When you think of ‘creativity’ what do you think about? This was the question that was asked to me when I attended a course called ‘Creativity for Recovery’ at Nottingham Recovery College some years ago. I made a list of all the things I thought were creative: drawing/painting/visual arts, dance, writing, baking, fashion, origami, music and gardening. It was helpful for me to answer this question because I had never really considered myself ‘creative’, that was something other people were and I could only aspire to. But by doing this course I realised I was actually more creative than I had given myself credit for.
Since I was a child I have danced, drawn, written, knitted, played musical instruments and as I grew older became more interested in gardening. I was already a creative being, even though I didn’t recognise it in myself. And I believe that as human beings we are all born with a creative potential inside us – you only have to see young children play to realise how naturally creative we are! But for some reason, this creativity can leave us the older we get, as society starts judging us on what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be producing creatively, whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The lessons people learn in school, for example, can sometimes be particularly damaging as we are graded on the piece of work that is produced, which is not evaluated on its own merit but is held up for comparison with others. I have heard many people speak of how music teachers told them to stand at the back of the class because they ‘couldn’t sing’… This can lead to people switching off their creative selves.
This certainly was the case for me. The things I loved as a child slowly became less appealing to me as I got older and was assessed and graded for my efforts. I started to feel ‘not good enough’, and lost a love for the creative process in itself. This remained the case for many years, until I experienced a serious mental health crisis and found myself referred to the Recovery College. It was here that I began to throw out all those old messages about not being good enough. Here the focus was on self-expression and creating for the pleasure and benefits of doing so.
And there are many benefits to our mental health from creative activities, such as for the enjoyment or as a distraction, to express our feelings, offer satisfaction and to give us something positive to focus on. It can help with reducing anxiety and bring us into more social situations where we might make new friends and feel less isolated. It can be great for reducing tension and helping us to relax. It is known to boost self esteem and confidence, increase self awareness and offer a meaning and purpose to life. Creativity can help us simply ‘be’ in the moment, which is a key aspect of mindfulness practice. I particularly believe, as a person-centred therapist, that creative expression is a natural part of a healthy life, which can help reveal the infinite potential of us all to grow and become more fully ourselves. And above all else it can offer us hope – with a little bit of imagination anything can seem possible.
The paradox I’ve found with my own mental health and creativity is that when I am struggling the most, I don’t have the energy or motivation to do the things that I know will be helpful for me. Picking up my pen to write, or sitting down at my piano to play are usually the last things I want to do. This is when it is so important to be kind to myself and recognise the limitations I have at that moment. Maybe the step I am trying to take is too big and I need to break it down into smaller, more manageable bite-size pieces. These are the times when it is enough to just put on some music that I love and get out my colouring book. Just half an hour spent doing some creative activity can be just the tonic to help lift my mood on the most difficult days. When even this isn’t possible then just sitting outside in nature and admiring the beauty around me is a creative act that can help me feel more connected to and positive about my life.
So even if you don’t think you have it in you, give it a go anyway and maybe you will awake your very own creative self!