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Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Dark Side of Creativity

We all have dreams, and many of them have this theme of trying desperately to do something that never seems to work out. While the dreams are going on, they seem so real, even though what is actually happening may have little to do with reality. Dreams, like all behaviors, are total behaviors. They should be called dreaming and, since they all take place in our heads, they are the thinking component of that total behavior. During dreams, we are mostly acting, but we are also thinking, we feel emotions, and our physiology are certainly normal for what we are doing.

Dreams are vivid examples of how creative all of us are. Dreams have no boundaries, little logic, and no necessary grounding in anything that could be called reality. Literally, anything can happen, but while it is happening, it all seems to make sense. Although researchers believe that dreams help us get the maximum rest from sleep, it is the inherent creativity they represent that is what this topic is all about.

A life without creativity would be hardly worth living. The creative system may operate when we are sleeping as in dreaming but what it does while we are awake is far more important. There is also the possibility this same system can cause us great harm as it goes about its business by creating painful and self-destructive total behaviors. This destructive creativity is most often seen when we want good relationships and are not able to get them.

For example, when we are lonely, there is nothing effective we can do to close the wound. But because there is nothing effective we can do does not mean we do nothing. This is exactly the situation for which our creative system evolved. It never shuts down or gives up. It keeps trying on its own to help us deal with our loneliness or anything else we want either by adding creativity to a behavior we already have or, at times, creating a whole new behavior that might be more effective in the given situation.

In many instances, it offers new actions and thoughts, which we can reject if we believe that what is offered will make things worse. It is difficult to reject what it offers, and often we could use counseling to help us, but we usually have enough voluntary control over our actions and thoughts to do this, especially if we are able to understand this is a choice. What I am talking about here is when we are offered violent or suicidal thoughts and actions that for us are very new. Also when we are offered psychotic or crazy thoughts or what is commonly called schizophrenia or bi-polar disease. Or when we obsess and compulse as we frequently do when we are lonely. And when we are exposed to a traumatic situation as in posttraumatic stress disorder and handle it painfully but creatively. In almost all instances, by improving our relationships, we may be able to reject these thoughts and actions. Many people do.

When we face a large frustration in a relationship, we don’t know what to do to reduce the frustration. We search our memories for an old behavior that has given us some relief in the past. In almost all instances, we immediately find depressing, a familiar behavior we learned as a child. But depressing is not an effective behavior, it hurts and immobilizes. Still, it gives us more relief than anything else we know, for three reasons.

First, depressing, and all other symptomatic behaviors, including arthritis, restrain a lot of anger, which, if unleashed, would make things worse. Second, these behaviors include a powerful call for help, and in many instances good counseling is effective. If we have an autoimmune disease we will also look for a doctor who may counsel or recommend counseling, which could be helpful. Third, these behaviors keep us from trying to do something we fear we may fail at. It’s easier to depress or to be sick than to look for a new relationship or a new job, especially if we’ve had some experience with rejection, which most of us have.

Although depressing gives us some control, it does so at a very high price: misery. Even as we depress, our misery and our continued frustration force us to keep looking for better behaviors. Even when we seem resigned to what has happened, we are not. It is not in our genes to accept a major frustration, such as an unsatisfying relationship, without getting our creative systems involved. Our creative system may not come up with something that is mentally or physically more harmful than depressing. But whatever it does, its purpose is to try to find a new total behavior that will lead to some resolution of the problem.

But besides physiological behaviors, it is far more common for us to be offered usually one, but sometimes a whole group of, psychological acting, thinking, and feeling behaviors by our creative systems. Together with depressing, psychiatrists call these total behaviors mental illness. Most of these total behaviors fall under the heading of neurosis; psychosis; or physical pain, such as headaching and backaching, for which there is no evidence of a physical cause.

If they are psychological, we may never, even with counseling, discover the reason we choose them, but it almost always has to do with a relationship problem. The problem does not have to be love; it may be that we want more care or less demanded of us, but whatever it is, an important relationship is not working for us. If you look for the unsatisfying relationship, you are on the right track. This is the usual method in our madness.

But because these behaviors, called mental illness, are offered does not mean we have to accept them. In psychosis, our creative system offers hallucinations and delusions, even physical creativity as in catatonia, and offers them so strongly it is hard for us not to accept them. If our lives are far out of effective control, it may be almost impossible for us to reject them. We need to restrain the anger. We often want help, and we can use the symptoms to avoid having to take care of ourselves or to look for and hold on to a new and necessary relationship. Good counseling can often persuade us to stop accepting the offered psychological creativity. But even with no help, not everyone who chooses to accept craziness stays crazy.

Hundreds of thousands of people who function very well today have had episodes of craziness in their lives. Millions more who have chosen to depress, phobic, obsess, compulse, anxietize, panic, and ache and pain with no physical basis for that pain no longer do so. Some start to refuse these creative offerings on their own, and many go to counselors. With counseling, they are able to gain enough effective control over their lives that they no longer choose these behaviors. Finally, the creative system may offer the idea of suicide: Get rid of the problem and, with it, the pain once and for all. People who commit suicide make their last creative move. But many of them, if offered counseling, would welcome it and avoid the final step.

Helping people to look at a psychological problem as a choice is a liberating awareness. The mystery, the fear that something beyond their control has suddenly come over them, is removed. They can now learn that other choices are possible, and acting on those new, more effective choices sets them free to explore lives with creativity that does not harm them.

- An excerpt from Choice Theory by Dr. William Glasser