Why are creative people so sensitive about their work?

In her response to my last blog, film producer Rebecca Long said:

“I have found that in the creative industries we are all so passionate about what we do, and ideas and projects seem to be so much more personal and emotional than in most people’s work, and as a result you find that creative people can be very sensitive. If you then throw into the mix extreme pressures such as time and money and managing a lot of people, this makes for a boiling pot of difficulties…”

Rebecca speaks from experience. She is right to identify the passion which creative people feel about their work and the personal nature of that work as key elements in this mix.

But some highly creative people may have additional challenges to deal with. Modern studies and analysis of the letters and diaries of highly creative people throughout history have shown that creative people may be as much as four times more likely to suffer from mood disorders, of varying levels of severity, than non-creatives – including bipolar and unipolar depression.

Some well-known examples are Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, Berlioz, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, F Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Wolf, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko…. the list goes on.

Why should there be this link between high levels of creativity and a particular psychological profile?

There are various hypotheses which seem to me to ring true. Depression is intimately linked to feelings of low self-worth, which may result from dysfunctional childhood relationships. So

• depressive people have experienced suffering and want to make sense of things through their work or change them.“They learn in suffering what they teach in song” (Shelley on poets);

• provided that the depression is not completely disabling, intense concentration and absorption in a complex task may permit an escape from depressive thoughts, and the act of creation, in producing a tangible product of intrinsic value, can help to dull those thoughts;

• depressives also have an acute fear of failure (because it will further damage their self-esteem), which can motivate them to strive harder, perhaps even to overwork in a manic phase. This means, however, that actual failure can completely paralyse them. They may therefore be very vulnerable and lacking in resilience;

• in the case of sufferers from bipolar depression, the increase in speed of thinking and the sheer volume of thought during the manic state may produce unique ideas and inspirations – so may be a catalyst for creativity.

The creative is in a double bind. Their work is meaningful and resonant with others because they have experienced powerful feelings and put so much of themselves into it.

But they are also posing publicly a self which is particularly vulnerable to criticism. And because of that vulnerability and lack of resilience, they may hear any criticism as a highly personal attack on their self worth, and may refuse to accept the points being made, fight back or even descend into creative paralysis.

So what can you do if you are leading or managing someone with this profile?

To get the best from insecure creatives, the leader needs to parent them, to try and tune in to their vulnerabilities, provide large amounts of support and encouragement, and show how much he or she values the contribution which each individual makes.

When the team members are secure in the belief that they are valued and appreciated, it will be much easier to persuade them to accept constructive criticism.

The same applies to “difficult” talent, whose big egos often conceal deep insecurities, and who try to get rid of their bad feelings about themselves by projecting them on others – eg by demanding that particular crew members be fired. The enormous ego of the narcissist is a protection for acute vulnerability.

And what if you recognise yourself from this description? If the problem is really severe, and prevents you from working effectively, then don’t be afraid to seek help from a qualified professional.

If it’s not that severe, but you’d like to increase your resilience in the face of setbacks or criticism, there are lots of techniques you can try, and I’ll talk about them more in a future blog.

The author: Janet Evans is a business psychologist, executive coach and consultant on leadership and strategic planning, with an MSC in Organisational Psychology and a Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring. She works mainly in the creative media industries and the public sector, having been a senior leader in Whitehall for many years. She runs her own consultancy, Adsum Consulting Limited, and can be contacted on janet@adsumconsulting.co.uk

Staff Reporter