Discomfort as Creative Fuel
by Gina Edwards
This exercise helps creatives distinguish between the discomforts that hold us back and those that nourish our growth and expansion. Knowing the difference allows us to use discomfort to regain momentum on stalled projects or goals. Practiced over time, it can teach us how to use discomfort to reignite the passion for our creative dreams.
Being a thriving creative means continuously learning, growing, and expanding. Naturally, that requires pushing ourselves into unfamiliar territory, often dealing with people we don’t know, having to say things we’ve never said and do things we’ve never done. Creative growth also means experiencing emotions and thoughts that we’re unaccustomed to and that might even feel scary. While humans prefer to gravitate toward pleasure, ease, and safety, creatives cannot flourish unless we extend ourselves outside our comfort zones.
“Discomfort as Creative Fuel” can help you distinguish between the discomforts that stifle you and the ones that are natural effects of extending yourself to become the creative person you long to be. Understanding discomfort as part of the creative process can transform it from something that extinguishes your creative passion into something that ignites it.
This exercise combines breath work and visualization with journaling. Although it’s described here for writers, it’s useful for all creative types. A coach can guide a group or individual client through the exercise and/or you can practice it on your own. Paper, pen or pencil, and a comfortable place to sit are all that’s needed. If you’re doing this at home, the breath work could be done lying down rather than sitting.
Begin by closing your eyes and looking to your “third eye,” toward the middle of your forehead. This is a center point for intuition, manifesting, and perception of both our inner and our outer worlds. Don’t strain or cross your eyes; simply turn your attention gently toward this area between your eyebrows.
Now take three to five breaths to calm and center yourself. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale slowly and fully through your mouth, relaxing into each breath, releasing any tensions in your body. In a group situation, a coach can gently direct participants through each cycle of breath and relaxation.
When you’re fully relaxed, consider an activity or an action that’s come up for you recently, something you’ve had on your mind to do but have not attempted. For example, it might be completing that disturbing scene in your novel, decluttering your writing space, or accepting an invitation to talk to a book club. It can be anything, big or small, that you’ve resisted.
Once you’ve chosen an activity to focus on, hold it in your mind for several minutes as you continue to gaze, with eyes closed, toward your third eye. Visualize how it would feel to actually do the activity. What would you be thinking and feeling while doing it? Consider the possible outcome of this activity. What would you be thinking and feeling once the activity is actualized or complete? Stay with your visualization for three to four minutes.
Now, gradually open your eyes and reach for your journal or notebook. First, jot down the activity you chose to focus on. Then, using the following prompts, record the thoughts and feelings you inventoried while you were holding that activity and its outcome in your mind.
+ When I think about doing (the activity), I . . .
+ When I visualize (the activity) as done or complete, I . . .
You can free-write or follow these prompts, whichever feels right for you. As an example, here is a portion of what one client wrote: “When I think about speaking to a book club, I wonder why anyone would want to hear me talk about my book. I get terribly nervous in front of a group and my hands get sweaty. Sometimes I feel like I’ll faint. I think I’m going to make a fool of myself. I’d like to accept their invitation—the organizer said they loved my book—but I also want to go hide under a rock.”
Repeat the two prompts for your own activity and go deeper each time. Foremost, be honest with yourself about your thoughts and feelings. Fill at least one page and up to two pages if time allows.
When you’ve finished writing or when time is up, close your eyes and take three long, cleansing breaths to release any residual tension. Open your eyes to review what you’ve written, looking for any words or phrases that could relate to a state a discomfort, words and phrases like nervous, humiliated, not worthy, depressed, afraid, tired, lazy, not smart enough, not talented enough, not (whatever) enough. In our example above, the writer’s discomforts showed up in her wonderment that anyone would want to hear her talk about her book, and were described in the following ways: I get nervous, my hands get sweaty, I feel like I’ll faint, I feel like I’ll make a fool of myself, and I want to go hide.
What words and phrases that represent discomfort have you used in your written piece? Underline them. Now circle the one word or phrase that resonates most strongly for you in this moment. Focusing on this, ask yourself the following questions.
1. When I consider (the activity), why do I feel or think (insert word/phrase)?
2. Is this discomfort presenting itself because doing or completing (the activity) would put me outside my comfort zone?
3. Would doing or completing (the activity) move me closer to my goal(s) or dreams?
4. Once (the activity) is complete, would I feel a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction?
Respond honestly, going as deeply as you can. Then pick another discomfort and repeat the question-answer process.
These questions are intended to separate out the two types of discomfort. The first variety is the result of a churning mind that offers up beliefs, opinions, or self-judgments that cannot be substantiated by evidence—such as, “I’ll make a fool of myself,” “Why would anyone care about my book?” and “Why would anyone want to hear me talk about it?” This type of discomfort is associated with beating yourself up and is to be avoided.
The second type of discomfort is an effect of reaching toward your dreams and doing what you need to do to support your creative life. It comes from anticipating and entering into new or unfamiliar territory—for example, the nervousness that might accompany speaking to a group such as a book club. This discomfort is borne out of extending yourself to grow and expand. It should be expected and embraced as a natural part of the creative life.
Look back at your writing and your responses to these questions. Can you distinguish between the discomforts that serve you and those that do not?
I originally developed this exercise for myself after admitting a resistance to completing my novel. I needed a tool to distinguish between the discomforts that serve me and those that do not. Using the four questions above, I examined the different varieties of fear, anxiety, and overwhelm I sometimes feel in the writing process.
Here is one set of my responses related to the discomfort of feeling anxious:
1. When I think about finishing my book, I feel anxious because I’m afraid someone (anyone, doesn’t matter who!) won’t like my writing once it’s published.
2. The discomfort of being judged is absolutely outside my comfort zone. Who doesn’t want to be loved!?
3. Completing my book would put me one step closer to being a published novelist.
4. I can easily visualize (and feel) how proud I’ll be once my novel is published. It will give me a deep sense of accomplishment.
Repeating the exercise over time, focusing on a different discomfort each time, this question-response process has taught me to recognize the useful discomforts, to embrace them as part of the process and to see them as motivation for reaching for my dreams.
I also use this exercise with clients who, despite being clear about their goals and dreams, feel stuck or overwhelmed. When resistance or inaction are setting in, the discomforts that stifle creativity are usually beginning to take hold, and this is the perfect time to practice this exercise.
You can use this exercise for any activity you’ve resisted. Practiced over time, it can help you direct the discomfort you experience toward being fuel for your creative dreams.
About Gina Edwards
Gina Edwards is a retreat leader, a certified creativity coach, and a book editor. She is also a writer, so she’s intimately familiar with the challenges and elation that come with being one. She supports all writers—published and aspiring—who want to write as an act of courageous and necessary self-expression. Walking the writer’s path hand-in-hand with her clients and students, she helps them establish a writing practice and define a creative life on their own terms. You can connect with Gina at www.AroundTheWritersTable.com.