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Creativity and Boundary-Setting

Posted May 05 2010 10:02am

If someone told you that a piece you wrote is garbage and you’re a moron for writing it, could you object to their behavior?

When I work with people who are having trouble starting a project, this is often an area where they feel blocked. They don’t trust their ability to protect themselves against mistreatment. They feel reluctant to "put their work out there" because they don’t think they can handle the criticism that might come their way.

It’s also unsurprising that these people suffer greatly at the hands (or maybe "claws" is the better word) of their inner critic. Because they don’t feel capable of standing up to the critic, and they know how viciously the critic will savage their work, they understandably find it easier not to start projects they’re interested in.

The Power of "No"

Why is it so hard for many people to stand up to abuse, whether from within or from others? For one thing, I think many of us, growing up, were shamed or punished for saying "no," or "talking back." Many of us came to believe we were not allowed to set boundaries with others, and perhaps that it was "spoiled" and "childish" to do so.

When I work with someone dealing with this issue, one thing we often explore is how it feels for them to say "no." I tend to find that, even if the person is alone with me, and there are no judgmental or critical people within earshot, they still feel some shame around doing this. They don’t look me in the eye as they say it, and their "no" comes out soft and weak.

Often, if they can release their inhibition, and let out a loud, firm "no," they not only feel empowered — the project they’ve been putting off starts to look less scary and more doable. Because they know, from firsthand experience, that they can set clear boundaries with others, the prospect of criticism no longer frightens them so much.

I think another benefit of learning to say a powerful "no" — which may seem like a paradox — is that criticism doesn’t make us as angry when we develop this ability. Work, and life in general, take on more ease when we know we can handle ourselves if we’re attacked — in a way that’s similar, I think, to the quiet self-assurance of a martial arts master.

Priorities Depend On Boundaries

Yet another reason the ability to say "no" is important is that it allows us to set, and enforce, our own priorities. Often, I’ve noticed, people who are having trouble starting creative projects say they "just can’t find the time." However, the reason they "can’t find the time" is usually that they’re afraid to refuse others’ requests.

Whenever someone calls on the phone, for instance, they can’t bring themselves to let the call go to voicemail. Nor can they be the one to end the conversation. After all, the other person might feel neglected, and become angry and critical.

When they experiment with declining requests, and get comfortable with the feelings that come up when they do that, the book or business they’ve been "planning" for years ceases to look like such a daunting undertaking.

I’m not saying we should be critical toward others, or take revenge on those who put us down. As I’ll discuss later, that’s just another way of giving in to the inner critic — by merging with or embodying it. But I do think learning to say a forceful, unapologetic "no" can bring us a refreshing sense of creative freedom.

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