Trying to neatly work with creativity is a whole lot like trying to shove all those baggy t-shirts that breed in your closet into one tidy drawer. It just doesn’t work.
Creativity ebbs and flows in ways I believe we can learn to funnel but never control. My little spreadsheet brain resents this process. All of my life, I have been an overachiever. I don’t like my work? I’ll kill myself spending every waking hour on it. I feel unorganized? I’ll spend a Saturday re-doing my entire apartment. I’m feeling lonely? I’ll plan a jam-packed day out with friends. It’s a little insane. My brain seems to be always stuck on “get-it-done mode.” This is how I deal with feeling out of control and small. Regardless of how you manifest these feelings of inadequacy, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. You may watch 6 hours of Netflix instead of reorganize your pantry, but the sentiment is the same: we dull our own fears of not-enoughness by distracting ourselves with something else entirely.
This distraction roots in some weird subconscious stuff. The problem with creative work for a perfectionist is that those “foolproof” ways of working longer or harder are likely to only output frustration. Often, the hardest part to come to terms with is that you’ll never truly be done with a creative endeavor. There is no end of the packet, and there are no right answers. Ever. It’s a process where you make every call. My brain can be a real jerk during said process, usually after my distractions fail and all that’s left is me and the creative opportunity. My “not enough-ness” seems to echo from the vast cavity where a creative solution is waiting to be found. The valley of fear whispers into my soul words like, “If you were actually talented you’d already have the solution,” “Maybe you’re just bad at this,” “You have no place here,” and my personal favorite, “Look at what everyone else is producing. You’re not a hard enough worker, you might as well quit before you fail and let everyone down.”
That last fear of failure is the one that haunts me at 2am, and it is also the most ridiculous. Lazy has never been a word I have used to describe me. So why is it that one that cuts the deepest, darkest wound in my brain? I think what that one that makes me want to ball up and cry is because it would mean that trying my best will never be enough. My own energy and planning still leaves my work without meaning, and my personhood useless.
I always seem to forget that clinging to my own desire for control never works, so this cycle of shame keeps happening. I can’t seem to ever learn my lesson, and I feel like God is always whispering Ephesians 3:19 into my heart. It reminds me of the joy “to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” When I forget that love is better than having the right answers, I fall into the trap of lies that my awkwardness will stand between me touching others, my past mistakes are too big and dirty to be forgiven, or that I am too small to ever accomplish something truly creative.
By allowing these lies to grow, I allow shame to take the throne where Grace belongs.
Shame is soul-crushing and all-consuming. Shame tells you that you never have been and never will be enough, and dreaming too big or trying too hard will only result in more failure. Shame replaces your identity as a wholly alive, beautiful, loved child of God and tells you that broken is your real label. The greatest injustice is that by keeping you down, shame keeps you from your purpose.
When I don’t take measures to keep myself from walking too close to my valley of perfectionism and shame, I get off track. I forget that paths are rarely from A to B, and that this journey is teaching me things I may not even know I need yet. Love has given me a path, and he has not given it to me so I can perform for him. Why would the God of everything need me to show off my tiny human skills? Instead of performance, he teaches love. Love for the work I do, love for the process, and even love for myself when I don’t live up to my expectations.
Perfectionism can’t ever earn Grace. So why would it be able to earn anything else in my life?
By allowing creativity to move in and make itself comfortable, a beautiful bond can form. By working together and without pressure, creativity and my brain can spend hours simmering over beautiful ideas and people, knitting together something completely new. Only by releasing my desire for the right answers and perfect paths can I find that joy and love God wants from me. The funny thing is that by releasing the pressure for output, good ideas are more likely to come. Creativity is fickle like that.
If you’re feeling like you’re walking too close to the shame valley, put down the pencil. Funnel that energy elsewhere for an hour. Go for a run. Listen to a podcast. Read a book. Take a nap. Make some mistakes and frame them as mile markers on your journey away from perfect. Give yourself permission to be gloriously, deliciously alive and love it. Living in grace has a way of springing up a well of wonderfully unpredictable creativity.
NOTE: If you’re battling your own valley in creativity, turn off your phone, make some tea, cozy up in your favorite spot, and open one of these gems of truth:
- “Shut Your Monkey: How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Done.” Daniel Gregory has written the best, most helpful book ever for creatives. If you’re struggling, order this RIGHT NOW. I don’t care what you’re doing. This is for your mental health and the work you can do for the world, dude.
- “The Creative Habit” Twyla Tharp is a dancer who believes creativity thrives in structure and out of habit. For planners, this is a beautiful release for the belief people with less structured brains are just naturally going to be better at creative work. We can do it, and we can have plans to do it! And it’s still creative! Yay!
- “Steal Like an Artist” This short, easy read is the perfect coffee table reminder of what creativity looks like. No, you’re not an empty mayo jar of sadness and dumb ideas. You can use the world around you to spark something new. I found freedom in realizing people usually don’t naturally have a spring of beautiful, shiny ideas that come from nothing. Artists steal. It’s all good.
- “You are Loved No Matter What” Holly Gerth’s writing was a breath of fresh air for me. I re-read it often because I love it so much. No, this book is not directly about creativity. It’s about understanding your worth, finding freedom from perfectionism, and living without fear. If that isn’t a firm foundation to let creativity happen, I don’t know what is.T