Shame and creativity

Shame is a potent inhibitor of identity, agency and creativity. It originates in our earliest relationships with the adults we depend on for survival. The way we manage shame later in life is directly influenced by our early attachment needs and the way these are or are not met; by the way our interest and engagement with the world around us is managed by our caregivers. If our attachment relationships are secure we learn to regulate the shame we experience as a normal, healthy part of our development and socialisation. This kind of manageable shame helps us to stay congruent to our deepest values. If this is not the case, if our primary caregivers are unpredictable, absent or terrifying in their emotional responses to us, we will have developed an archive of shame scripts that we struggle to manage and that come into play with subsequent shaming episodes. We’ll struggle to regulate our emotions, to trust and value ourselves, and to keep a perspective on shame.

If, as very young children, we are encouraged and allowed to be ourselves, we will have the confidence to explore and the courage to create. If, on the other hand, we have learned to reign ourselves in to ensure that our physical and attachment needs are met, to ensure that we are cared for, we are likely to struggle with exploring our environment freely and with expressing ourselves creatively. We are likely to be hampered by shame.

Creativity by its nature demands that we are original; it requires original ideas and ways of expressing them. Being creative is about putting ourselves on the page, on the canvas, in the notes in our composition, in the design of the fabric or the architecture of the building, the layout of the garden, the format of the workshop we are leading, in the clothes we are wearing, in the colour we paint our window frames.

Sharing the fruits of our creativity necessitates self-exposure. Immediately we put ourselves out there we are under surveillance, subject to the gaze of others. Often that surveillance is wary, the gaze is critical. While we hope for appreciation, affirmation and delight, we also open ourselves up to the possibility of dislike, disapproval and even ridicule. Exposure is also one of the key attributes or characteristics of shame. When we experience shame, we feel exposed and want to hide. We want the ground to swallow us up.

A relationship with exposure is common to both shame and creativity, suggesting that they have a core baseline or root. This root is in identity. Shame and creativity are both intrinsic to a sense of self. If I am secure in myself, know and trust my identity and feel valued, shame is moderate and I can manage it. I am able to risk exposure because I trust myself and my ability to bounce back, and I feel supported by others around me. If on the other hand I have a global sense of myself as bad or inadequate, if I depend on the approval of others to feel good about myself, I may struggle to reveal my creativity, to put myself on the page, to expose myself to the possibility of criticism. Some people would rather die than risk shame.

To live with a burning desire to create that cannot be fulfilled is a death, or at least a sickness, of the soul. Gershen Kaufman (1996) describes shame as a sickness of the soul that must be healed in order for the self to be whole. One of the first ways both to heal shame and to find safety to express ourselves creatively is to find community. To surround ourselves with people who care for us, who are supportive, whom we can trust, and to explore our creativity in that context. It is to seek out and nurture those aspects of our identity that were not allowed to flourish in childhood, and which we know in our hearts are still present, waiting to be liberated. And above all, it is to approach ourselves with compassion.

© Miryam Clough 2012