Creativity can play havoc on one’s nerves. Juggling deadlines, uncertain experiments and personal revelations is a recipe for emotional turbulence. The constant tension between perfection and pragmatism translates to a tooth-grinding night of disturbed sleep as you replay and question past compromises. It all adds up to a looming fear that all of your effort has been poured into an elephantine flop that will leave you exposed, vulnerable and ridiculed. If all that sounds familiar, don’t worry – psychological research shows that anxiety isn’t the creativity-killer it might appear to be.
“Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit,” wrote Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Noting that it’s a somewhat different emotion from plain, old, destructive ‘fear’, Kierkegaard thought of anxiety as the inevitable ‘dizziness’ that accompanied any creative leap. Anxiety, he wrote, is the result of freedom, a signifier of the ‘possibility of possibility’ – where fear is definite, anxiety is open-ended and ambiguous. It’s an idea that resonates – about a century later, T.S. Eliot described anxiety as ‘the handmaiden of creativity’. Whether anxiety is an aid to creativity or the price of entry, the two seem to be linked.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and scientists are backing this yin-yang relationship up with hard data. Norwegian psychologist Ingegerd Carlsson, of Lund University, has found that groups who score highly in tests of creativity tend to also score higher in trait anxiety compared with low creativity groups (check out the studies here and here).
However that doesn’t mean that creative people are useless, nervous wrecks – far from it. They also tend to display greater flexibility when coping with anxiety and greater tolerance of anxiety. So instead of being paralysed with worry or shutting out stress completely, creative people have a wider range of tools at their disposal to address the problem at hand. If you want to get biological (and who wouldn’t?), it seems to be related to how the two halves of the frontal area of the brain interact (associated with problem solving). Highly creative people tend to use both hemispheres when dealing with ‘divergent thinking’ (creative problem solving) tasks or using strategies to cope with anxiety.
It shouldn’t be too surprising – noted cocaine fiend and penis envier Sigmund Freud himself suggested that creativity was a defence mechanism against anxiety, a means of sublimating negative emotions into a socially-acceptable output.
But the relationship seems to go both ways. Perfectionism, a common trait among striving, creative people (for an interesting summary on how positive perfectionism seems to facilitate creativity while negative creativity results in rigid thinking, check out this article from researchers Burns and Fedewa), also seems to have a causal relationship with anxiety.
From a personal perspective, it’s certainly something that rings true when I think about the most inspiring interviewees I’ve met. There have been times when I’ve been apprehensive about meeting a much-awarded director, for fear that they might fit that ‘aggressively creative’ stereotype, fuelled by arrogance. But, consistently, those who have done the most interesting work are those who have been thoughtful, a tad neurotic perhaps, but able to persevere though their self-doubt.
Now, before all you MDs and ECDs start casually leaving ‘top secret staff reduction memos around by the photocopier in an attempt to induce anxiety in your writers, designers and directors, a word of caution. While anxiety, as a stable personality trait, seems to link up with creativity, extreme anxiety appears to stem up the ability to think creatively. What’s more, if you separate anxiety from fear as Kiekegaard did, you should note that fear has been found to block individual and group creativity while psychological experiments consistently show that good moods facilitate creativity. Organisations that support risk takers by tolerating failure are more likely to yield creative results than those that respond to failure with threats of job loss or ridicule. It’s the difference between having a conscientious worrier who strives to make a project as good as it can possibly be by poking holes in it and finding creative solutions to problems and an unhappy person fearful of the consequences of mistakes, who then retreats into a safe, conservative shell.
Where, though, does the stereotypical narcissistic, self-promoting braggart fit into this research on the complicated relationship between anxiety and creativity? Well, on one hand defensiveness and sensitivity to criticism could be a by-product of the anxious and perfectionist creative. However, beware of anyone who trumpets their inherent creativity too loudly – they may drown out the anxious over-thinkers but several studies show that all that hot air comes to nothing. According to one 1993 study, people with high self esteem tend to harbour exaggerated ideas about their abilities and proficiency and can often take unrealistic risks http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/64/1/141/
A study in 2013 showed that narcissistic people tend to rate themselves as more creative – regardless of whether they are or not. What’s more, according to a 2010 study, narcissists tend to be better at persuading others of their creativity in pitches, but when their ideas were assessed objectively in written form they were no more creative than those who were rated low on narcissism.
This may be welcome news to creative people who struggle with self-doubt and anxiety - particularly when surrounded by egomaniacs and showboaters. So if you’re struggling to relax and unwind this summer while your loved ones chill out on the beach or you’ve found your enjoyment of the World Cup interrupted by a wandering, worrying mind, the one thing you shouldn’t feel anxious about is feeling anxious.