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Therapy for Creatives, Part 9: Depression and Low Motivation

Updated: May 1, 2021

Low motivation is a common complaint in therapy. Being uninspired at different times in life is predictable and does not, by itself, imply any sort of dysfunction. Sometimes we just don't have the time, energy, or willpower to take on a task. Low motivation that becomes a steady state over weeks or months may indicate a medical or mental health issue.

For the creative, low motivation may interrupt the flow of ideas that allow us to make a living or cause an unwanted block to progress on critical personal work. Doing therapy with creatives has led me to believe that there is an objectively measurable correlation between blocks to creativity and depression. If working and thinking creatively is part of our identity and a driver of self-esteem, then low motivation or depression may cause a substantial drag on the enjoyment of life.

There are those rare creatives whose output actually increases during periods of depression. Creative efforts can provide a safe place to 'hide out' from other tasks that need doing. That is a solid but temporary win. The satisfaction of having found one's flow and emerged with some good work is tainted with the knowledge that one must ultimately leave the bunker and participate in real life. That creative technique is probably unsustainable. The writer who stops answering the phone and drinks heavily because it feels better to write that way is ultimately headed for trouble.

Breaking the Cycle

"Because I'm depressed, my motivation is low. Because my motivation is low, I'm depressed."

When working with patients, there can be confusion as to how to intervene in this scenario. The common phrases, 'pushing through depression' or 'trying to work even though I lack the energy,' imply that one has to wait it out—that eventually energy, clarity, focus, and motivation will return. And usually, that is the case, and at some point, we regulate. But creatives have tools to quicken the rate of recovery.

The Tools

I've written before about the importance of 'small rituals.' Things that we do automatically to start our day. Some of my small rituals are 1) winding my watch as the very first thing that I do when I get out of bed and 2) a one-minute meditation before I begin my first therapy session. When I pick up an instrument, the very first thing I do is record what I spontaneously play. I rarely use that recording, but it is my sketchpad that I go back to for ideas. When my energy is low or my focus is not what I want it to be, engaging in those acts brings a sense of comfort and continuity to my day, a reassuring reminder that I will eventually revert to my norm. In spiritual practice, ritual is a comforting way to remain connected and prepared. For creatives it's a natural expansion of their process providing a positive inflection point in their day.

Low Barriers to Success

For many creatives, there is a battle between 'doing it perfectly' and avoiding the perception of failure by not doing a thing at all. While this conundrum is not limited to creatives, we are particularly vulnerable to the self-punishing shame of procrastination. In this case, try a conscious decision to engage in tasks with a low barrier to success. So you aren't going to do 90 minutes of yoga; rather, do 5 minutes instead. The depressed yogi can simply take 30 seconds for some mindful breathing and stretching from their desk or even their bed. If you want to write, try writing a paragraph. Reading? Just read one page. The positive inertia of accomplishment outweighs any judgment of our efforts not being good enough.

Permission Not to Finish

This one may be my favorite technique. Allow yourself the luxury of not finishing, or not knowing, or not doing. One can write, record, sketch, or simply mentally file away good 'seed crystal' ideas. We don't have to act right now; we don't have to execute. As creatives, our fantasies, even our glimmers of possibility, have value. When we uncouple the idea from the activity of manifesting, we can feel some sense of accomplishment knowing that we are restocking the shelves with nascent work.

Of course these suggestions can work for those who do not identify as creative, but using the power of imagination, ritual action, and low barriers to success are derived directly from the experience of creative living. Creativity flows from the subjective self. Our power to define our work as meaningful and good can be harnessed to help regulate negative feelings.

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