The concept of creativity may conjure up images of an easel and oil paints, a dancer moving swiftly on stage, clay and kiln, or a poet placing words on the page. It is true that each of these images falls under the umbrella of creativity, but there is much more than art beneath this broad umbrella.
In fact, creativity can course through nearly every facet of our lives—when we allow it to flow—from making meals and taking walks to solving problems and relating with others. According to experts, the key is a commitment to creative thinking.
For many people, the notion of being creative gets put away, along with the crayons and construction paper, once we become adults or even as teenagers. However, this does not mean the same imagination that once turned clouds into bunny rabbits has suddenly disappeared.
“We’re all born creative—it’s at the very core of who we are,” said Michelle James, CEO of the Center for Creative Emergence. “We have been socialized and educated out of our natural creativity, so we tend to forget that.”
James, who serves as a creativity coach and catalyst for her clients, believes it is crucial for people to reconnect with their innate creative source, in order to live with greater balance and joy.
“The more access we have to our creativity, the more connections we make, the more opportunities we have,” she said. “At every level, working with creativity leads to a happier, more productive, thriving life.”
You Are Creative
According to creativity coach Marianne Mullen, one of the main blocks to living the creative life is a belief that only people with certain skills or special talents can be creative. Usually, this belief stems from a narrow definition of what it means to be creative.
“When you hear people say, ‘I’m not creative,’ they have been conditioned to limit their idea of creativity to something in the visual arts, such as painting or sculpting,” Mullen said.
“Creativity and its expression are deeply personal—you need to define it for yourself.”
The journey begins with creative thinking, which can lay the foundation for a creative life across the board, from your personal relationships to your exercise plan. By breaking old thought patterns, you may be able to enlarge your perspective on life, which often brings big benefits.
Simply becoming aware of your own thoughts—their tone and substance,when they arise and which ones tend to repeat—is often the first step creative coaches encourage their clients to take on the quest toward more creative living.
“The most important tip for breaking out of old thinking patterns is becoming aware of your thoughts,” Mullen said.
“Having an awareness of what you think, when you think it and how it affects your feelings and behaviors is critical to breaking free from negative, unsupported patterns.”
As with any long-held habit, letting go of thoughts that no longer serve you typically requires concentrated effort and intention. Start by acting as an outside observer or witness to your thoughts as much as possible each day, and try to refrain from judgment.
Getting to know your existing mental landscape should help determine new directions for your thoughts, as you begin to cultivate creative thinking. Consider this process an inner exploration,where there is no right or wrong, only curiosity, observation and discovery.
“Part of not thinking creatively is the need for certainty, the need for certain outcomes,” James said. “To think habitually is to not explore, to not take any risks.
“To think creatively means you try on new ways of thinking and you modify as you go,” she continued. “It means you’re an explorer.”
Watch for Patterns
According to Mullen, one of the big keys to creative thinking is a fairly clear-cut concept: Observe your existing thought patterns, then consistently challenge yourself to think differently, pushing your own boundaries and limitations.
“If you are a very logical, left-brained, rational thinker, your pursuit of creative thinking may include more right-brained, imaginative, free-flowing ideas,” she said. “For nonlinear thinkers, creative thought may challenge an individual to be systematic, disciplined and rational.”
Remember to maintain that mindset of discovery, and avoid any pull you might feel to label unfamiliar thoughts as incorrect or unacceptable, simply because they’re new and different. The tendency to judge what we think as either right or wrong can cease creative thinking all too quickly.
“One of the blocks to creativity is what I call binary thinking—right and wrong, good and bad, pass and fail, black and white,” James said. “Most creative thinkers are comfortable thinking in shades of gray,which allows more to exist within them, even those thoughts that may seem contradictory.”
James calls this “paradoxical thinking,” and she considers it central to the process of creative thought. Being able to hold the tension of two opposites—instead of dismissing one because it appears to conflict with the other—can allow for a third, more encompassing option.
“On one level, you might be holding two pieces of information that seem opposed to each other; for example, you need to make a living and you want to be creative,” James said. “Instead of thinking I have to choose X or Y, money or creative expression, acknowledge that it’s important to you to have both, and then assume that it’s possible.
“Creative thinking assumes there’s a third option that will allow both X and Y to exist—you just don’t know about it yet,” she continued. “Instead of choosing one or the other, look at how you might integrate the two, and allow yourself to explore that.”
As you go through the discovery process, nurturing new and creative thoughts, Mullen warns to watch out for your own inner resistance, which may stem from old thought patterns you’re looking to release.
“This would include feelings based on comparisons with others, judgments and that little Gremlin voice telling you negative messages,” she said. “In order to break out from negative thinking patterns that do not support your creativity, you need to be conscious of what you say to yourself.”
On guard against any unnecessary resistance and equipped with a growing awareness of your own thoughts, you can begin to build and flex your creative muscles on a regular basis.
It may seem like one of those paradoxes, but developing a more creative mental landscape actually calls for a certain amount of structure and discipline, especially at the start. If you are committed to opening your mind to more creative ways of thinking, then consider setting aside time for creative practice.
“When you’re first beginning to cultivate your creativity, it needs time and space,” James said. “Schedule it in, and do it in a way that works for you—think of it as your creative practice time.”
For example, you might decide to devote 10 minutes each day to a different form of creative expression, from writing in a journal or drawing a picture to telling a story out loud or moving while you think.
“Make this a time when you explore creative ideas, feelings and beliefs,” Mullen said. “The point is, you are mindfully choosing to give your creativity time and space to play, explore, develop, grow and unfold.”
Question Your Assumptions
One powerful activity you can bring to this creative practice time is consciously questioning your own assumptions. Using various methods of creative expression, such as dance, writing, acting or painting, explore the beliefs that define your life.
“Assumptions run the gamut, from what success means and what my relationship is supposed to look like to what’s expected of me in the world and what it means to be happy,” James said. “Often, you find that something you accepted as a given actually came from someone else, whether it was parents, teachers or society—you discover it was learned, and once you discover that, you’re more free to shift your perspective.
“You can choose to keep the beliefs that resonate with you, and let go of the ones that are no longer working,” she added. “Then, you can bring in new beliefs that are more alive for you.”
Another assignment to try during the time you set aside for creative expression is called pattern breaking. By doing tasks in ways you’ve never done them before, you may find that more creative thoughts begin to emerge.
“One way to do this is very simple: Write on unlined paper and use colors, because the right brain thinks in colors and images,” James said. “You’re even breaking patterns with the paper you’re writing on—with all my clients, we’re always writing on unlined paper.”
This creative act of pattern breaking can take place in so many ways. Turn on music you might not normally listen to and allow your body to move and dance freely, breaking your well-worn patterns of movement. Grab a sheet of paper and draw out, rather than dwell on, an issue that’s been bothering you.
“When you engage the brain in different ways, you have a chance at different insights,” James said. “When you begin to break patterns, you create new neural pathways and increase the connections in your brain.
“New connections allow more ideas, more aha moments, to emerge,” she added. “Again, when you begin to break patterns and think differently and nonhabitually, remember to get comfortable with shades of gray, and let go of right or wrong.”
The goal of your creative practice time should be to try on as many different forms of creative expression as possible, using each method of expression to explore your own thoughts, assumptions, beliefs and patterns, as well as any pressing issue. If you stick to it, you should discover which kinds of creativity work best for you, or how you define creativity.
“Eventually, you’ll begin to find what feels really alive for you,” James said. “Don’t be limited by anyone else’s definition of creativity—what’s really alive for one person might not be for another.”
Think Creatively to Think Yourself Happy
Whether you decide to break out the crayons and construction paper, stare at the sky until puffy clouds become bunny rabbits, or just turn up some music and dance, your dedication to creative thinking could pay big dividends.
“When you are living your authentic, creative life, you will feel more satisfied, balanced, awakened and joyful,” Mullen said.
“You will see more possibilities, opportunities and potential in all areas of your life.
“You will feel a deeper connection to your source of meaning in life,” she added. “It sounds hokey, but you will be happy.”
Brandi Schlossberg is an avid bodywork client and full-time journalist based in Reno, Nevada. She has written for MASSAGE Magazine on many topics, including “Massage Eases Recovery for Domestic Violence Survivors” and “Elite Athletes Depend on Sports Massage.”