The Elusive Chaos of Creativity: Six Steps Towards Better Mental Health

Hanly Banks Callahan

February 14, 2018

Creativity is not a quality that you either do or do not possess. Similar to the art of mindfulness, creativity is a way of organizing internal and external states that can be learned, honed, and exercised in the musculature of the mind. Just like mindfulness, the mental health benefits are innumerable. This organization, however, takes some effort — creativity often thrives on its own chaos. To help you get there, we’ve outlined six steps that make for a more creative, and in turn, a more mentally and emotionally thriving life.

Step 1: Embrace your contradictions.

Contradictions exist within the self regardless of whether they make sense. The creative person accepts the vying emotions, ideas, and attitudes of the self, and finds a way to function not in spite of all of it, but because of all of it. Ambivalence, defined as the state of having mixed feelings, can actually serve as the optimal position for creative thinking — after all, how many great works of art reduce life to a simple platitude? So make space for competing emotional states or the dichotomy of wanting two very different things at the same time.

Step 2: Cross borders.

The creative function of the mind is nomadic. It lives between realms of consciousness and unconsciousness, the internal and external, and between parts of the brain. It visits us in the shower, at bus stops, and experiences that are neither here nor there. Creativity never stops moving. It travels into unfamiliar territory and returns to tell about it. Notice the wisdom that comes in these states of transition, and allow it to inform your more concrete decision-making.

Step 3: Start asking different questions.

If you’ve ever found yourself unable to come up with a solution, you may be working with information and beliefs that haven’t worked for you in the past. Why would they work now? Creative minds look beyond what is already known to form both questions and answers. Rather than goals, creatively-minded people focus on visions. Though visions are unrealistic and unattainable, they can help inform the goals and decisions you need to make in order to get somewhere new. If you’re tired of finding an old answer, start asking yourself new questions.

Step 4: Pay close attention.

The human brain is wired for paying attention to both internal and external surroundings — it’s how we have survived tigers, floods, and fires for millennia. In modern times, the amount of sensory stimulation can be overwhelming, and we adapt by shutting down our senses.

The creative mind-state overrides this shut-down by experiencing not only the sensory threats but also the sensory rewards. Staying open to the subtle details of what’s going on around you can have big impacts on rewiring your brain to stay in the present rather than relying on memories and preconceived beliefs.

Step 5: Pay attention to how, not what.

One of our most insidious cultural messages dictates that some careers are creative, and others are strictly not. Empirically, no profession is more or less creative than another. In fact, many who go into arts-based careers with a success-driven motivation ultimately burn out.

The electrician who works with ease and patience in the face of a malfunctioning oven, the surgeon who has to decide which wound to suture first, full-knowing that either could be fatal — these are the places where creativity secretly thrives. No matter what you do for a living, find the part of your job that feels affected ultimately by your intellect and understanding, and grow through your experience doing that.

Step 6: Surround yourself with creatively-minded others.

Creativity is contagious. Albert Einstein said this, so it must be true. This is one of the biggest reasons that psychotherapy can be so effective in helping you transform emotional pain or fear into a meaningful experience.

When one person has a new perspective on an issue where another person feels stuck or without options, it triggers a domino effect of new possibilities in the brain, intercepting circuit-loops of negative thinking. Make time to be with people who remind you that you have options—whether that’s a friend, a partner, or a therapist.

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