I’ve written a few articles about stimulating your creativity by letting go of the need to be socially acceptable and fit into a conventional social role. Today, I’m going to take that a step further, and talk about how letting yourself think and behave a little absurdly can give you access to inspiration you may have forgotten you possessed.
There are many views on how creativity arises and ideas come to us, but one that’s always resonated with me is that creativity is part of our essence as human beings, as opposed to a skill we must learn. We’re naturally creative, and moments where we feel uninspired usually occur because we “get in our own way.” Our rigid rules about what it’s acceptable for us to do and think lead us to reject ideas that could otherwise have made amazing contributions to the world.
One of the most restrictive rules we tend to limit ourselves with is the rule that we must never do something that somebody might laugh at. Being mocked or put down feels mortifying to many of us—the way our bodies seize up when it happens, you’d think we were being threatened with physical harm—and thus most of us are constantly monitoring our behavior to ensure we’re never the target of others’ ridicule.
How Fear Of Being Ridiculed Holds Us Back
We can see how severely this rule limits us when we remember how creatively uninhibited we were as kids. Most of us went through at least some of our childhood with little concern about how others received our creativity.
As children, we had no problem experimenting with music, art, dance and similar pursuits in front of other people, even if we had little or no experience doing those things. We didn’t hesitate to spontaneously jump around or sing. At some point, however, someone—our parents, other kids, or someone else—criticized or ridiculed our uninhibited play, and we started restricting our creativity to be socially acceptable. As Dr. James Downton, Jr. writes in Playful Mind: Bringing Creativity To Life, “we are naturally creative as children, but lose some of it because of what others say to us and what we come to believe about ourselves.”
We can also see the relationship between creativity and being uninhibited in the “eccentricity” of prominent creative figures in our society. Practically any well-known author, musician, scientist, and so on has at least a few habits that have raised some eyebrows. I suspect that both these people’s quirks and their creative genius come from the same source—their lack of inhibition, or their willingness to do and say things that might get them mocked.
Accessing Our Absurdity
How do we loosen our inhibitions and restore our access to our inspiration? If it seems too scary to dive headfirst into a major creative project, like writing a symphony or novel, we can start by taking smaller steps and doing what I call getting a little absurd. This means temporarily letting go of the rules we’ve adopted to avoid being ridiculed. When we relax these restrictions and follow our instincts, we often discover creative powers we’d forgotten we had.
I’ll talk about three approaches to doing this that I’ve found helpful, both for myself and in working with others.
1. Free Movement. This exercise involves sitting alone in a distraction-free environment, and just letting your body move in the way your instincts dictate. You may feel the urge to jump up and down, gesture, make sounds, or do something else. Whatever it is, regardless of how little sense it makes, it’s fair game. See if you can let go of the restrictions you normally put on how you move your body—stopping short, of course, of doing something that might physically hurt you.
Some people find it hard to get in touch with their instinctive movements. Many of us have kept our bodies on a tight leash for so long, to avoid embarrassment or judgment, that we’ve temporarily forgotten what they actually want to do.
If this happens for you, scan your awareness over your body and notice any areas where there’s tension—perhaps in your neck, shoulders, chest, or somewhere else. When you notice a tight place, breathe deeply into that spot and see if you can relax the muscles there. You’ll likely find that releasing the tension in your body gives you more access to your body’s natural movement.
Also, notice the emotions and thoughts that arise as you release control over your body. These thoughts and feelings will likely give you valuable self-knowledge about the places where you’re inhibiting your creativity in your everyday life. For instance, maybe, when you do the free movement exercise, a painful memory comes up of a moment when a parent told you to be quiet. If you have this experience, notice the places in your life today where you have the instinct to voice your ideas but hold yourself back.
What I’ve described is similar to a technique developed by psychotherapist and dancer Mary Whitehouse, called “authentic movement.”
2. Free Association. A common technique among psychotherapists, the free association exercise has us sit or lie down in a comfortable place and just start reciting aloud whatever words, or making whatever sounds, come to mind. No matter how embarrassing or silly what you think of may seem, say it out loud. You don’t need to use complete sentences—what you say may be a disjointed stream of words, or even just grunts and groans.
Notice the places where you find yourself holding back from saying certain words or making certain sounds, and the feelings that seem to be restricting you. As with the free movement exercise, the areas where you feel ashamed to say things probably correspond to areas where you’re limiting your expression and fulfillment in your life. If you find thoughts about your career coming to mind, for instance, but you’re reluctant to voice them, perhaps you have a desire to change or improve some part of your career situation, but you’ve been avoiding the issue.
You can also use the moments where you feel shame, or some other intense sensation, as opportunities to let yourself fully experience that feeling, without distracting yourself or pushing it away. If saying something brings up a lot of emotion, whether it’s about your past, your career, your intimate relationship, or something else, just sit there, breathe deeply and allow the feeling to pass. Once you recognize that fully feeling that sensation won’t hurt or kill you, you’ll feel more able to deal with situations that tend to bring up that kind of feeling in the “real world.”
3. Make Up A Song. For many of us, even the thought of singing triggers embarrassment and painful memories, and this is of course why I recommend it as a creativity exercise. Randomly bursting into song, particularly a song of your own making, is a great way to get used to pushing the limits you’ve placed on your imagination to keep yourself socially acceptable.
Making up lyrics on the fly can be lots of fun, but the song can just consist of humming if words don’t come to mind. Nor does the song need to obey musical conventions like keys and time signatures—it can be free-time and dissonant, like free jazz. The only rule about this exercise is that you need to sing—what words and tones come out of your mouth are entirely up to you.
If you want a more structured song, you can always use a twelve-bar blues chord progression. Just listen to a blues song a few times, and memorize how the chord changes in the song sound—normally the song will use the same chords throughout. I’ve made up some great improvised blues songs singing to myself in the car about ghosts of Voodoo conjure men, “grambling” (whatever that is), and other bizarre things.
Even if you’re alone when you do it, improvised singing can bring up some intense feelings. Experiencing these sensations by yourself, and just breathing through them as I talked about earlier, is good practice to prepare you for creative expression out in the world. The more manageable those sensations become, the more comfortable you’ll feel voicing less strange ideas to people in other contexts. In other words, if you get comfortable with randomly bursting into song, throwing out an idea in a brainstorming session at your job will feel like child’s play.