If you’ve ever experienced a sudden stalling of inspiration—otherwise known as a creative block—it can feel like you’ve been cursed by Hephaestus. But what exactly is a creative block, why does it happen, and what steps can you take to lift the curse? For the answers to these and all your burning creative block questions, keep reading.
A creative block is a mindset or state of being that blocks your creative process. When you experience a creative block, it can feel like you’re trapped in your own thoughts, feelings, and life situation—and that nothing can fix it. Blocked creativity can last just a few minutes for the lucky or up to a few years (or even a lifetime) for the less fortunate.
Creative block primarily impacts people in creative professions, such as actors, performers, artists, and writers, although it can impact anyone. “I think it’s pretty safe to say that every creative person has experienced a block at some point,” said Danielle Krysa, author of “Creative Block,” in an interview with Artsy.
You can be trucking along and producing beautiful work—but then your creativity is suddenly blocked, as if out of nowhere. Even though a creative block may feel random, it actually stems from several sources. Blocks to creativity include:
- Stress: If you’re overworked, overcommitted, or otherwise stressed, it’s hard to dedicate precious brainpower to creating. Lack of financial security, for example, is one of the primary reasons for stress-induced creative block.
- Anxiety: Similarly, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with fear that the very thing you’re trying to create isn’t good enough. “I got more and more anxious to the point where I couldn’t harness or use that energy,” Chris Hemsworth told Australian Men’s Health of the creative block that threatened his acting career.
- Doubt: Imposter syndrome strikes even the most talented stars, and the self-doubt that comes with it can be a plague on the creative process. “Literally every time I go to work, [imposter syndrome] will slowly emerge from the deep waters of my subconscious like a sea monster,” Andrew Garfield told Backstage. “It’s just ready to remind me of how I should give up, how I have nothing to offer, how I’m empty inside. ‘How dare you even try? You’re going to embarrass yourself. They’ll find you out. You’ll never work again!’ It gets extreme. It happens, but [that’s] the most important part: to know I’m going to go through that.”
- Rejection (or fear of rejection): Since art comes from the self, another person criticizing your work can cut to the bone. If you’ve been rejected or fear potential rejection, it can freeze your creativity.
- Depression: When you’re depressed, it can be hard to muster up the will just to get out of bed—much less write, sing, or put on a show. “In a grander world perspective,” Mark Duplass said in conversation with The Creative Independent, “existential pain of an artist is not that big of a deal, but when you’re in it that shit hurts.” Even if your depression is about something other than your work—such as, say, an existential crisis—it still impacts your artistic output.
If your creativity is blocked and you need to get your mojo back, try out these tips and techniques:
Take a break: Paying too much attention to a single performance or project can give you tunnel vision. Go for a walk, read a book, or spend time with friends who aren’t in the industry. Inspiration often hits when you least expect it.
Write it out: Jot down any ideas you have in regards to your project. Try not to filter anything—just write down all of the thoughts swirling around your head. Sometimes seeing your ideas on paper, no matter how messy, can trigger something in your mind.
Embrace rejection: No one in any creative field has ever found success without hearing “no” first. In his memoir “On Writing,” Stephen King famously describes nailing all of his rejection letters to the wall until the nail couldn’t handle the weight of all those no’s. “I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing,” he says.
If fear of rejection is keeping you stuck, try to change your mindset. “Every time I get a no, that’s my strength—I can take that no and keep going,” says actor Esther Povitsky (“Alone Together”). “Maybe I’m not always the prettiest person auditioning, or even the best person auditioning, but as long as I can take those no’s, I can control that. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still hurt, but it’s almost like a sport: The more you get rejected, the better you are at it.”
Get silly: Spend time brainstorming any ideas even tangentially related to what you hope to accomplish—the sillier, the better. Gather friends and colleagues and play a word association game, do charades, or dance it out.
Pivot to a different discipline: If your own specialty isn’t fueling your creative fire, try out other ones to see if they inspire you. Are you an actor? Try dancing. Trying to write a script? See if you can get behind the lens for a day. Taking a different approach to the industry can open your mind and unblock your brain.
Consider the worst-case scenario: Yes, catastrophizing might sound counterintuitive when you’re trying to get out of your head. However, its therapeutic counterpart, decatastrophizing, can help you escape the insidious pull of anxiety. To use this technique, think of the worst-case scenario if your work is a bust. Is it a disappointed audience? A bad review? Since it’s not going to mean the end of the world—or even the end of your career—knowing the consequences of the worst-case scenario might ease your anxiety and release your creativity.
Talk to a professional: Speaking to a qualified therapist can help get to the root cause of your creative block. From there, you can dismantle it from within.
“The actor has to develop his body. The actor has to work on his voice. But the most important thing the actor has to work on is his mind.”—Stella Adler
Whenever you experience self-doubt or negative looping thoughts that leave you mentally exhausted—the kind that make you wish you could shut your head off—you’re likely experiencing a “block.” Blocks can be obvious, like when you show up to an audition and can’t speak. Or they can be not-so-obvious, like when you’re making little overall progress. Either way, the same thing is happening below the surface of your conscious mind: Different aspects of yourself are in open conflict with one another.
If anyone gets the fact that we all have many different aspects of ourselves inside, it’s those in the entertainment industry. Exploring the many sides of your personality is crucial to the biz, but it can also make you feel like you’re driving with the parking brake on.
Let’s say you’re an actor. One part of you wants to land the lead in a feature film, but another part is terrified you’ll show up on set and feel like an imposter. This kind of conflict almost always happens on a subconscious level, so you may not even be aware that it is happening. Still, the part of you that’s terrified will do any number of strange things to sabotage and prevent you from getting that role. It might tell you what a terrible actor you are and that you’re never going to make it. To resolve that block, you have to help both parts of you get what they need:
- The afraid part needs to know you’ll show up on set and belong there. It needs encouragement and safety.
- The dreamer part needs opportunities to express your talent, creativity, and purpose.
Essentially, you need to create a win-win for the parts of you that are in conflict. In this instance, both parts of you need to understand that they can each get what they need at the same time: you can land the lead and feel safe and confident in your ability to do a great job.
But you first have to create the new win-win scenario in your mind (even if it feels impossible at first), so that both parts of you will want to get on board with it. Then, you’ll immediately start seeing ways in which the new win-win can actually happen, which begins to resolve the inner conflict. The next time you notice back-and-forth in your head, take these steps:
- Write down what you want (a role, admission to a film festival, a better agent, etc.).
- Ask yourself, “What am I afraid might happen if I get what I want?”
- Write that fear down (your relationship will suffer, your friends will get jealous, etc.).
- Write what you want instead of what you’re afraid of (your relationship to improve, your friends to be excited for you, etc.).
- Write a win-win statement that combines your answer from No. 1 and your answer from No. 4. So: “Taking my career to the next level improves everything in my life—my relationships, too.”
- Make that new win-win statement your mantra, that you can recite to yourself every day.