In any industry, creative or otherwise, negativity can become a barrier to success. Whether it’s a harsh inner critic, a loss of direction, or unwanted pessimistic opinions from those around you, negativity all too easily creeps in unnoticed, and puts a drag on your creative output.
While some types of negative emotions, such as sadness, anger or grief, can provide gritty motivation to fuel creative endeavours, negativity in any form often leads to self-doubt. As Sylvia Plath famously wrote, “the worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt,” and her point highlights how – in the creative industry more than any other – keeping worry and uncertainty at bay is essential to producing good work.
Crafting and creating requires us to believe in our work. In order to survive as creatives, we must keep the faith, make everything we do count, and not waste energy getting bogged down with other people’s hang ups or our own irrational fears.
Unfortunately, negativity is hardwired into our human systems, and it all goes back to prehistoric times. Psychologist Rick Hanson explains a phenomenon known as the ‘negativity bias’, in which our brains react more intensely to negative occurrences than positive or harmless ones. Thanks to our caveman past, when survival depended on avoiding danger at all costs, the amygdala – the panic button of the brain – dedicates two-thirds of its neurons to detecting negativity. We respond more forcefully when bad things happen, and with something as fragile as the work we’ve given our all too, it’s vital to have some techniques in place to combat the sabotaging effects of any creeping pessimism.
1: Surround yourself with the good people
In 2013, researchers at the University of Notre-Dame found that college students easily picked up lethargic and overly self-critical behaviours from their roommates. It’s common for negative thoughts to come out in our speech, the way we hold ourselves, and the way we interact with others, and with negativity bias at play, destructive thinking becomes contagious.
When the people around us exude doubt or complaints, we naturally absorb the downbeat vibes and join in ourselves without thinking. In this kind of environment, it’s important to recognise what’s happening and take responsibility. What we see in the world is a result of our own perception, so learn to identify negativity before you engage with it, and then don’t feel bad about distancing yourself from its spokesperson.
It’s also important to remember that positive people are an incredibly powerful resource for creativity. Move away from the people who shoot negative energy in your direction, and actively seek those who do the opposite. An email, a tweet, or even better, a face-to-face coffee with someone who inspires you can help give you a fresh perspective on your creative work.
2: Focus your negativity
Negative thinking is often unfocused and frequently comes hand-in-hand with distraction and demotivation. But feelings aren’t as simple as happy or sad, black or white, and as creatives, our ability to see the world in many shades of grey is something that should help, not hinder us.
A study by psychologist Eddie Harmon-Jones looked at how positive and negative emotions can have either high or low motivational intensity. The findings imply that less intense feelings, such as ‘pleasant’ or ‘sad’ can be equally as unconstructive whether positive or negative, but in contrast, highly focused emotions like disgust, anger or desire are more likely to trigger motivation
It’s completely possible to stay creative and use those negative feelings as part of it. If it’s one of those days when inspiration has escaped and a dull downbeat energy descends, find a way to focus it. Get angry at the TV, remember an injustice, think how much you want to achieve your goal, and as you feel a real emotion build up, channel it into motivation. Many of the best songs, books, paintings and poems were born from the blues.
3: Problem solve
One of the most practical ways to boost creativity and refocus your mind is to use problem-solving techniques. Problem-solving is a method used in cognitive behavioural therapy to help people rationalise their thinking and move on from difficult experiences. The next time you feel subdued or a bit knotted up inside, grab a sheet of paper and write down what’s in your head – that could be dreams, ambitions, a shopping list, rhyming couplets, a rant of swear words, or ideas for your next project.
It might be that a simple brain-cleanse is enough to focus your energy back where it needs to be, but if you need more, make an effort to write down anything and everything that would make you feel better. Once you’ve got a list, take each solution and lay out the pros and cons, then choose one and work through how you’d go about putting it into action. If you’re a words person, write it down; if you’re visual, draw it; you could even say it out loud or sing it. Problem-solving is a powerful way of thinking, and once you’ve mastered a fresh thought pattern, see how you can articulate it in line with your creativity.
Future positive thinking
Learning to think positively is fundamental to staying on top of your creative potential, and doing it consistently can help you stick to your goals. Developing the skills to deal effectively with negativity is crucial to the creative process, and like any skill, it takes practice, mistakes and discipline.
Positivity psychologist Barbara Frederickson’s ‘Broaden and Build’ theory emphasises the power of positive emotions to broaden the mind, highlighting how affirming thoughts make us more open to new possibilities and ideas. Despite the uncertain, 21st Century world we find ourselves in, it’s clear now more than ever that holding on to optimism and finding productivity wherever we can – whether that’s in a burst of focused anger, a solved problem painting, or a conversation with your glass-is-half-full friend – is the most powerful way forward we’ve got.
This article highlights the impact of negativity on creative output and outlines some tools and behaviours to combat it and keep creativity strong. Looking at the ‘negativity bias’ phenomenon in a modern context, it explores how surrounding yourself with positive people; focusing your negative emotions to make them more productive, and using problem-solving techniques, can help banish negativity and leave room for creative output to flourish. The world around us is an increasingly toxic, self-doubt inducing place, so having methods in place to resist negativity and allow positive emotions to proliferate is now more important than ever.