What To Do when You’re Feeling Shut down, Uninspired or Creatively Blocked
Creativity is the canary in the coal mine of your unconscious mind.
When people are having artistic/creative blocks it’s a sign that there are other problems, perhaps some you aren’t even aware of- beneath the surface.
Artists are often creative and prolific during times of stress, heartbreak, and mental illness. At times, art is the saving grace that helps them to survive. However, when an artist is experiencing creative blocks/ shutdown I’ve found that there is almost ALWAYS an emotional, psychological or life/stress reason.
There was during a time in my life where I had a side business painting oil portraits of people's pets. It was fun and I was usually able to finish the paintings quickly and enjoy the process. It was nice to make something lighthearted that I wasn’t that attached to. Here is an example of one I had so fun painting:
A few years into the business I was asked to create a painting of three Daschounds as a favor for a friend as a gift for one of their friends. I wasn’t working directly with the owners of the dogs and wasn’t getting paid for the project. No matter how many times I tried to paint these dogs, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t think of a situation to put them in that felt interesting, I couldn’t get anything down on the canvas that even looked like the dogs. I sincerely believed it was because daschounds were “annoying to look at” and because I had only been given blurry reference photos of them (which honestly didn’t help).
For months and months, I anguished, idealess, over this painting. I started and restarted it several times on several different canvases. To be honest, I never finished it. I couldn’t. Every time I went to work on it I completely shut down. It remained a point of contention between me and the person who asked me to paint the painting for a long time.
So at the time, I couldn’t put my finger on WHY I couldn’t paint those dogs.
In retrospect, I understand why. It was because of the relationship between the person who commissioned the painting and I, and the poor boundaries I had set around the value of my work. Beyond the personal relational issues pre-existing in the relationship, in the case of this specific painting, I hadn’t defined a space for the basic conditions I needed in which to feel creative- good reference photos and ensuring that my time and efforts were being respected in regards to financial value.
SIGNS OF CREATIVE SHUTDOWN
If you’re reading this article I think you are probably able to recognize the signs of feeling creatively shut down. Maybe you're procrastinating some work you “should be” doing by reading this blog. It’s usually a feeling of heaviness, brain fog, boredom or anxiety. Nothing interesting comes to your mind. It can feel sort of hopeless. You wonder how you’ve ever done anything valuable or even if-POOF- you’ve used up to all your good ideas. This is when you might start thinking about all sorts of horrible things about yourself.
THINGS TO CONSIDER TO MOVE THROUGH THE BLOCK
Start with a basic self-care assessment - Artists and creatives are notorious for forgetting that their body has needs which can actually have a huge impact on how they feel and their capacity to create work.
Are you thirsty? Drink water. Are you hungry? Try eating. Tired? Take a nap or go to bed. Would some physical activity like a walk, a yoga class, or a run help you move some stagnation out and help you think more clearly? Do that. Are You Drunk? Sober up! (This may sound silly, but in my experience artists can be so focused that at times they forget to meet their basic needs when they are prioritizing a creative project, and not even notice that they’re doing so).
So if all those things are taken care of, and you’re still feeling shutdown, there’s probably something deeper going. Here are a few ideas of areas that could be causing creative blocks:
RELATIONAL DYNAMICS CONNECTED TO THE PROJECT
Are you frustrated, angry or annoyed with someone who is intrinsic to the creation of this project- your editor, your client, your producer, your co-creator? Is there a relational under current or communication pattern that shutting you down? Do you feel financially undervalued and need to negotiate a different rate?
Can you discuss your feelings with this person in a safe, calm way? If you have frequent patterns of relational problems creating fiction and problems with your work, there may be something deeper going- perhaps the process of working with people is up issues from your childhood. It may be worth thinking about what is coming up for you and how this may be reflective of things in your past. If this is a pattern you have noticed you frequently engage in there is most likely things for you work through related to relationships and collaboration.
Post-Partum Project Syndrome
Could this be related to a recent project? Did you have a big win recently that you feel shut down by? Perhaps there is so much pressure to maintain, recreate or one-up the recent project that you are feeling really shut down. This is a complicated one to work through because feeling like you're competing with your past self is incredibly confusing and can feel quite scary.
Perfectionism and artists is a complicated ball of worms. It is often the artist’s perfectionism that drives them to reach a new levels AND at the same time perfectionism creates all sorts of problems and can even prevent you from being able to produce any work at all. All those cliches about perfectionism have value, “Perfect is the enemy of the good”, etc, etc. Perfectionism will shut down the greatest project, artist, and idea. When you’re consistently evaluating your work as you create it that process shuts down the playfulness and spontaneity that is often necessary to get in the zone and create. Perfectionism may prohibit you from being able to start, finish or enjoy your work.
Being shut down by perfectionism is complicated and different people have reasons for their perfectionist tendencies, so understanding and working through the meaning, reasons and ways of being a perfectionist is complicated and unique for each person.
Are you depressed?
Creative people are often moody and emotional, but there are times when your feelings go beyond moody. In this case, feeling creatively shut down can be a symptom of a bigger issue. It’s not uncommon for someone to feel unable to work when they are depressed. Guilt is a symptom of depression - so you may feel depressed and unable to create and the guilty that you’re not making anything. If this is the case, it’s important to find a therapist and work on the underlying causes of your depression.
HUGE LIFE CHANGE THAT SUCKS UP YOUR CREATIVE LIFE FORCE
Did you recently move? Start a new job? Have a baby? Did someone you love die? Are you Heartbroken?
Sometimes when life happens it takes up all the psychic space and energy you have for a while. You may need to process what you are going through, or even - finish going through it before you’ll feel truly inspired again.
If you are BURNT-OUT from work it’s no surprise you’re not feeling creative. Many people in creative fields work long hours, are pressured to finish an insane amount of work and are can never turn their phones off. When you have been burnt to a crisp emotionally and being pushed to your limits physically, it’s no surprise you may be unable to generate the spark of creativity and lack the energy to make work.
Combatting burn-out is complicated, and in some ways may feel impossible depending on your career and the context of your specific situation. Usually feeling burnt out means that without a huge systemic change in the structures of your life- things won’t get better. You also may need to find a way to take a vacation or structure time into your schedule where you can recover.
ARE YOU AVOIDING THINKING ABOUT OR DOING SOMETHING?
Perhaps, you been frantically avoiding thinking your finances, or you’ve let your laundry pile up. Perhaps you have parking tickets that you don’t want to pay for. Maybe you are upset with your partner and avoid confronting them. As Brene Brown famously says “we can’t selectively numb”. SO if you are using a lot of energy to avoid certain things in your life, you may feel shut down in all area
Feeling creatively blocked does not mean you’re untalented, lazy or weak. You’re going through something. There are reasons. Being a creative person is complicated, and we all have issues come up from time to time. IF you’re struggling, I encourage you to reach out and learn more about therapy and the ways it can help with creative blocks.