What is creativity? How illness helped me challenge the creative myth


Let’s go back to early February.

I’m curled up on my bed. The pain is everywhere. It’s so bad, I can’t keep still. Moving is involuntary; my whole body spasms. I start pacing up and down the hallway. My footsteps are heavy, and I’m hunched forwards. I try and push the cramps up into my chest, into my throat. I will myself to vomit so that I get some relief. I’m walking back towards the front door when I need to turn around and run to the bathroom. There is no relief. The pain doesn’t stop. I’ve been having gastritis attacks for two years and this one has started out no different to the others.

Only, it’s not gastritis. A gallstone has gotten stuck in my bile duct. As a result, my gallbladder is infected and inflamed. Two operations later and I’m told I have bile leaking into my abdomen. I’m discharged after a week, but they don’t remove the surgical drain. The SilverChain nurse calls my surgeon the second time she visits and I’m readmitted to hospital with sepsis. My fever hits 38.9, my blood pressure drops into double figures, my pulse starts to climb, my breathing rate drops. The next morning my liver fails.

I learnt a lot about myself through this experience. The most surprising was how it changed the way I approach my creative projects. Quite often, illness and trauma has been seen as a defining characteristic of the creative mind (Pavitra, Chandrashekar and Choudhury, 2007; Hammer 1975). This had always been my approach as I had initially started writing to cope with trauma. In contrast to these roots, I’ve found I now prefer not to write when I’m upset.

It is interesting, given this myth of the tortured artist, that definitions of creativity, such as that by Goertzel, doesn’t mention madness or mental illness once. Pavitra, Chandrashekar and Choudhury summarise Goertzel’s definition with four points:

“1. The product has novelty and value either for the thinker or the culture.
2. The thinking is unconventional.
3. It is highly motivated and persistent or of great intensity and
4. The problem was initially vague and undefined so that part of the task was to formulate the problem itself.” (Pavitra, Chandrashekar and Choudhury, 2007)

While a lot of recent research suggests, and even outright states, that negative emotions hinder creativity, the assumption of the tortured artist still prevails. As Hammer explains; “At times, the artist has been regarded as a first cousin to the madman, at times as the only true prophet, and at other times as embodying the idea that madness and wisdom go hand-in-hand” (1975). This is largely because, according to Goertzels, “No creative person completely understands what they do when they create” (1997a, para.1).

Illness doesn’t make us more creative

Creativity is not the result of illness or madness. However, it is still used as a coping technique for many of these states of mind. When dealing with complex emotions, creative expression can help us see the situation or traumatic event from a novel point of view, and in a way that is unstructured. For me, this manifested as a need to write down a stream-of-consciousness self-expressive rant in order to process the emotions I was feeling.

When talking about using creative mediums for ’emotional disclosure’, Stuckey and Nobel refer to many different avenues of arts therapy. On literature and writing they explain that “expressive writing can improve control over pain, depressed mood, and pain severity” (2010). Stuckey and Nobel also found that this techinique, when used in a psychological setting, is complicated, noting that “two studies reported somewhat longer lasting negative effects before benefits eventually occurred” (2010). This could be contributing to that myth of the tortured artist. It is worth noting here that this research focuses on the benefits of creativity for healing within a space that is private and not public facing. In contrast, many artistic endeavours outside of the therapy room are made to be seen and consumed.

While it does not take trauma to fuel creativity, it does take something that pushes us to see the world in a different way, something that unbalances us. As a result, creative people do have higher prevalences of mental illnesses (Kaufman, 2013), though that doesn’t mean creativity is a result of mental illness;

“research does show that many eminent creators– particularly in the arts–had harsh early life experiences (such as social rejection, parental loss, or physical disability) and mental and emotional instability. However, this does not mean that mental illness was a contributing factor to their eminence. There are many eminent people without mental illness or harsh early life experiences, and there is very little evidence suggesting that clinical, debilitating mental illness is conducive to productivity and innovation” (Kaufman, 2013).


Similarities between creativity and the risk factors for mental illness (Carson 2019)

When it comes to creative thinking outside of arts therapy, Goertzel also challenges the notion of the tortured artist, explaining that an unhealthy person faces greater challenges when trying to think creatively; “a healthy creative person, it is argued, maintains I-You relationships between their creative subselves and their everyday subselves. In the mind of a ‘mad’ creative person, on the other hand, the relationship is strained and competitive, in the I-It mold” (1997a, para 4). Research has consistently showed that, while creativity and arts therapy can function to heal trauma, the existence of this trauma doesn’t result in higher levels of creativity (Kaufman 2013; Goertzel 1997; Kung and Chao, 2019). In fact, recent research actually shows the opposite to be true. For example a study by Kung and Chao found that mixed emotions, often referred to as emotional disequilibrium, results in higher levels of creativity than negative emotions alone;

“The simultaneous experience of both positive and negative emotions signals that the environment is satisfactory and unsatisfactory at the same time. These mixed emotions provide conflicting information, which can potentially be a thought-provoking experience (Fong, 2006) and offer a critical pathway through which creativity might occur.” (Kung and Chao, 2019).

In considering the role of positive emotions in creative thinking, I realised, the biggest asset I’d developed through my recent experiences is self-compassion. According to Zabelina and Robinson, “self-compassion is a multifaceted state of potential utility in alleviating the self-critical tendencies that may undermine creative expressions among certain individuals” (2010). Given that they also explain that “self-judgmental individuals displayed lower levels of creative originality” (Zabelina and Robinson 2010), it’s easy to see why a balance of emotions could contribute to higher levels of creativity, even conflicting ones like criticism and compassion. This research also hints at another important aspect of creativity that is often at odds with mental illness; silencing the inner-critic.

Creativity and the inner-critic

Critisism is one of creativity’s biggest enemies and it is never more potent than when it comes from ourselves. Most of us have an inner-critic that “stops us from acting out of the ordinary” (Dijk, 2014) by making harsh and attacking comments. This inner-critic’s main function is social acceptance. When it comes to creativity though, something often characterised by unconventional thinking (Pavitra, Chandrashekar and Choudhury, 2007), the inner-critic becomes a roadbloack we need to overcome.

While silencing the inner-critic is no easy task, those who are successful in doing so enter what Kaufman refers to as a ‘flow-state’ (2013), which gives us more freedom to explore different connections and networks of ideas. According to Oliverio flow is “the mental state of operation in which a person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, typical of intense problem solving activities” (2008). This a definition very similar to that of the all illusive creative inspiration.

It is important to define and debunk inspiration, as many people still consider it an essential part of creativity; “Many creative people have experienced forms and ideas pouring out as if from some unknown inner source” (Goertzel, 1997a, para.14). In reality, inspiration is simply a state where the mind is more flexible and less resticted by conscious thought so as to be able to make unlikely connections (1997b). Goertzel refers to this part of ourselves as the ‘creative subself’ – a version of ourselves focused on specific skills, such as musical composition (1997a) ;

“For the creative act to proceed successfully, the creative subself must be allowed to act in a basically unmonitored way, i.e., without continual interference from other, more broadly reality-based subselves” (1997a).

Think back to the example of creativity in the therapy room for a moment. This use of creativity exists in a space specifically designed to be free from outside interferences. This freedom from the inner-critic is a defining part of most definitions of creativity:

“For me, creative means forgetting the rules for a moment to experiment and focus more on the process and the attempt, rather than the result, and this flow state can obviously also be achieved without any art: it’s more related to freedom from confinement but also from immediate criticism” (Jung as cited in Learly et al, 2014).


Living with your inner-critic

Since getting sick earlier this year, I’ve found it a lot easier to silence my inner-critic and acheive this state of flow. While I no longer write out of a burning need to explore my emotions and inner turmoil, I am finding it easier to be creative. I’ve also found it easier to move on from projects that aren’t working without criticising myself for having wasted time on them. This, I’ve realised, is a massive achievement. I’m not experiencing conflicting emotions over what’s happened to me. After everything I’ve been through, I’ve been feeling a lot more compassionate towards myself and much less critical. My inner critic is still there, but she’s constantly challenged and exists in a state of disequilibirium.



Carson, S. (2019). Creativity and Mental Illness. In J. Kaufman & R. Sternberg (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 296-318). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316979839.016

Dijk, J. (2014). Creating creativity: ‘a study into architectural means to stimulate the creative mind and enhance innovation’. (Master’s thesis). Delft University of Technology.

Goertzel, B. (1997a). On the Dymannics of Creativity. From Complexity to Creativity. Plenum Press. Retrieved from https://goertzel.org/books/complex/ch14.html

Goertzel, B. (1997b). The Structure of Consciousness. From Complexity to Creativity. Plenum Press. Retrieved from https://goertzel.org/books/complex/ch8.html

Hammer, E. (1975). Artistic creativity: Giftedness or sickness. Art Psychotherapy 2 (2), 173-175.

Kaufman, S. (2013). The Real Neuroscience of Creativity. Retrieved 6 June 2020, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-real-neuroscience-of-creativity/

Kung, F., & Chao, M. M. (2019). The Impact of Mixed Emotions on Creativity in Negotiation: An Interpersonal Perspective. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 2660. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02660

Learly et al. (2014). Creative Research Methods – a reflective online discussion. Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal 1 (2). Retreived from https://journals.warwick.ac.uk/index.php/exchanges/article/view/88

Oliverio, O. (2008). Brain and Creativity, Progress of Theoretical Physics Supplement, Volume 173, Pages 66–78, https://doi.org/10.1143/PTPS.173.66

Pavitra, K. S., Chandrashekar, C. R., & Choudhury, P. (2007). Creativity and mental health: A profile of writers and musicians. Indian journal of psychiatry49(1), 34–43. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.31516

Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: a review of current literature. American journal of public health, 100(2), 254–263. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497

Zabelina, D and Robinson, M. (2010) Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself: Self-Compassion Facilitates Creative Originality Among Self-Judgmental Individuals. Creativity Research Journal, 22:3, 288-293, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2010.503538

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