Creative Blocks from A to Z: Negative Thinking

Artist's studio with drafting table and crumpled papers

Editor’s note: This article is the 14th in an A-Z series on issues related to creative blocks. This month we explore how negative thoughts can impede creativity.

Even though the occasionally elusive creative spark seems to originate from an unconscious or subconscious place, it is our conscious thoughts which, in fact, often act as gatekeepers for our creativity.

In particular, negative thoughts tend to communicate messages that directly oppose creative freedom and flexibility. Examples of such messages include:

  • “My work is not worth pursuing.”
  • “I have nothing important to say through my art.”
  • “The outcome will not be satisfactory, so what’s the point?”

I once worked with a professional musician who struggled to maintain positive and hopeful thinking about her music career. Her negative thoughts related to:

  • Career prospects: “Labels won’t want to release my work.”
  • The quality of her music: “Maybe I’m not that good.”
  • The music industry: “It’s a rigged game; there’s no way in.”

What followed these thoughts was a drop in motivation and a decrease in creative engagement and accomplishment. Working with her made it clear that the negative thoughts she was having directly affected her creativity and eventually blocked her to the point of going weeks without composing new or working on old music.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) have been shown to be effective in handling and overcoming negative thoughts. Both are based on the idea that the content of our thoughts can significantly shape our emotions and actions. Artists and other creative individuals often have negative thoughts about the quality of their work, the audience’s expected response, and their artistic integrity. CBT and DBT help reveal such negative thoughts in order to consciously accept or reject them.

Identifying what is helpful and what is not helpful about negative thoughts is also an important part of the process.

People cannot easily change what they cannot see. Therefore, bringing these thoughts to awareness (by journaling, talking about them, reflecting on them individually or in therapy) is an important part of making a change.

Identifying what is helpful and what is not helpful about negative thoughts is also an important part of the process. Some negative thoughts, such as, “My voice does not sound strong when I sing folk,” can be helpful as a singer tries to find the right vocal stylistic fit. Rather than this leading to a creative block, it might unleash momentum to explore singing, say, blues or jazz. On the other hand, a thought such as, “My voice sounds bad in this song, so I should not have pursued singing as a career,” is a non-helpful and potentially creativity-blocking thought.

Finally, challenging, evaluating, and replacing negative thoughts are necessary steps toward breaking down creative blocks. Being able to tell oneself, “Maybe that painting is not going to be hated by everyone,” or, “Maybe a flawless first attempt is not a requirement when drafting a novel,” can help liberate a person from creativity-blocking negative thinking.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Olga Gonithellis, MA, MEd, LMHC, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • nell

    nell

    April 5th, 2016 at 2:46 PM

    I would be pretty willing to bet that there is nothing else in this world that can hold you back quite the way that thinking negatively about oneself and one’s work can and will. If you think tat someone else doesn’t think that you are up to par, many times this is ok because you don’t really care about what they think.
    But when it is in your own head? Well those thoughts and feelings can be much harder to ignore. Be kind to yourself.

  • Perla

    Perla

    April 5th, 2016 at 5:08 PM

    I have those days when I feel like I can’t do anything right and that I am pretty much a failure at everything that I do.
    But after processing for a little bit and taking a step back from that I try to focus a little more clearly on all of the things that I do have in life, the things that I Am a success at and it helps me see that I am strong enough to make it past this little kink that has been placed in my way.
    The sailing may not be as smooth as I would have liked, but I can persevere by believing in myself.

  • Laney

    Laney

    April 7th, 2016 at 2:55 PM

    If you believe in yourself then you should be able to find something positive about yourself to fill in that hole where there is only negative right now.

  • glenn

    glenn

    April 12th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    When you start having so many negative thoughts about your work and your performance I think that it is only natural that this is going to begin invading every single aspect of your life. You may think that this is all compartmentalized but I can assure you that those long tentacles of negativity and anxiety will be everywhere that you start to look in your life/. I think that these things alone will definitely keep you from becoming the successful person that you are meant to be.

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