“A creative life is an amplified life.” ~Elizabeth Gilbert
When I look back at my life, I recognize that some of the most pivotal moments revolved around creativity and self-expression.
As a kid, that meant community theater. My first solo was “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid. Though I felt incredibly insecure in my green spandex pant-fins as a fairly thick twelve-year old, I was able to tune that out when I made my way center stage.
It was just me, my heart, my voice, and the spotlight. And that song felt written for me, as I felt like an outsider pretty much everywhere at that time in my life.
Around the same time I found my passion for writing—my first foray into the world of self-help, actually. To deal with bullying at school and a difficult home life, I began writing myself a series of motivational essays, little things to boost my self-esteem in a world that seemed to want to tear it down.
It was fairly mortifying when I noticed the boys huddled in the cafeteria, reading from my well-worn spiral notebook, which they had stolen from my backpack. But in retrospect, I wonder if maybe one of them secretly benefitted from something I had written. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt lost and insecure.
Then there was the time after college, more accurately when I should have been finishing my final semester, but instead was in a three-month residential program for people with eating disorders.
My favorite part of the program was art therapy. Though I drew myself, on day one, as a skeletal body curled up in a trash bag of vomit, I left that program with a life-size painting of my healthier self, standing tall and proud, with expansive wings. My art literally reflected my internal transformation.
I have countless stories like these—times when creativity and self-expression helped me make sense of the world, process feelings that might have otherwise festered within, and heal from pains that could easily have consumed me.
I imagine we all do, if not in recent years, then from childhood and adolescence, before the stresses and responsibilities of adulthood began consuming our thoughts and our lives.
Maybe you felt free and alive in a garage band, surrounded by a tribe of misfits, just like you, who came to feel like home. Or perhaps you made jewelry and found a meditative state of bliss that deepened with each bead strung.
You might think you’ve never been creative, perhaps because you never done anything artsy. But odds are, if you look back, you’ll find something you once brought into the world that couldn’t have been there without you—a well-constructed debate in a class that excited you, a detailed pitch for a business idea that inspired you, or even something far simpler, like a particularly clever Halloween costume.
But if you’re anything like me, you haven’t always prioritized creating and expressing yourself. These things may seem like luxuries in a world full of deadlines, debt, and ever-mounting obligations.
Or, perhaps they just don’t seem like appealing options when you could far more easily zone out with Netflix, mindless Facebook scrolling, or a six-pack that’s been calling from your fridge.
I totally get that. I can’t tell you how many nights I distracted or numbed myself because I felt far too wound up to sketch, or color, or write.
Anything creative would have required me to connect with myself, and many times I’ve preferred to escape myself. So I wouldn’t have to listen to what my inner voice was saying and then either act on it or acknowledge I was too scared.
But we need to connect with ourselves. We need to hear the faint voice that’s screaming inside, trying to get our attention and tell us what we need. Otherwise we’re not really living. We’re just dragging our bodies from one place we don’t want to be to the next, waiting for moments when we can dull the pain of our frustration and discontent.
Creativity is the gateway to self-connection, and it’s the path to giving ourselves what we really need. Here’s how it can help us do just that.
1. Creativity can help pull us into the moment.
We have to be present to connect with ourselves, but often we’re caught up in a mental web of worries, regrets, and obsessive thoughts. Creativity has a way of cutting through all that.
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi popularized the idea of “flow” in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It’s that space when we’re fully immersed in the task at hand, the rest of the world somewhat blurred around us. That’s often what creativity does for us.
I think it’s no coincidence that I first learned how to crochet afghans in that residential treatment center for eating disorders I mentioned before. We weren’t just trying to keep our weakened, fragile bodies warm, though that was a pleasant side effect. We were finding freedom from our thoughts with the meditative experience of looping yarn, row by row.
Whether you’re writing, painting, cooking, or doing something I don’t even know to reference, creativity often pulls you into the now, where you come to face to face with your truest self.
2. Creativity helps us access, process, and express feelings we may otherwise have stuffed down.
When you’re truly dialed in to your present moment experience, creating something from that space of awareness, illusions have a way of melting away. You’re not just creating something pretty or interesting; you’re connecting with a piece of your heart.
This might mean literally writing about your feelings, or it might mean giving visual form to something you couldn’t put into words—a color or scribble that represents an emotion, for example.
I suspect this is why the Wreck This Journal series has been so popular. It’s creation through destruction, and an outlet for the “negative” emotions so many us have been taught to label as bad. Those feelings don’t just go away because we resist them. They need to be somehow processed.
It’s only when we process and express our feelings that we’re able to fully understand what’s going on inside of ourselves, and create space to discover what we need—whether that pertains to our work, our relationships, or any other aspect of our lives.
3. Creativity can help us heal from the past.
I recently found a study that made a correlation between having survived a difficult childhood and being intensely creative. The researchers wondered why mental health disorders were so common in the performing arts, and they conducted this research to better understand the link.
This study was fairly limited in scope, but still, it aligns with what I’ve long suspected: When we’ve experienced neglect, abuse, or trauma, and carry intense shame or anxiety, we may feel a strong pull toward the arts, since this gives us a space to “express all that is human,” as psychologist Paula Thompson put it.
In other words, expressive arts can help us make sense of and make peace with our pain.
As a writer, I can vouch for this, as it’s incredibly cathartic to create a character who’s known a pain you’ve felt before, and not only express what it felt like for you, but also explore what it might have felt like for the person who hurt you. This was certainly my experience in writing my first screenplay.
Creating these kinds of worlds, characters, and scenes can help us empathize with people who’ve wronged us, better understand what shaped them, and ultimately, heal and move on.
4. Creativity is fueled by curiosity—and curiosity is the key to developing self-awareness.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear defines creativity as “choosing the path of curiosity instead of fear.”
When we explore something though our creative work—an idea, a feeling, a topic—that’s really what we’re doing. We’re identifying something that interests us, following our curiosity, and creating something based on what we’ve discovered.
Strengthening this muscle of following curiosity can help us develop a greater sense of self-awareness. We start to ask ourselves the right questions (as opposed to ones that never yield useful or empowering answers), like: Why do I hold this belief? Where did it come from? How does it serve me? What would serve me better?
And simply through the process of creating, we learn about ourselves. I believe we essentially recreate ourselves with everything we create.
5. Creativity is just for us, at least to start.
The world requires a lot from us. Not only do other people have expectations and needs, they also have ideas of who we are or who we should be. This can make it awfully challenging to connect with what feels true and right for us—especially since who we are is always evolving.
For a long time, I felt a pang of inner conflict whenever I thought about evolving beyond my role here on the site. I felt a deeply embedded sense of identity—I’m Lori, a self-help author—and I almost felt afraid of allowing myself to see who else I could be.
I was most scared of exploring possibilities publicly, since that would open me to other peoples’ opinions and judgments. And given that I was in a confusing, uncertain space, I felt highly susceptible to outside influence.
But creativity was just for me. When I was coloring in one of my many adult coloring books, sketching, and working on my screenplay, I could tune everyone and everything else out, and simply focus on my own experience and inner voice.
I think we all need that, especially in a culture that compels us to constantly seek external validation and third-party opinions on our every move, through social media.
We need those moments of self-reflection and self-discovery that no one else can weigh in on or judge. This is how we learn who want to be and what really need to do for our happiness and well-being.
6. Creativity helps peel away layers of stress and anxiety to reveal the peace underneath.
We often say, “I have anxiety” or “I’m so stressed,” as if those things are actually part of who we are. But the truth is we experience anxiety and stress, and underneath there is a calm clarity, like the stillness below raging waves in the sea.
Creative practices give us a positive outlet for our energy and attention. When we’re doodling or woodworking or doing anything with our hands, we’re focusing on something aside from what’s wrong in our life or what might go wrong in the future. We’re essentially giving our brain a break from reliving pain or trying to avoid it.
When we create that relief for ourselves, we’re able to connect with who we truly are, underneath all the layers of fear and conditioning. It’s only by accessing this space of calm clarity that we can make choices that feel right for us.
7. Creativity can help boost our confidence, which is essential to communicating what we need.
It’s all good and well to connect with ourselves and ascertain what we need, but we also need to be able to communicate that to other people—whether that means setting boundaries in our personal life or asking for a more challenging project at work.
When we work on creative projects—particularly when we complete them—we naturally boost our confidence. And that bleeds into other areas of our lives.
An old friend of mine changed careers a few years back and now works as a baker. She posts pictures of these amazing cakes on Facebook, and I’m always blown away to see her artistic talent. These are literally edible works of art.
For a long time she only posted pictures, but she recently started posting videos showing her process. And it seems to me that this experience of creating, being seen, and feeling proud of her work has given her the boost necessary to share even more of herself.
Sharing ourselves, sharing our thoughts, sharing our wants and needs—it all goes hand in hand.
8. Creativity reminds us we’re more than what we accomplish.
We live in a world that sends a pretty conflicting message—it’s all about the journey, but hurry up and do something important so you can prove you matter and make a name for yourself.
We understand, intellectually, that life is always a path, not simply a destination, but it’s hard to escape the nagging suspicion that we haven’t arrived at enough places. That we need to do more, accomplish more, earn more, be more. Because who we are isn’t enough.
Creativity is, by definition, about the process. Sure, it’s great to create something that sells and see that your work impacts other people. But the squeeze isn’t just about the juice.
We gain so much through the act of creating—presence, self-expression, healing, self-awareness, time to ourselves, clarity, and confidence. But perhaps most importantly, we gain the ability to meet in ourselves in a moment, with the sole intention of expressing what’s in our hearts.
There’s something immensely freeing about knowing that this alone is a worthy goal. That we truly can create for the fun of it, for the love of it, because it makes us feel passionate and alive.
And when we feel passionate and alive, we forget for a moment that there’s anywhere else to get to—because for that time, there’s nothing to escape.
Perhaps that is the ultimate goal of connecting with ourselves. We meet ourselves so we can fully meet the present moment, and all the other people who inhabit it. So we can not just get through our days but really live them, and be available to give and receive love. A life fully lived, a self fully expressed, a heart fully open—I don’t know about you, but that’s all I really need.
About Lori Deschene
Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha. She’s also the author of Tiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal and other books and co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and redefine yourself. An avid film lover, she recently finished writing her first feature screenplay and would appreciate advice from anyone in the industry to help get this made. You can reach her at email (at) tinybuddha.com.