I’ve noticed a familiar trend among my clients when they tap into their creativity. (And let’s be honest – I see it in myself too). Although the particulars differ from person to person, the process is relatively the same, and it includes three phases:
Phase One: An idea – a really, really good idea. That idea starts to expand and grow into an incredible vision of what could be – what will be. The energy is electric and everything is exciting. The possibilities are endless.
Phase Two: Work begins to bring the concept to life.
Phase Three: Sheer anxiety. What once felt brilliant now feels terrifying, and the thought of bringing this idea to life is completely, totally overwhelming.
Although the length of time between phases can vary, at some point, you inevitably reach Phase Three. Your energy plummets, your self-doubt rises, and your great ideas waste away in purgatory.
I know this territory all too well. The Land of Opportunity and the Land of Overwhelm share a border that innovators and creators often straddle. It's a no-(wo)man’s-land where ideas dissolve and creativity languishes if we stay too long.
So how can you navigate your way out of the border zone? And is it possible to bypass the border zone altogether? First, let’s get clear on how – and why – you get pulled toward the Land of Overwhelm when your creativity starts to flow.
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HOW DOES CREATIVITY LEAD TO OVERWHELM?
1. You get drawn into the gap
It’s normal to get excited by a great new idea, and it’s natural for your imagination to start creating amazing stories about what your idea could lead to. Unfortunately, this also sets you up for a journey straight to the Land of Overwhelm.
When you start to take action on your idea, you’re at the beginning of the process. You’re taking small baby steps, which are critical to creating a good foundation. But those baby steps can highlight the gap between where you are and where you want to be. That gap feels extraordinary, and you start questioning if you have what it takes to get from here to there. Hello, overwhelm!
2. You get attached to the outcome
Having a vision, and starting with the end in mind, is a key part of the creative process. It’s important to know where you’re heading, so that each action you take brings you closer to your goal.
Your imagination is excellent at creating a vision of your future, but it’s not a crystal ball. No matter how great your determination or how strong your work ethic, no one can fully control the outcome of their efforts. If you’re attached to a particular outcome and it doesn’t happen according to your expected timeline (or it doesn’t happen at all), it’s normal to push harder, to muscle through, to make it work. And it’s also normal to feel helpless and give up. Regardless of whether you power through or give up, both leave you feeling frustrated, hopeless, and – yep – overwhelmed.
3. You get distracted by a new idea
So here you are, hard at work at your new idea, and then… light bulb moment! Another idea emerges from your imagination, and this one is even bolder, even brighter, even better. You move away from your original idea to this new one, you start working on it, and then… hey, another idea! Back to Phase One. Wash, rinse, repeat.
This is SOS – Shiny Object Syndrome – and it’s deceptive as hell. Even though SOS generates gorgeous new ideas, the end result is an endless cycle of inspiration, inactivity, and – you guessed it – overwhelm.
WHY DOES CREATIVITY LEAD TO OVERWHELM?
What do these three reasons have in common?
(For the purpose of this discussion, I’m starting from the premise that, to quote Eckhart Tolle, “you are not your mind.” Those of you familiar with mindfulness are probably comfortable with this idea. But if this idea feels weird to you, that’s okay. I’m going to ask you to go with it for now, and entertain the idea that while your mind is a part of you, it is not all of you.)
Your mind produces an endless string of thoughts, observations, and judgments. It’s a source of inspiration, creativity, and opportunity, as well as fear, anxiety, and overwhelm.
And if you’re like most creative entrepreneurs, your life is an Olympic-level ping-pong match and your mind is the ball, ricocheting back and forth between opportunity and overwhelm, inspiration and fear.
So why does the mind put you through this cycle? Because it’s number one job is safety. All of those thoughts and judgments it creates keep you in line and safe. And when you start straying, it deploys all of its tactics to pull you back into the safe zone.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s what’s kept humans alive. Thousands of years ago, if you deviated from the norm and failed, you risked life and limb. Literally. So the mind adopted the role of safety monitor, and it’s on the clock 24/7/365.
But the problem is, your mind hasn’t fully adapted to the present day. Your mind treats 21st century stressors the same way it did millennia ago, and your fight-or-flight stress response is still very much intact. On some level, it doesn’t matter whether the threat is actual (think “saber-tooth tiger”) or theoretical (think “people won’t like what I create”). The mind doesn’t waste time differentiating between them – it views both as stressors and it’s going to respond.
Creativity – whether in art or in business – is born of vulnerability. Forging a new path towards something new is a risky journey. And since vulnerability requires risk and risk is not safe, the mind kicks in to slow you down. Overwhelm is a great way to do it.
BREAKING THE CREATIVITY/OVERWHELM CYCLE
Bottom line: your mind doesn’t really care if you’re unhappy, unfulfilled, or not living your true purpose. It just wants you safe. You might be playing small and feeling overwhelmed and stuck, but you’re safe. Mission accomplished.
But here’s the great news – you are not your mind, and you don’t have to live according to your mind’s default mode. You can choose to move forward, to do it anyway, even if the mind objects.
The practice of mindfulness can help you recognize your mind’s default tendency towards safety at all costs, and help you tap into your intuition. Your intuition is where your deepest wisdom and discernment thrives. It helps you assess whether something is truly risky and to be avoided, or whether your mind is getting in your way of success.
Mindfulness builds our awareness of how our mind operates, and empowers us to choose our next step. So whether you find yourself getting drawn into the gap, attaching to the outcome, or distracted by the next shiny object, mindfulness can help you break the cycle and escape the opportunity/overwhelm border zone.
And when I talk about mindfulness, I’m not asking you to stop everything you’re doing and meditate. While you’re welcome to do that – and I’m a huge advocate of mindfulness meditation – you can practice mindfulness throughout the day, in just seconds.
When you feel overwhelm coming on, start by noticing the thoughts your mind is creating. Pay attention how your mind transports you into the future, and observe with curiosity what emotions come up. Here’s an example (*ahem* strictly hypothetical, of course):
“Oh look, I’m starting to feel overwhelmed by writing this blog post. I’m having the thought that if I can’t finish a simple blog post, I’ll never write a book. And I really, really want to write a book. Wow, I’m starting to feel a little anxious.”
From this perspective, you can choose to follow the mind down the path of overwhelm, or you can choose to “thank your mind” and remain centered in the present moment.
“OK Mind, I see what you’re doing. Writing a book feels stressful and scary, and you’re trying to keep me safe. Thanks, Mind. But I’m okay. I’m releasing you from the role of safety monitor for now, so that I can get back to writing.”
Mindfulness helps us shift our relationship to both opportunity and overwhelm. We notice when we’re getting too attached to a future outcome, so we refocus our efforts on our present moment experience. We view overwhelm not as an experience to be avoided but as a warning sign to be explored.
The border zone no longer represents dangerous territory, because mindfulness redirects us away from the Land of Overwhelm and back towards the Land of Opportunity. Which is right where we want to be.
Have you ever found yourself in the border zone? What tends to land you there? And how do you get out? Leave a comment below – I'd love to hear from you!
Find your zen in your business.
Download your free copy of Mindfulness for Entrepreneurs today.
Spot on! Geesh…the overwhelm is just listening to those crazy people in your head. Love the idea of taking the moment to become mindful and then reassessing. Simple and powerful. Thanks!
Thanks Jane! It helps me to remember that my inner critic always gets louder when I’m about to do something bold. So it’s a good, albeit annoying, sign that she’s chattering away. Mindfulness helps me regroup and refocus, and move forward. xoxo
Wow… what a bunch of grown-ups you are! 😉 I know all about overwhelm… and I think it represents a very unhealthy pattern that I’ve been constrained by for many years. Lately, I’m finding that if I will just DO something- it helps a great deal. Taking some kind of action toward a project frequently lets some of the air out of that big balloon of overwhelm. My perfectionism squeals that “project A” is not TOTALLY getting completed… and that’s okay. I did something- and made progress. After all… tomorrow is another day!
YES, Leann! You are exactly right. Taking action – even just a small step – can go a long way towards reducing overwhelm. I love that you’re also coming at it from such a compassionate stance. Regardless of whether a project is 100% completed, you’re making progress and that’s worth celebrating. 🙂
Amazing post Lee! Mindful has saved my own life more times than I can count, and am totally going to try your tips when I feel that overwhelm creeping up.
I also just read earlier today that tuning in to your 5 senses can help to bring you into the present moment, making mindfulness a bit easier 🙂