy it out into a notebook, or keep it to develop later.
You might really hate the feeling of improvising something knowing that you’ll only throw it away, or keep it in a drawer - and that’s okay. You can try to give yourself the task to do something badly. Draw the worst picture you possibly can. Write the worst poem. Script the world’s most god-awful love scene. What’s the harm? You’ll only throw it away later.
There is tremendous freedom in being able to do something badly. This way we get used to making mistakes.
Being comfortable making mistakes is essential for having spontaneity!
Time taken to explore and improvise is never wasted. Even if it produces no “result”. Even if, in the end, you throw away the paper. It’s an essential part of your creative practice.
Putting it all together
Once you’ve taken the time to cultivate your spontaneity, you can use it to circumvent your Inner Perfectionist.
If you’re able to notice your perfectionist stepping in and causing a block - for example, you feel that you’re getting tense and nervous - you can take a moment and change your state. Get up, go for a little stroll around the room, hop on one foot, do some yoga, or whatever works for you.
Then you can come back to your creative project and ask your Inner Perfectionist to step aside. You’re not telling it to go away forever! Instead, you can honour why it’s there, and say:
“I know you want this project to turn out well. I know you’re trying to help me. And that’s why you’re telling me about all the judgment other people will pass. I’ll need you at another stage of the process, but right now, I need my spontaneity.” Then give yourself some private space - that is, permission to create your work without showing it to anyone. You can say to yourself, “This is the first draft, I’m not going to be showing it to anyone without some edits.”
Then splurge your ideas into the page, mistakes and all.
I know I make it sound easy, but reality might be different - and highly individual for everyone. So I’d love to know what you think. Does this topic resonate with you?
Let me know in the comments.