Managing Emotions to Innovate
Negative reviews. A hoped-for invitation. Getting stuck on a project. Something happens, and an emotional reaction is triggered. Creative work is full of such triggering situations, including the excitement of inspiration, frustration in the face of obstacles, disappointment at rejections or failures, and elation of positive reception by the field. Emotions have to be managed or regulated to overcome creative blocks and maintain effort.
Although it can feel like we are hijacked by our emotions, we have agency over emotions in all but the most extreme situations. It is possible to react in ways more effective than the most immediate and habitual. To do that, we need to insert a moment between a stimulus (trigger) and the response and employ strategies to manage our emotions to better achieve our goals.
Emotion regulation is one of the emotional intelligence abilities. This is the most complex ability of emotional intelligence because it depends on several others; to regulate emotions successfully, we need to be able to perceive emotions (realize what is going on emotionally) and understand emotions (know how emotions change, and what are the likely causes and consequences of different emotions). We regulate emotions when we proactively act before potentially triggering situations happen (before meeting with a challenging colleague), or when we employ strategies to maintain helpful moods and reduce ones that are unhelpful for either our well-being or work goals.
The most dramatic demonstration of the importance of emotion regulation for creativity is the phenomenon of creative mortification. This term, coined by the educational psychologist Ron Beghetto, describes the loss of willingness to engage in a creative activity after being harshly criticized and experiencing strong, unpleasant, self-conscious emotions about it. This can happen when a teacher angrily criticizes a child for failing to follow directions on an art project in front of the whole class, and the child becomes, well, so mortified that she does not ever want to color or draw again. Creative mortification happens more often in younger children, likely because they have not acquired effective strategies for regulating their emotions.
My own research examined how emotion regulation ability helps creativity. High school students who had a predisposition for creativity—they were curious and open to experiences—were more likely to be described as creative by their teachers if they also had high emotion regulation ability. Emotion regulation ability predicted students' persistence and passion for their interests.
In other words, emotion regulation ability helped students transform their creative potential into creative behavior. Other research shows that people who started their workdays in a negative mood and shifted to a more positive mood described their days as more creative than those who did not experience such a shift. Changing and regulating one's emotions was beneficial for creativity at work.
How does this work? How can creativity benefit from emotion regulation? To examine this, in my lab, we surveyed a broad range of artists—painters and sculptors, writers and designers, composers and choreographers. They described three distinct aspects of emotion regulation in the creative process:
1. Creating emotional conditions beneficial for creative work
A sculptor described working on a painted mask and regulating emotions to create conditions likely to evoke the flow state:
"Before renewing the initial inspirational emotions, I had to create a 'zone' in which they could be evoked without the distraction of my current fluctuating emotion; in order to do this, I go into meditation briefly, and tune out my surroundings. I then create an atmosphere in my blank mind with music, or by feeling my work and soaking up the emotions embedded in its every inch."
2. Choosing the best strategies for emotion regulation
A writer working on a piece of non-fiction listed specific strategies he employs to manage emotions in the process of creative work:
"During my process I take breaks, I go for walks, or I think it's important to listen to music or enjoy artful food. Community and being in the world help me transform emotion just as much as my own meditation and time spent alone. I try to control my working environment so it is pleasant and stable, even if I have to move around while I do this."
3. The creative process is in itself a form of emotion regulation
Artists describe their work as a way to regulate emotions caused by events outside of the creative process. A choreographer working on a dance described:
"These emotions were about my boyfriend being far away and my missing him deeply. They were about my performance anxiety and my recent lack of confidence due to having been screwed over in a freelance job and feeling totally unmotivated. It was about my persistence and the fact that despite my depression, I forced myself into the studio. The second I did, I didn't need to work to transform; it just happened, as I knew it would. I've always known that dancing (choreographing) does that to me."
Successful emotion regulation can influence and change emotions to enable creative thinking, maintain motivation, and sustain effort in the face of challenges. Emotion regulation is important to change unpleasant emotions (e.g., when anxiety creates a writer's block), but also pleasant, but distracting emotions (e.g., when one cannot focus on the current story because of the joy of a recently published one).
Emotion regulation ability can come into play for creativity in two different ways: by affecting emotions outside of the creative process (e.g., when emotions from family life spill into one's work) and by affecting emotions that happen during the creative process (e.g., when dealing with criticism of one's work). To develop effective emotion regulation skills, one will have to understand the consequences of potential reactions, gain knowledge of what strategies are more or less helpful, and evaluate what strategies would be most useful for a particular situation.
Beghetto, R. A. (2014). Creative mortification: An initial exploration. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8, 266-276. doi:10.1037/a0036618 Cohen, J. B., & Andrade, E. B. (2004). Affective intuition and task‐contingent affect regulation. Journal of Consumer Research, 31, 358-367. doi:10.1086/422114 Ivcevic, Z., & Brackett, M. (2015). Predicting creativity: Interactive effects of Openness to Experience and Emotion Regulation Ability. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, 9, 480-487. doi: 10.1037/a0039826 Ivcevic, Z., Moeller, J., Menges, J., & Brackett, M. A. (2020). Supervisor emotionally intelligent behavior and employee creativity. Journal of Creative Behavior. doi:10.1002/jocb.436