Creative blocks, or barriers to inspiration, can be described as the inability to access one’s internal creativity. Those in creative professions—writers, musicians, performers, artists—are often more likely to be affected by creative blocks, which can last for days, weeks, months, or even years.
When creative blocks surface, they can affect work, performance, and well-being, but a mental health professional may be able to help individuals work through creative blocks and access their creativity once more.
A creative block might be experienced by anyone, for a number of reasons. Many writers, artists, and musicians reported periods of stalled creativity at some point in their careers, F. Scott Fitzgerald and cartoonist Charles Schultz among them. It can be difficult to get past a creative block, but often simply becoming aware of when, how, and why a creative block develops can help a person work to address the creative block and prevent it from returning.
One’s inner critic, often useful in the process of completing work or developing one’s role in society, can sometimes come to dominate certain aspects of feelings or behavior. This self-critique may sometimes be overcome through focused meditation that acknowledges the internal critic but disregards it. A need for approval might also stifle the creative process. Author Jeffrey Eugenides said in an article for the New Yorker, "No one is waiting for you to write your first book. No one cares if you finish it. But after your first, if it goes well, everyone seems to be waiting."
"No one is waiting for you to write your first book. No one cares if you finish it. But after your first, if it goes well, everyone seems to be waiting." - Jeffrey Eugenides
Some may fear that their work or ideas will not be appreciated and hold back out of fear of rejection or failure. A fear of the unknown may also be a factor in the development of creative blocks. One might worry that a discussion of certain ideas, even through a media outlet, may have unforeseen circumstances and resist expressing these ideas.
Some more recent bodies of research, such as that undertaken by neurologist Alice Flaherty, suggests a biological theory for the development of blocks. However, her belief that creative blocks may originate due to issues in the frontal lobe of the brain are still controversial.
Creative blocks may also occur as a result of:
- The death of a loved one or the end of a relationship
- A lack of financial support
- The depletion of all creative energy after a fully immersed period of creating
- Self-doubt, both pertaining to ability and talent
- Repeated rejection of one's work
- Anxiety regarding the outcome of a project or task
- The need for perfection
- The dependence on substances to be creative
- Onset of an illness or medical condition
- A sudden loss of meaning and purpose in one's work
- Negative self-talk or criticism
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Some turn to substances to resolve creative blocks, and the abuse of substances can lead to further harm, such as addiction.
Creative blocks may also be experienced along with a mental health concern or other issue, though the issue experienced may or may not have led to the block. An individual experiencing depression or the effects of trauma, for example, may find it difficult to access creativity. Major changes or events in life may also lead to diminished inspiration or the inability to produce creative work.
A lapse of creativity may lead some to believe that their creative careers have ended, and this belief may have a significant impact on one's mental or emotional state of mind. In therapy, a mental health professional can help a person explore concerns associated with a lack of inspiration or creative production. A person in therapy may be able to explore potential causes of creative block and develop methods to overcome it. The experience of creative block can be normalized, and when an individual's perception of creative blockage becomes distorted, a therapist can help the individual to reframe negative thoughts. Doing so may help ease anxiety, stress, and panic associated with stalled creativity, and therapists may also be able to help those in treatment accept that some stalling of inspiration is typically a natural part of the creative process.
When a person experiences depression, anxiety, and stress along with a creative block, therapy can often help address and resolve these issues. A therapist will often take into consideration how the inability to create may contribute to symptoms. Therapists who express understanding of the creative process may be able to assist with the development of coping skills and strategies to work through creative blocks, which may be helpful in the future.
Certain types of therapy may be beneficial in different ways:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy places the main focus on the issue causing the creative block and helps the person in treatment identify and understand any connection between thoughts and behavior.
- Mindfulness-based approaches also help those in therapy recognize how one's thought process may be connected to behavior, but these approaches aim to help individuals disengage from any harmful or negative thoughts.
- Art therapy can help individuals work through creative blocks by providing them with tools to inspire creativity and work through any issues that are blocking inspiration. The use of structured or unstructured art during a blocked period has been shown to help individuals overcome stalled creativity.
Those who have experienced creative blocks may have turned to a variety of strategies to address their inability to produce. Some find that changing a long-standing daily routine is an effective method. Some suggest leaving one's workspace to restart creative processes. One study goes beyond this, showing that exposure to different cultures can awaken the brain and improve one's ability to solve problems and think in different ways. For many, solitude is also an important part of the creative process, and finding time to be alone, away from technology or distractions, may help facilitate a renewed sense of creativity.
Some artists and writers find that working through a creative block is possible. For example, some authors report writing for a certain amount of time each day, regardless of distraction or lack of focus. Others hold themselves to a daily word count or minimum number of pages. They may not always care for what they have produced, but they have produced something, which may encourage them to continue.
The feeling that a creative work is worth nothing if it is less than perfect may strike some creators, from time to time. Although perfection is not necessarily a harmful goal, tendencies toward perfectionism may stall the creative process and prevent one's natural flow of inspiration from flourishing. When this is the case, it can often be helpful to reexamine goals and consider ways in which perfectionism may detract from one's creativity.
- Creative block experienced after death of mother: Anastasia, 37, the author of three bestselling novels, seeks therapy for depression and anxiety. She reports that these concerns have affected her ability to write. The deadline for the first draft of her next novel is causing her stress, as she has very little written and has found it difficult to maintain her motivation. She tells the therapist that she is "simply not inspired anymore." The passion behind her earlier novels has left her, she states with some regret. She dreads entering her office each day, worried that she will not be able to complete this novel or any others. The therapist inquires about Anastasia's life in an effort to identify areas that may be contributing to her writer's block. Anastasia shares information about the two men she is casually seeing, her close-knit circle of friends, and her satisfaction with her home and community. However, further discussion reveals that Anastasia lost her mother nearly a year earlier and her dog several months ago. She tells the therapist that grieving them both was difficult but that she has "moved on." The therapist encourages Anastasia to consider the impact of both deaths, and Anastasia, after taking some time to consider, admits that although she was fairly close with her mother, she did strive to succeed as a writer in order to gain her recognition and approval. Anastasia's mother loved her, she tells the therapist, but she often looked at her "with a sense of bemused resignation," as if knowing she would never compare to her successful older sister. The therapist normalizes Anastasia's conflicting thoughts regarding her mother and asks her to consider the possibility that her mother's death may have contributed to the onset of her creative block. Anastasia continues in therapy to further process the grief around her mother's death and her frustration with the inability to discuss certain issues with her mother, which, she agrees, may have some effect on her writing process. Several weeks of discussion and goal clarification help Anastasia find her inspiration, and she begins to write with a renewed sense of purpose--to please herself.
- Blocked. (2004, June 14). Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/06/14/blocked
- Glei, J. (2010, June 27). The Cure for Creative Blocks? Leave Your Desk. Retrieved from http://99u.com/articles/6650/the-cure-for-creative-blocks-leave-your-desk
- Rogers, N. (1993). The Creative Connection: Expressive Arts as Healing (pp. 18-25). Palo Alto, California: Science & Behavior Books.