By Kate McTernan
As I begin to write this article the pull to make a cup of tea is strong, really strong.
I didn’t know I felt like a cup of tea, but now that I’m sitting at my desk and ready to write, all of a sudden it’s all I can think about. And that’s not such a big deal is it? Can’t I have a cup of tea while I write? Well sure I can, but let’s dig a bit deeper. Why did my desire for a cup of tea show up right now and not ten minutes ago when I was picking up kids’ toys from the floor?
Ever heard of creative resistance? First coined by Steven Pressfield in his 2002 book The War of Art, creative resistance is the barrier we raise up against our own creativity. These barriers can occur both internally and externally. Creative resistance is pernicious, tenacious and duplicitous. It is also bloody clever. So armour up, because if you want to beat creative resistance you’re going to need to have all your strength and wits about you. Read on and together we will examine the changeling nature of creative resistance, how best to recognise its guileful means and the tactics we can employ to successfully deflect creative resistance and get going. Onward.
You might think that the thoughts and distractions that take you away from your creative callings are a problem unique to you. You might even think that these battles that rage within are actually proof that you are not meant to pursue your creative dreams. If you were really meant to be doing this creative work it wouldn’t be so hard, right?
If you have experienced these kinds of creative barriers or blocks then I have some very good news. You are not alone, it is not evidence of a lack of creativity, and most extraordinarily these distractions and negative thoughts that pull you away from your creative desires? They are not you. They are in fact resistance.
There is a voice in your head that turns up when you decide to get creative, isn’t there? It’s like a child tugging on your shirtsleeve, demanding your undivided attention, dragging you away from where you want to be. It might be in the form of needing a cup of tea, or remembering you should be doing your taxes, or that you owe your sister a phone call.
More insidiously it might be telling you that your creative work is no good, that you are not capable of original thought, or that your work will offend your Grandma. Maybe it says people will hate what you produce and you will be a laughing stock or that all art is worthless anyway so why bother? These diversions do not come from you. They might turn up artfully disguised as you, but they are not you. They come from resistance.
Far from being some sort of evidence that you are not meant to be creative the opposite is true. Being susceptible to resistance can be a signpost towards your creativity. When you see it show up if you can recognise it, then you can use it as a great indicator that you are heading in the right direction. Resistance isn’t going to bother to turn up for just any old thing, but if it’s something that you hold dear to your heart, something that is akin to your life’s calling or your most secret artistic desire, then you can be sure it’s going to turn up for you.
Resistance is like that toxic best friend that it took you years to break away from at Uni, the one that used to say she wanted you to look your best, but in reality never wanted you to look better than her. The one that said he’d be your wingman but ended up flirting with the girl you said you wanted to talk to. It’s the best friend that said they loved you and wanted the best for you, but actually was more invested in keeping you small than seeing you soar, because it served them better to have you as the second fiddle sidekick.
That toxic best friend, that frenemy – that is resistance. You managed to ditch them and their toxic ways years ago, and you thought the fight was over? Nope. You’re still in the ring. And now your opponent is smarter and sneakier and more toxic than ever. That’s because the voice of resistance comes from within. It knows all your secrets, your most hidden desires, fears and weaknesses – even the ones you didn’t tell your best friend about. It knows what you really want and it isn’t afraid to deploy its most potent artillery in order to stop you achieving it. And it’s going to fight you on more than one front, sometimes simultaneously.
Resistance can show up in two spaces, internally or externally. External resistance can look like avoidance, distraction and procrastination. Internal avoidance looks like critical self-talk, self-loathing and fear of rejection.
Let’s take a look at external resistance. You might feel like external resistance is easier to spot, but in my experience it is just as sneaky as its internal counterpart. As an example, I only recently realised that whenever my set time for meditation and journaling rolled around, I suddenly had a burning desire to talk to my partner. There was something important to discuss about the kids, or just to catch up on the day. It’s sly because it’s dressed up in communication and connection, but really what it was doing was pulling me off track. I knew that my goal of meditating and journaling daily was good for my mental health and my creativity. Also I was doing quite well at it. It didn’t show up straight away, after I was making some progress, stringing some daily practice together and starting to feel good about it, then this cleverly disguised avoidance tactic started demanding my attention. It took a couple of missed sessions for me to notice what was going on. And still now it sometimes arises. I have to be hyper vigilant and that’s tiring, but it needs to be done.
So external resistance can show up as evasion, diversion and stalling. It can and it will disguise itself very artfully as important things that need to be done like chores and errands that cannot wait or connecting with friends and loved ones. It can also show up as physical or mental fatigue, so be alert to that too. Any time you sit down to achieve one of your creative objectives, or just to have fun creatively and these things arise beneath their many veils, try to notice them.
Inner resistance shows up in multiple ways also. It can be a loud inner critic, a voice of self-loathing or a fear of rejection. Any of these can easily be confronting enough to see you abandon a creative project. In my experience self-loathing is a particularly effective form of resistance because it is self-perpetuating. The cycle goes something like this, attempt to start a creative work that is dear to your heart, and perhaps you have kept hidden for a long time. Inner self-loathing arises to tell you that you and your work are worthless and will never amount to anything. The voice is so strong that you abandon the task. Self-loathing then says, “See, I told you so, you are worthless and will never amount to anything” and the voice becomes stronger, louder and more validated as you let yourself and your creativity down once again.
Inner resistance is awful and destructive and can feel very much like a faulty brain, like there is something wrong with you. That’s why it is so helpful to know you are not alone in this. Inner creative resistance is not a unique fault that you have to know how to repair. Not only is it not unique to you, it is not you. Can you remember that next time it turns up, draped in the cloth of your innermost fears? Can you say to yourself and to the voice of resistance, “I see you, I know who you are. You do not belong to me and I do not need you here. Please get out of my way. Step aside. I have work to do.” Can you do that?
Recognising resistance is the important first step in quietening its voice, loosening its grip. Once you are aware it has shown up there are some really helpful strategies to ably sidestep it. The key to all of these strategies is first knowing this: you will never vanquish resistance. If you are on a creative journey and have creative visions that you want to bring to fruition then resistance is going to be a common companion. Accept that fact and you are a good way there. Once you accept that resistance will keep turning up in ever more elaborate and elusive regalia you can tip your hat to it and move on. “My my, aren’t we dashing today. Now let’s get down to work.”
Once you have identified resistance you can use the disguise it has shown up in against itself. This is a very simple and very effective reward strategy that was first introduced to me by Melbourne author and dead-set legend Catherine Deveny at her Gunnas Masterclass. It works. Here’s how. You are showing up to your creative work and are joined by a litany of distractions that suddenly feel like they absolutely must be done right now. Make a list of them and use them to reward yourself when you have achieved a certain goal. If you are a writer it might look like this; write 500 words, take a shower, write 500 words, have breakfast, write 500 words, check Facebook for 15minutes, write 500 words, wash the windows. By 10am you’ve written 2,000 words and I can almost guarantee that the window washing will seem vastly less urgent by then. You may even be on some sort of roll, which we all know is an amazing feeling that we only sometimes achieve, but can never get to if we don’t show up in the first place. The reward system works, it’s a really tangible way of sidestepping resistance.
Another strategy is to beat resistance to the punch by starting on your creative project before you do absolutely anything else. So roll out of bed and get cracking, before resistance has the chance to show up. This strategy even has science on its side because studies show that we are more creative in the morning. There are two reasons for this. The first is that willpower is a finite resource. So that means we are more likely to cave into that chocolate biscuit at 3pm than 10am, simply because by 3pm we have already resisted enough other temptations like fish and chips for lunch or a donut for morning tea and our will power tank is empty. We are simply unable to show any more restraint. Also we feel like we deserve a reward. It’s the same with creativity. If we get up and get creative right away, we’ve done it before we’ve emptied our will power tank. So we don’t have to worry about forging through distraction and the desire to do something, anything other than sit down and face our creative task.
There’s another reason. We are more creative before we are fully awake. So if you can get creative before you’ve had your morning coffee or pleaded with the kids to get up and get ready for school you can tap into that semi-conscious, slightly dream state mind that is less likely to be moderated by logic and more likely to be able to access your vastly more creative subconscious. In doing so you are also circumventing resistance, which resides firmly in the logical, critical mind.
These strategies work well in dodging external resistance, but what about our old mate inner resistance? Those voices in your head that act as a town crier for your darkest fears and insecurities around not just your creative life, but life itself. Well these voices are not easy to quiet, but sometimes if you just ask them to they will actually go away. Clare Bowditch, Melbourne singer-songwriter, heart-led entrepreneur and author talks in her memoir Your Own Kind Of Girl about her inner critic, who she has named Frank. She has learned to recognise his voice in her head when he turns up as fear right when she is about to do something that she really wants to do. And when that happens she tells him bluntly to “Fuck off, Frank”.
It doesn’t seem to make any sense that we should want to do this to ourselves, does it? Why would we want to stop ourselves from achieving the things that we truly desire? Well, it’s not because we are faulty or have something wrong with our brains or our hearts. It’s simply because we want to keep ourselves safe. Resistance is born of the ego and the ego is all about certainty and control. Creativity is about the very opposite of that, it is about breadth and risk and mostly vulnerability. What could be more vulnerable than to say to the world, this is my dream, the thing I hold dearest, the ember that lives within my heart that most reveals who I am. If I strip everything away, this is me.
We can understand then that our resistance is just trying to keep us cloistered, to protect us from pain, but at what cost? There is no growth without discomfort. True pain comes from a life half lived. Researcher, lecturer and author Brene Brown has said, “Unused creativity is not benign. It metastasises and turns into grief and shame and judgment and hard things.” I would agree with that. So while resistance might be trying to spare us from the pain of vulnerability, all it is really doing is kicking the pebble of hurt further down the road to be dealt with later, when it is much more difficult.
So now we can see that when I sat down to write this article the reason that I desperately needed that cup of tea was not about the tea at all. It was because of the thoughts I could feel coming in. “I can’t write this article, what do I know about it, this is the stuff of real writers, not me, I’m not a writer, the way I am thinking about writing this is not valid and no-one will like it and everyone will see what a crappy writer I am and then I’ll feel ashamed and it’s getting late and perhaps I should just go to bed.” This is what the cup of tea was covering up. But I didn’t have the cup of tea; instead I had to face those thoughts and feelings all the while staring at the blank page. That was not fun, not at all, but I did it and now here I am. With this article between me and resistance, not perfect but done. I conquered resistance, at least until the next time – and you can too.
Kate McTernan is an Australian writer based in Melbourne. To read more of Kate’s work visit her blog site – One Small Life