Creative Blocks by Dr. Amy Harkins

For my final research project in graduate school, I conducted a combined qualitative and quantitative research study called “The Happy Families Studies: Narratives on Childhood and Creative Experiences”.  My overarching research question built upon the work of my mentor Dr. Barbara Kerr and was designed to learn about the relationship between creativity and positive family environments. One subject within the study that was particularly valuable to me was the information gathered about Creative Blocks.

The Creative Block. The experience of having a “creative block” was a very common and frustrating experience for the interviewees in the study. They described feeling as if they were at a “road block,” or “looking into a black box,” where they could “see nothing.” It was a time when ideas stopped coming, writing felt difficult, or interpersonally they were unable to make connections or decisions. Feelings of being overwhelmed were common. It seemed as if they were hyper-focused, either too narrowly or too broadly, and found it difficult to shift to another vantage point.

The Source of the Block. Sometimes the source of the creative block was a perceived lack of resources or overly confining parameters superimposed upon the project by some outside force. Conversely, there were times when a lack of direction or feedback about what was expected inhibited productivity because the project was so defuse it was hard to know where to begin. Some interviewees struggled with the demands of deadlines and some really needed deadlines to stay motivated. When conditions for creativity were not satisfied, creative productivity declined or ceased entirely. For some, creative blocks were both depressing and caused by depression.

How Creative Blocks End. The strategies used to get beyond a creative block were often focused upon getting a new perspective.

Taking a Break: Sometimes walking away from the project, or leaving it alone for a little while was the best way to undo a block. Several interviewees said the blessing their work was that they had so many different projects in progress simultaneously; there was always something else they could do to be productive. Sometimes they would leave work, socialize with friends or relax with family members. Also, sleeping was a great way to take a break because sometimes a brilliant idea would arise between the hours of 2 and 5 am.

Talking to Others: Consulting with other people often provided the interviewees with a spring board they needed to return to a project with renewed enthusiasm. They did not look for someone to “solve” the problem for them. Rather, they wanted others to engage in the decision process with them, ask questions, and offer “what if” scenarios. When a creative block ended, it seemed like a dam had broken and a flood of ideas would rush into their awareness.

Having Faith: When the above strategies did not work, the interviewees turned to faith, trust, or prayer. Some would “raise the problem up to God” and ask for guidance. Some would let go of the problem, trusting that with time it would resolve itself. A few interviewees said they might begin to question their interest in continuing in the direction they had been pursuing. If an answer did not come in time, one woman said that was a signal to her that she was on the wrong path and her spiritual guardians were blocking her way for a reason. Most interviewees knew when to stop working on a problem that seemed permanently stuck and could reinvest their energy in another area of their life.

Seeking Help: Several interviewees said that they had experienced prolonged creative blocks, lasting for several years. One cause of a prolonged creative block was depression caused by chemical imbalance. Other causes were situational, like after an illness, death in the family, natural disaster or other crisis. Seeking professional advice from doctors and mental health professionals proved valuable in these instances.

Creative productivity was greatest for the interviewees who fostered a feeling of playfulness, flexibility, and discovery in their work environment. Furthermore, involvement in fun hobbies and time spent with family and/or friendship networks supported overall happiness and creative productivity.


Suggested readings:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollins.

Hallowell, E. M. (2002). The childhood roots of adult happiness: Five steps to help kids create and sustain lifelong joy. New York: Ballantine.

Piirto, J. (1992). Understanding those who create. Dayton, OH: Ohio Psychology Press.

About Dr. Harkins:

Amy Harkins, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist working with Easter Seals of Greater Houston, Mental Health Program. Dr. Harkins meets with adults one-on-one for talk therapy that is goal-directed, strengths-based and aims to make small, yet meaningful changes to improve the well-being and quality of life of her clients. She has extensive experience working with elders, Veterans and their loved ones, and recently responded to the emotional needs of people recovering from Hurricane Harvey. Dr. Harkins has specialized skills in working with clients who have survived traumatic life events and can assist them in healing the emotional wounds that linger after trauma has occurred. Dr. Harkins earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Arizona State University in 2005. Her graduate research was on the topic of creativity.