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Crushing creative guilt

In Insight and Experience, The Arts and Expression by noelle.sterneLeave a Comment

Many of us feel a strong calling to express our talents – in the literary arts, music, dance, media, crafts, or sciences. In my profession of writing, almost every writer I know feels guilty for not writing enough, producing enough, and sending out enough pieces. But for ‘creatives’, as spiritual creativity guru Julia Cameron labels us, I’ve recognised another unproductive, thwarting, and possibly paradoxical self-recrimination.

Too much creation?

Preoccupied with pulverising our ‘blocks’ and eking out a few precious minutes for our craft, we rarely speak about this type of guilt: we feel guilty because we are creating. Especially during our most prolific times, an insidiously rational voice whispers, “I’m spending too much time here . . . I should be doing something more socially useful.” In The Artist’s Way, Cameron calls this guilt the ‘virtue trap’.

We strive to be good, to be nice, to be helpful, to be unselfish. We want to be generous, of service, of the world.

For creative women, Cameron quotes Leslie M. McIntyre’s wry observation:

Nobody objects to a woman being a good writer or sculptor or geneticist if at the same time she manages to be a good wife, good mother, good-looking, good-tempered, well-groomed, and non-aggressive.

Denying ourselves

Do you experience such guilt-making constraints? Put everyone and everything else first? Give your time, energy, and attention to others and skimp on the same precious resources for yourself?

These questions connect to a startling and profound passage in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you [will] kill you.

When we allow ourselves to express through our chosen mode, our production will ‘save’ us. But when we keep our drive to create bottled up, deny or ignore it, and deprive ourselves of even a little creative time, we stop creating at all. And we get depressed and sick, overeat, overspend, oversleep, overtube, and snap at everyone within mouth-shot.

The guilt of honouring ourselves

As soon as we give ourselves time to create, others can fuel the guilt of our honouring ourselves. One writer finally let her answering machine take over during her writing sessions. When she chose to pick up the phone, her best friend fumed, “Why are you hiding from me?”

It’s hard to honour ourselves, as this writer found. We’re bucking the entire expected social order, attested by everyone we say no to.

I recall agonising for weeks with a block the size of a giant cement slab. At last carving out two evening hours for writing, I sat down, but all I could think of was the list of essentials missing from the refrigerator.

“How can I sit here and scribble?”, I whined to a friend. “I should be doing something useful, like being a decent homemaker – or a social worker!”

She laughed. “Do you know how valuable words are? Their power?”


“Ever hear of the Bible or Hamlet, or the Declaration of Independence?” Her words about words cracked my block, and it shattered when I read a stirring description of writers:

“Visionaries, we predict the future … interpreting social trends, human nature, and historical patterns, punching holes in our readers’ complacency, revealing unpleasant truths, exposing possibilities and destroying our pretenses.”

These words helped me get back to writing. But to truly rope my guilty feelings, I needed to practise. The following four imperatives, applicable to any artists, helped me overcome creative guilt.

1.  Believe

Erroneously, we think our creative desires and dreams are frivolous, bad, ridiculous. We tell ourselves that creating isn’t ‘God’s will’ for us. We’re wrong: our work, and the drive for it, come directly from God.

In the Bible, Paul instructed his fellow evangelist Timothy, “Do not neglect your gift.” This admonition echoes down to us.

Cameron says, “Creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God. Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source.”

Metaphysical teacher Eric Butterworth explains, “The will of God is the ceaseless longing of the Spirit in you to completely fulfil in the outer the potential within you.”

Dare to believe that your dream of creating is given you from a divine source.

2.  Accept

Know that your yearning is far from silly, meaningless, or groundless. Rather, within it are the seeds of your ability to accomplish your dream. Of course, you may need training, practice, and experience, but the very strength of your aspiration means you’ll succeed.

If you’re questioning your calling and talent, don’t. A “deep desire”, says motivational writer Peter McWilliams, “also comes with an inborn ability to achieve that desire.”

3.  Decline

We need mental vigilance to be true to ourselves. Every time our fledgling self-confidence peaks out, negatives swoop in like preying crows. To send them flapping, we need the discipline of declining.

Observe your thoughts for a minute or so. You’ll be amazed at how many carry pessimism and anticipation of the worst:

  • I’ll never become a real writer (or painter, singer, dancer, musician, filmmaker, photographer, inventor, wood carver . . . )
  • I’ll never get published (or commissioned, called back, signed up, or optioned . . .)
  • I should have stayed in school to get another degree
  • I’m really very selfish

Such thoughts may feel natural, especially because most people think pessimistically. But a negative outlook is not natural, nor is a martyr resolve.

Sure, we all have family, friends, jobs, necessities, opportunities, and unexpected events that demand attention. These have their right places and times, but what also deserve the right places and times are you, your gifts, and your creative desires.

Some of us live by the law of ‘someday’:

  • “Someday, I’ll make the junk room into a writing studio.”
  • “Someday, when my oldest kid leaves, I’ll make her room into a darkroom.”
  • “Someday, when I retire, I’ll convert the guest bedroom into a workshop.”

Someday comes, all right, but that someday room always gets filled with more stuff, a kid returning, an actual guest.

To stop the someday chorus, with or without your equivalent, start thinking, ‘I create now.’ Writers, for example, work everywhere – at the kitchen table, in the car, the library, the park, a café.

A warning, though: changing your behaviour often provokes others’ shock, disappointment, hurt, anger, tears, or outrage. After all, they’ve always counted on you, but your refusal doesn’t mean you’ll never do anything for them again. It does mean that now you’re in charge of if, when, and how much to do. Set your limits, explain with kind firmness, and stick to your guns. When you do, family and friends may become surprisingly understanding and secretly proud of your new disciplined self: “Oh, he’s an inventor. You know how they are.”

They may also share startling admissions. One writer mustered the courage to tell her father she’d take him shopping only once a week for things he ‘forgot’. She said she needed the time to write. He shook his head, “I wish I had your discipline. I’ve always wanted to develop my photography, but there were so many other things I thought I had to do.” Julia Cameron’s ‘virtue trap’ is unisex.

4.  Declare

Bolster your new sense of deserving with affirmative declarations. Spend five quiet minutes daily, morning and evening, repeating affirmations:

  • I deserve to create.
  • My creative desire is God’s gift to me.
  • No one stands in my way.
  • I don’t stand in my way.
  • I have enough time, money, energy, interest, and cooperation from everyone to create consistently.
  • Being a creative harms no one.
  • Being a creative makes me feel good and keeps me healthy.
  • Being a creative blesses me and everyone I meet and know.

During your sessions, other similar words or phrases may float in. They’re your wiser self talking to you. Listen.

As you practise the principles and your affirmations, you’ll wrestle less with creating too little or too much. You’ll know deeply that you deserve to create in your chosen medium, enjoy it, and profit from it. Your creativity will flow and your deservingness and conviction in your gifts will strengthen. And you’ll perfectly crush your creative guilt.


Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011).

Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counsellor, Noelle Sterne, Ph.D., has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. In her book Trust Your Life:Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams, Noelle uses examples from her practice and other aspects of life to helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. www.trustyourlifenow.com

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