Have you ever suffered creative mortification? Coined by educator Ronald Beghetto, the term describes losing your willingness to pursue a creative avenue following a negative outcome. Maybe you gave up on stand-up comedy forever after your set at the open mic night was met with murmurs instead of laughs, or you burned your accordion after that disastrous appearance on America’s Got Talent.
Creative mortification doesn’t refer to temporarily being discouraged by negative feedback; that’s called “creative suppression” (also “reading the YouTube comments”), and it’s inevitable in any creative pursuit. Creative mortification can be understood by the classic definition of the word “mortification.” It means “to put to death,” and it encompasses all the finality that implies. It describes someone who loved to sing but never opened their mouth again after being in the school play, or the person who says “I can’t draw” for their entire life because of a 4th grade art teacher’s criticism. Creative mortification is giving up completely.
When discouragement becomes mortification
According to Beghetto’s research, there are two main components of creative mortification. The first is “attributing negative outcomes to one’s fixed creative ability,” and the second is experiencing negative emotions, particularly shame.
If you ask high-level creatives how they got that way, most will say something like, “I practiced a lot.” Very few will respond, “I’m just naturally good at it.” Still, the idea that here’s some inherent talent level that a person either has or doesn’t have tends to be how most people think of creative pursuits, especially when we’re thinking about ourselves. Mortification can come from an external event that reinforces your internal insecurity about your own inherent talent.
The second main driver of creative mortification is shame. We can all relate to the flushed-cheek feeling of not living up to a personal expectation, but it’s often more traumatic when it’s a creative pursuit, especially when in front of other people. Creativity can feel like taking deep, meaningful parts of ourselves and putting them on display for others. If those expressions are rejected (or if you even perceive them as being rejected) shame will probably follow, and shame is such a powerful negative emotions that many will do anything, including giving up something they enjoy, to avoid feeling it.
How to overcome creative mortification
There’s no specific prescription that will help everyone overcome creative mortification. We’re on our own journeys, and psychological phenomena rarely have pat answers. But here are a few things to think about that might help.
Understand how creativity works
Confronting false ideas about how creativity works is an important step to overcoming mortification — particularly if those ideas come from believing you have no “natural talent.” No one can say exactly where creativity (or any type of talent) comes from. It’s a complex question that may not have an answer, but talent almost definitely isn’t entirely some internal, born-with-it human property. Some people might be born with more natural ability at something, but everyone can improve through putting in the work. Not everyone can play the piano well, but everyone can play the piano better if they take lessons and practice their scales.
Hard work and talent are often the same thing, anyway. Countless hours of dedicated, structured practice can seem like “natural talent” if a level of expertise is achieved. For some, unbridled creativity that looks like natural talent is only possible if the “rules” of the creative form have been so thoroughly ingrained that they can be ignored.
Separate the personal from the creative
I have a friend who is a successful enough screenwriter that he’s regularly asked to read other people’s screenplays. He turns almost everyone down unless they’re already a professional writer. It’s not because he’s an arsehole — it’s because he doesn’t know the motivations of the persona asking, and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Amateurs often don’t want feedback or constructive criticism. They want validation. They want someone to say, “you’re talented and good at this and I’m impressed,” not “there’s a structure problem with the second act.”
People who share something creative can feel like they’re revealing themselves in a deeply personal way, so criticism or a lukewarm response can feel like a harsh rejection. But that’s almost never the intention of the audience. If you’re performing at an open mic night, the audience just might not be into your song, but it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.
Manage your expectations
It’s not often mentioned in the small amount of research done on creative mortification, but a lot of people seem to give up on creative pursuits because they realise that they’re unlikely to be great at singing, painting, acting, or other creative pursuit. “If I can’t dance like Michael Jackson, what’s the point?” they might ask.
And in a way, those people are right. Very few achieve anything like mastery at a creative pursuit, so if creativity was a competition, you’d lose. But it’s not. Despite television shows like American Idol, there aren’t any winners. There’s no medal ceremony for creative pursuits, and no universal scoreboard where the good are separated from the bad.
You can’t even know if you’re good at something creative anyway, because it’s not your decision. It’s up to everyone else. This may sound depressing, but it can actually be freeing. It means you don’t have to worry about it. All you have to do is take what you’re given, put in the work, and lay it in front of others if you choose. How they react is their problem.
Remember that people don’t actually care about you that much
Moments of creative mortification (or any embarrassment) can be extremely traumatic. They pop into our heads when we’re minding our own business to remind us that we’re awful people. But try to remember that you are only the main character to yourself. Other people probably don’t remember whatever happened, and probably wouldn’t care if they did. It’s also worth noting that many moments of creative mortification happen in childhood, and your younger self was just a kid. It’s alright to give yourself a break for missing your cue in the eighth grade school play. It doesn’t mean you’ll never be an actor, it just means you’re starting later.
Return with baby steps
Once you’ve internalized the ideas that there’s no such thing as natural talent, that you have nothing to live up to, and that your worth as a person is not determined by how good you are at singing, it’s time to actually get back to whatever pursuit mortified you. But try to do it without expectation. Pick up a pencil and start drawing, but don’t expect to be good at it. Blow the dust off your guitar and see if you can still make a C chord but don’t expect to be Charo.
Pursuing creativity for its own sake makes it easier to see if you even want to continue. You might find that you enjoy the pursuit for its own sake, then you have a new hobby or career goal to go after. But you might realise that the practice required to be good at something creative isn’t worth it to you. Either result is better than not trying because you’re scared, insecure, or ashamed.