Does the following sound familiar?
You have an idea, and even before it’s fully formed, you realize it’s stupid. It’s lame, and won’t lead to anything, anyway… and with that, your brainstorming session is over.
You hand your latest work to a teacher who points out all the problems—and suddenly, your initial excitement and enthusiasm have evaporated.
You start working on some other creative project, and can’t stop judging it. You can’t stop your inner critic from berating everything about it.
Not surprisingly, in each of these scenarios, your creativity suffers. It takes a nosedive. You get stuck. And your heart stops being in it. Because the biggest killer of creativity is criticism.
A Negative Cycle
One reason is that criticism catapults us into “a subtle form of fight or flight”—which we’re in often, because “so much of the focus of our culture is on fixing and giving us criticism to ‘make us better,’” according to Suzanne Kingsbury, a novelist, editor, and writing coach.
She noted that when our amygdala goes into fight-or-flight mode—which is solely focused on survival—the area of the brain responsible for creativity and brainstorming new ideas actually shuts down, and we get stuck. Consequently, what often follows is a litany of critical thoughts: “I shouldn’t be blocked. What’s wrong with me? I am so bad at this. I never have any ideas. I am just not creative.”
This inner critic, which Kingsbury calls the conditioned self, tries to keep us safe, and thereby tries to keep us “from being super expansive, creative, and innovative.” Our conditioned self also believes that we must stay with the “herd,” and think what everyone else thinks, do what everyone else does, and become invisible, she said.
“The minute you start to have huge ideas and are generating ideas that could be limitless in their power, the conditioned self rises up and rejects it. You have been rejected before and no freaking way do you want to go back there again! Stay with the herd, don’t risk it!”
It’s a cycle that kills inspiration, imagination, and innovation, because “idea generation is almost always about inquiry and staying out of overwhelm,” Kingsbury said.
A Method for Creating Freely
Kingsbury has developed a specific method for helping individuals get out of fight-or-flight mode, and create freely. Her approach is based on eastern philosophy and brain science—specifically the work of Dr. Herzog at Harvard Medical School and Dr. Aquili and Dr. Newberg at University of Pennsylvania, who found that we access creativity and imagination best when brain activity associated with negativity and resistance ceases. Kingsbury’s framework is also based on the work of Dr. Charles Limb, M.D., now at University of California, San Francisco. His research involves using fMRI scans to look at the brains of jazz musicians and rappers when they’ve both memorized a set of lyrics (or music) and when they’ve improvised on the spot.
According to Dr. Limb, in this piece, “In every experiment I’ve done where there is some sort of what we call a ‘flow state’—such as jazz improvisation or freestyle rap, where an artist is generating a lot of information on the fly, spontaneously—there appear to be important areas of the prefrontal cortex that are turning off, or relatively deactivating.”
He further explained, “The interesting thing here is that the brain is selectively modulating itself to promote novel ideas and to prevent over-self-monitoring and inhibition of one’s impulses.”
This is vital because, as Limb said in his TED talk, when you’re not inhibited, “you’re willing to make mistakes, so that you’re not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses.”
There’s also been a lot of research on how critical feedback actually inhibits learning. As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall write in this piece in Harvard Business Review:
“Your brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and narrows its activity. The strong negative emotion produced by criticism ‘inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment,’ psychology and business professor Richard Boyatzis said in summarizing the researchers’ findings. Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.”
Concrete Tips to Try
So, if we want to be creative, the best thing to do is to calm our critical minds, because as Kingsbury noted, “In neuroscience studies on creativity, the critical brain has not been shown to be at all helpful.”
In other words, if we want to be creative, we must give ourselves the permission and space to create freely, without inhibition.
Kingsbury’s method, called Gateless, focuses on getting out of fight-or-flight mode “by putting yourself in a state of neurological ease through a path of radical nurturing.”
Specifically, she said, this involves participating in activities that make you feel good about yourself and what you’re capable of. This might be anything from walking to taking a bath to talking to a friend who believes in you to dancing to getting a massage to having sex, she said. These activities trigger neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which “are the best natural drugs for idea generation.”
Kingsbury also suggested sitting in meditation, to “go beyond the critical mind and into the body.” For instance, you might focus on all the good sensations in your body, she said. If any ideas surface, in whatever form, jot them down, and “follow the train with reverence and curiosity.”
Another way to keep our mind open and out of judgment is by considering these questions, according to Kingsbury: “What is good about the ideas that are coming? What could you do with [that idea]? What could you layer onto it that might be interesting?”
Because the more welcoming we are of our ideas, the more ideas will come.
Our Natural State
Any time you doubt your ability to create and innovate, “remember that you were born from an act of creation,” Kingsbury said. “We have [been] conditioned to believe we have to be special, brilliant, a genius to create something incredible.”
But, Kingsbury pointed out, that’s not true. “Creativity is our natural state.”
And when we remove the obstacle of criticism, that creativity can emerge and bloom.