Creativity, shame and a whole bundle of thoughts.

Hello <<First name>>
Today, let's talk about shame.
More specifically, about shame and creativity.


Last semester I was marking a student's work and came across this list of blocks to creativity my colleague had shared with our cohort.

Blocks to creativity
  1. Fear of making mistakes
  2. Fear of being seen as a fool
  3. Fear of being criticised
  4. Fear of being misused
  5. Fear of being alone
  6. Fear of disturbing a tradition and marking changes
  7. Fear of being associated with taboos
  8. Fear of losing the security of habit
  9. Fear of losing the group's love
  10. Fear of being truly an individual


Before you read on, do something for me: take a moment and read those 10 blocks again. Then on a piece of paper, a napkin, the back of a packet of fags, your hand, I do not care, please write down the numbers of the blocks you succumb to.

Which of these blocks can you feel yourself suffering with?

Done? Let's carry on.
In the name of vulnerability, let me share which of these blocks I suffer with.

1. 2 (strongly). 4. 7 (oh, 7!). 9. 10.

I think I'm doing pretty well to only have six out of those 10 fears. What about you? How many rang true for you?

Here's the thing. I feel they're all about shame.

I'm a big Brene Brown fan (and I believe you will be too, if you're not already). Her work on shame and vulnerability was one of the first elements which contributed to the changes that've happened in my life over the last two years.

Brene talks about the power of shame to crush us, almost completely, and immobilise, deactivate, prevent us from living fully. Vulnerability, for her, is about showing up regardless of whether the outcome will be good, bad or shameful - and that's one of the reasons why vulnerability is so life-changing.


So - creativity and shame.

I read those 10 blocks to creativity and what I saw was a list of three different types of shame - and fear of that shame.

1. The shame of being wrong
The fears of making mistakes, being seen as a fool or being criticised translates as the shame we feel when we are wrong.

2. The shame of not having control
The fears of being misused and of losing the security of habit translates as the shame we feel when we're not in control. To be misused is to place control in another's hands; to not have habits is to not have stability and control.

3. The shame of being cast out
The fears of being alone, of disturbing a tradition and marking changes, of being associated with taboos, of losing the group's love, or being truly an individual all translate as the shame we feel when we are cast out.


Shame crushes us. It crushes creativity and energy and life.

Sometimes, shame protects us from doing something our chimp-self would dearly love to do but which may land us in terrible, law-breaking trouble. Particularly, the shame of being cast out prevents us from doing things which might be considered socially unacceptable.

The problem is we get a lot of shit about what is or is not socially unacceptable. We get a lot of shit about how important it is to be right and confident, to be in control of your life, to be good and kind and nice and get along with people.

And it all gets mangled together until we don't know, any more, what's really socially-unacceptable-in-a-harmful-way and what's just someone-doesn't-like-difference-or-radical-thought-or-kicking-it-to-the-patriarchy-type-of-socially-unacceptable.



If you want to do creative things in your life, you have to get comfortable with shame. You have to get comfortable with those three big shames: of being wrong, of not having control, and of being cast out.

The arts researcher who stands up and presents a paper at a conference doesn't know whether the audience will tell them they're wrong - or be inspired by what they've found.

The comedian sharing new material can't control whether the audience heckles - or laughs, cries and demands an encore.

The writer putting forward a poem, an article, an interview exposing something raw and real and something-we-don't-talk-about doesn't know whether they will be cast out - or lauded.


When I was preparing to read my poems for the first time in front of people I didn't know, I was frightened. I was fearful, because I was ashamed I would be cast out. In particular, within that gargantuan shame, I was afraid of #7 in that list: fear of being associated with taboos.

I write poems about celebration and redemption. They also happen to focus on sex, violence and silliness. Taboo a-go-go.

If I read these poems out, I thought, they're going to know. They're going to know I know about those taboos! That I have experienced them! Like, you know, in detail! Fuck!

I had to become comfortable with the idea of feeling shame about that - and doing the creative work anyway. 

(Turns out, lots of people know about those taboos. Whodathunkit.)


All of us have experienced shame before: the shame of being wrong, of not being in control, or being cast out.

Shouted out the wrong answer, over-confidently, to a question in class? 
Chucked up in a restaurant bathroom after too many white wines? 
Lost a friend because the way you chose to live was too strange for them?

(Just examples I randomly selected. Ahem.)

That feeling of being ashamed is so vast, so debilitating, so crushing and so easy to give into.

Shame can help us manage our chimp tendencies. But we can't let it manage us - our creative, expressive selves. 

The same person who answered yes to those three questions above is the same person who will create beautiful and moving and dark and sexy art that touches someone uniquely and deeply. If they shut off that first part because of shame, all of it would get shut off. As Brene says, you can't numb emotions selectively.


Creativity cannot breathe when it's being pushed down by shame.

I liked doing my list last week, so here's another one: those three shame categories again, this time with some de-shaming thoughts. I got you to write down those numbers which apply to you from the list of 10 creative blocks. Which categories do you need to look at?

1. The shame of being wrong
The fears of making mistakes, being seen as a fool or being criticised.

The shame of being wrong, I think, comes from education, where being right is often prioritised over change and development. Yet there are very few subjects where there is 'right and wrong' - even maths, when you get into it, all gets a bit ... negotiable. Wrongness is inherent in all things. 

And mistakes are the most important part of the creative process. Hemingway said, "The first draft of anything will be shit" and it's true. Mistakes are unavoidable, so roll with them. Last week I mentioned writing a rubbish first sentence in your journal just so you could get it over with; treat mistakes in the same way. Make them and make as many as you can.

There is no shame in being wrong.

2. The shame of not having control
The fears of being misused and of losing the security of habit.

Perhaps as we've moved away from being a religion-led society into something more secular, there's been the growing assumption we should and can control our lives - that we can control everything. It's just bollocks. We can play a strong role in the direction of our lives, but there's a whole lot of stuff we can't really do anything about. To be ashamed of not having control is like being ashamed that you can't change the weather WITH YOUR MIND. It's not all up to you, you know. 

There is no shame in not having control.

3. The shame of being cast out
The fears of being alone, of disturbing a tradition and marking changes, of being associated with taboos, of losing the group's love, or being truly an individual.

Here's the deal. If you do creative things (or any thing) which come from your soul, which are consensual, which are considerate - that is fine. Paint yourself blue for a paying audience? Fine. Marry a tree, and the tree is totally digging you? Fine. In my book, anything with soul + consent + consideration = fine.

Someone who looks at those things and casts you out for them? Not fine. Not your folks. Not your people. Sometimes they might actually be your people e.g. your family. But your real soul family are elsewhere and they will never cast you out for painting yourself blue or marrying a tree or standing up and reading out a poem about sex. Find them!

There is no shame in being cast out (and also, you will never be cast out from your true family).


This has turned into a rather long discussion, so kudos if you've made it this far. I have so much to write about shame because it's been a part of my life for a very long time. And it was shit.

Slowly, I'm removing those stones that have been crushing me. I'm breathing again, and being creative again. I hope you can start doing the same.

Yours, with a weight off,

Poetry + Picture Corner
No poem this week
I'm too tired
I'll write more
When I'm feeling inspired

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It's me, Elly.
My purpose is to help you feel organised in your creative work and confident in how to sell it.

I do it through a sustainable, one-step-at-a-time approach and a blend of practices that are right for where you and your work are right now. 

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