Creativity vs. The Judgmental Mind
We are defined by our experience. And our experiences, our perceptions, are determined by what we pay attention to. Sometimes we have the choice of where we look and what we think about, and sometimes we have a locus of attention forced upon us. When we make judgments of ourselves or of others, we cast attention to a thought or belief that is limiting and sometimes negative and when taken to an extreme can put ourselves, or our flexible mind, into a box.
So, thinking about how we look at and feel about the world and ourselves can affect whether we are open, accepting, and flexible enough to work at the top of our creativity.
According to certain theories of psychology and mind, we are the stories we tell about ourselves. Our sense of self develops from a combination of genetics, familial experience, brain structure, personality traits and tendencies, and social experiences, both internal and external.
If we define an artist or creative person (an area which is an evolving discussion) as someone who has particular strengths on certain scales of personality, such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, and/or extraversion, is hyper-attentive to surroundings, and engages in divergent thinking, then developing and strengthening that kind of thinking and attitude will heighten creative talents and personal expression.
This personal story will also include attitudes and experiences related to their socio-ethnic status and cultural group. If race is a construct (another evolving discussion) and racial groups and cultures are ethnicities, then the personal stories of people in those ethnic groups include perceptions of their relative place in society, other groups’ attitudes towards them, and their attitudes towards themselves.
The judgmental mind can occur when the part of us that is formed of core or limiting beliefs, such as societal norms, traditional ways of living, and wanting to please our families or communities, comes into conflict with a type of creative thinking and lifestyle that is more accepting, open and willing to think differently. There are indications of a tension between the telling of the two stories, societal judgments can conflict with self-narratives of creativity experienced and talent expressed. Societal judgments occur, such as when a black child is told that blacks don’t play, like, or listen to classical music or art, Asians are unoriginal or only interested in STEM careers, or that getting educated in the arts is a waste of time and money, since arts organizations don’t pay anything anyway. The internalization of these judgments can cause havoc in a developing artist. Being torn between two conflicting ways of thinking and being, how we were taught to think and live by the people we love, and how we deal with the discovery that our own way of being in the world comes in direct conflict and creates discord with those same people, and in a way, important parts of ourselves.
Crises of self and awareness can resolve with the ability to perceive that both narratives are true, and so if a black person really resonates to understanding and listening to Mozart and Ravel, her equally strong experience of being African American in America can be integrated and validate the self realization and awareness of her creative self.
Most people have an unexamined tendency to internalize societal norms and self-judge based on them. Creatives in particular will often have negative images of themselves when compared to engineers or businessmen. It is important to get past the self-dimishing and judgmental notion of being “just an artist”. One of the goals of my practice is to make an effort to change that social paradigm, and help activists and artists clarify their worth to themselves and their community. This can hopefully create a ripple effect and help society come closer to realizing the important contribution artists and activists make to the world and everyone’s experience of it. Attitudes society has about artists, (art is just fun, it’s not serious, you can’t get paid for making art, etc.), go along with long-held societal views of artists as being more prone to instability, addiction and mental illness. I also have a goal with regards to the image of artists in society, to explode the notion that artists are not dependable, are unstable, “crazy”, or more prone to addiction. All of these judgments are subjective and come from negative attitudes about artists within our society. There are lots of talented artists who live stable lives and are extremely creative and productive. You don’t hear about them because they don’t have meltdowns or self-destruct in public. What is perhaps more difficult and insidious is to convince artists themselves that it is possible to be highly creative and mentally healthy.
There are different types of judgment, some which are neutral or benign, and these often fall into the category of discernment. As artists we are in a particularly fraught situation, as we are asked all the time to judge our own and other’s artwork. Ideally we’re trying to discern quality, but isolating that alone is nearly impossible given the subjectivity of artistic and creative efforts. We also usually have to make some sort of judgment based on our interpretation of the meaning of a given work. Self-awareness about our own biases and tendencies can help us not to fall into negative patterns of judgment. It’s important as well to not commit what is known as fundamental attribution error, making judgments based on information or assumptions that turn our to be not true, or to be products of our own biases or prejudices. We don’t always have to be right. Acknowledging our relationship to the artist and what we think they’re trying to say or who we judge them to be can often bring to light our own inaccurate or negative assessments, or catch ourselves engaging in us/them types of thinking. Accepting that we fall prey to societal or community norms when we are faced with art from a person of another race, gender, ethnicity or class is an important way to begin to shift and open our view of the world. Opening our attitudes and thinking can help us develop a flexibility of mind and acceptance of difference that benefits our own creativity. There has been so much talk about how damaging confirmation bias is in the political sphere, but it can be just as mentally constricting and damaging in the creative sphere. Assuming you know what someone’s work means without seriously making the effort to learn or understand it, then dismissing it without making that effort limits your own ability to learn, understand, and creatively engage.
On the other hand, when our own work is being looked at and judged, we have to remember that we can’t control the viewer’s responses, and for the same reasons, we want to learn to resist internalizing them. Even when there is pretty clear evidence that the viewer is responding according to bias or negativity, internalizing those views, even to try to refute them, only perpetuates that kind of negative energy and thinking. Us vs. them types of thinking not only hardens conflict, but it causes creative thought patterns, the kind that thrive in a more ambiguous climate of thought, to harden and become conservative.
Ok, what exactly do I mean when I talk about judgmental thought? It can be explained in a variety of ways, as state or a trait, a pleasure or a defense. A state of what I call judgmentalism can come when a body is tired, overworked, burned-out, and in this case it can be considered a stress response, negative thinking of self or others, a sort of defeatist attitude. It can be a personality trait, a psychological disposition of getting pleasure from making moral pronouncements on other people, finding others to be of lesser status than yourself. This becomes defensive as well, when the need to judge others fulfills a desire to feel superior to others, being overly critical in an unhelpful way, or when fear of being judged by others causes you to be the one who judges. Casting others in a bad light makes us feel we are not so bad. This also happens when we skip from judging an action to making a qualitative judgment of the person. The idea can become circular, declaring someone else to be “so judgmental” can itself be a judgment, particularly if the things or actions being judged are a sore point.
It is possible to disagree without making a judgment of the person. It takes work and self-awareness to be able to do this, a strong enough sense of self and an ability to distance ourselves from taking another’s opinion personally. Being able to look at our judgmental thoughts, whether internal or external is a skill that takes effort and self-awareness, things that the judgmental mind doesn’t like to allow. It’s easier to make the judgment and let it stand than to look at it and figure out where it’s coming from, why it’s on repeat. We get attached to these notions that are comfortable, even though they are negative and self defeating, because taking the time to look at them in a light of awareness may show us part of our selves and personalities that we may not want to like or accept.
In certain instances or situations, some types of negative thought can be helpful, when the flow of ideas need to be edited, or when those ideas need to translated into an action or product. Internal or external criticism can help us move from one mode of thinking and being to another. Conflict engagements can also be helpful in organizing our thoughts and ideas around a subject, helping us create our own frame of reference. Sometimes guilt is the spur to get us into the studio or focusing on the next stage of a process. Those sorts of constructive negatives can be conducive to the creative process, but other types are more corrosive. Contempt and disgust have no redeeming qualities in the creative process, and shame shuts people down efficiently from a lot of creative thought or behavior. In order to create a state of creativity to do our best work, working towards developing openness to experience, flexibility of opinion, an ability to learn and absorb information, self-awareness, acceptance, and relaxation are key.
Stress Reduction- Relaxation, Inspiration & Flow
The judgmental mind is often the result of emotional stress, and is an ever-present fact of life for most people at some time in their lives. For our purposes, when I refer to stress, I’m speaking of the physiological response to some event or situation, either immediate or long term, that causes what is known as the “fight, flight, or freeze response” (FFF). This is a thousands of years old evolutionary development that caused us to be able to react quickly when we saw a tiger coming for our group on the savannah. It developed for good reason, and it’s still really necessary, when all sorts of daily situations call for that type of quick response, both physically and mentally. The problem in our modern society is that we have difficulty distinguishing from real stress situations and responses and those that may not be life threatening. When that happens, the difficulty develops in not being able to return to baseline, or reset our bodies to a state where we’re not in heightened response. Patterns of negative judgment can create the sort of ongoing stress that can induce physical and mental responses.
When this happens over a period of time, our bodies and minds become “tuned for stress” and we go through life at a low level of the fight, flight or freeze status. The physiological effects of this can cause damage both in the short term and over time. Some long-term physical effects of constant stress are increased cholesterol that leads to heart disease, an impaired immune system, and increased inflammation, effects that are linked to a variety of health problems. There are also mental effects, which can be even more important for us to consider, since we are depending on the flexibility and quickness of our thoughts and ability to continue to be effective in creative endeavors. Ongoing stress can shorten the attention span, cause automatic or chronic habitual behavior, and cause people to be less likely to notice detail or perceive subtlety.
It can be hard to tease apart automatic stress responses and those that we bring on ourselves. Subjecting ourselves to deadlines, engaging in negative behaviors, allowing ourselves to be in a state of constant worry, anxiety, or what we’re calling judgmentalism are all ways that thoughts cause mental and physiological stress responses.
Being aware of when and how we react to stress and how to manage it is a way of being empowered in society. Knowing what can be most effective to create a sense of wellbeing, whatever the technique or action, is not frivolous, it is critical. Positive emotions, a relaxed state, fluid or creative thinking can help to shift the physiological state created by FFF responses or negative thinking. It is also important to remember that we cannot be helpful, loving or effective for other people if we are not healthy and strong in our awareness and sense of self. Being focused, balanced and mentally strong is a way to be more effective in efforts to do better work, create change in ourselves, and change society. Self-care can be a radical act.
Researchers have discovered 6 basic types of stress, 3 physiological and 3 psychological, which are manifested with sympathetic nervous responses such as heightened heart rate and blood pressure, negative thoughts and attention. The 6 basic types of relaxation techniques, which can counteract the response to stress events, can include slowed breathing, lowered rates of hormone and adrenal activities. Relaxation is a state of reduced tension, anxiety and stress. It can be considered the “baseline” or how we feel in the absence of some sort of stressful event or situation. Relaxation (R) states can be brought on with combinations of these 6 physical and mental techniques.
Sympathetic Nervous response Parasympathetic response:
holding a posture, crouching, sitting / Stretching (yoga, pilates, dance)
holding muscles in chronic tension / Progressive Muscle Relaxation
short, shallow, rapid, breaths / Deep Breathing (diaphragmatic)
autonomic stressed/anxious sensations / Autogenic Training (biofeedback)
negative imagery, self talk or thoughts / Imagery (positive thoughts/imaginings)
attention focused on negative aspect / Meditation- centered, concentrated focus
attention divided (multitasking) / Mindfulness- free, open focus and perception
R states can be used to either eliminate or bring on a type of feeling. It’s good to remember that with discipline we can control how we feel, and are not at the mercy of emotions, anxieties and fears that can bedevil us. Different types of attention open and receptive, focused and concentrated, can help us in the various stages of the creative process. Increased ability to attain these states can have a direct impact on mental and physical health, immune system functioning and longevity. They can also have effects and achieve goals beyond stress relief, such as changing mood or heightening sensation.
at ease/ calm
release of tension
aware, focused, clear
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