We’re Giving Creatives the Wrong Advice About Stress– and Here’s Why

by Dr. Jennifer Rhodes 

In 2013, Dr. Kelly McGonical gave an inspiring TED talk about stress.  According to her research, stress seems to only be harmful if you think it is.  In her talk and in her book that would follow, she encourages people to become friends with stress and to use the experience to build resilience.

This is not necessarily bad advice.  Stemming from the mindfulness movement, being able to sit with stress, not react to stress and to move beyond stress is what resilient individuals do every day.  Yet, that piece of the advice is being ignored in favor of telling creatives that they should seek a stressful life because it will make them more productive in the art world. And more productive is “better,” right?  In a recent ARTSY blog post, this was precisely the question posed.

This advice actually flies in the face of decades long research on both mindfulness and creativity.  As a licensed psychologist myself, I would never tell creatives to use stress to make themselves perform if that style was not a good fit for who they really are.

That’s right.  We are about to train a generation of creatives to ignore their own intuition and to listen to the demands of our culture on how to produce artwork from a one-size-fits-all perspective.  Last week, one of my interns thought it was weird that she was told in a class at a well known art school to take her time to produce just two pieces of work for the year. This used to be the norm–and it was the norm for a good reason. Now, students don’t know what to do with the time that they should use to be mindlessly wandering to ignite further creative thoughts.  Mindless wandering and following their curiosity is what helps creatives learn about their own creativity!

Many artists have been gifted with the ability to use their intuition and emotion to guide their creativity.  Yet, few understand who they really are or how to use these gifts to support their creativity. Having stress or negative emotions is not bad, but in the book The Upside of your Dark Side, Todd Kashdan, PhD states that you have to be able to label all of your emotional experiences to benefit from not being thrown by stress.  Most of us cannot do this. We report that we simply feel bad and miss the nuances in terms of what “bad” really means.  It is in these nuances, the ability to label and explain our experience that is the buffer from stress. According to Kashdan, if you are capable of understanding and labeling all your emotions, you will have a 40% reduction in the ill effects of the negative situation.

This makes a lot of sense to me.  However, our culture supports a manifesting, bulldozer attitude likely to make even the most capable person feel like a failure at some point.  Our attitude with creative entrepreneurs is that they should be doing all the time and if they are not doing they are failing.  What entrepreneurs and creatives alike need to do is get to know themselves well enough so that they can decide what works best for them individually. As a psychologist, I can attest that many people (especially those that are highly sensitive and creative) do not have these skills and it is in the lack of social-emotional skills that lay the triggers for suffering.

There is wisdom in learning to better understand your emotions and your stress.  This is why mindfulness is an important skill for some people to learn, but even mindfulness has its limitations when it comes to creativity.  Mindfulness needs to be balanced with mindlessness in order to innovate and create. It is why many business people get their most creative ideas when they travel on vacation.

Learning who you are is imperative to understanding how you best function.  In Kashdan’s book, he highlights research identifying the difference between being positive optimists and defensive pessimists.  In a separate research study by Dr. Julie Norem and Dr. Edward Chang found that positive optimists performed better in a dart throwing scenario when they relaxed first rather than thinking negatively, but the defensive pessimists did better when they were allowed to think strategically about the negative outcomes.  Defensive pessimists do perform better under stressful situations when they can strategize before the task. Further, they seem to handle negative emotions better and do not fall apart the way some positive optimists do – their lowest lows being not so low in comparison to others.

It is your relationship with yourself and your internal experience that matter most.  Knowing if you are really a positive optimist or someone who is naturally more of a defensive pessimist can help you navigate strategies to reframe whatever is causing you stress as an opportunity rather than a hurdle.  

Often, when we wish to avoid all negative emotions we actually end up causing our own misfortune.  Stress often has a story to tell, but we have to be willing to listen. It could be telling us that we are on the wrong life path, that something horrible is about to happen, or that our creative project is off in some way.

The only way to be able to hear these opportunities is to get to know yourself really well and choose to act from that framework.  One size fits all advice simply does not work. The human condition is far too complicated– and that’s a good thing. We just have to be careful that creatives don’t fall victim to the notion that productivity is what creativity is about. There is nothing creative about the mass production of work that is made simply to sell. Or about sending emotionally sensitive people the message that they are, again, not good enough.

The message from this line of research is clear, know yourself and just do you. Don’t avoid the emotions or that voice in your head.  There is wisdom in taking a step back to listen.

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