Once, after a particularly sleepless night after the birth of my son Mateo, a friend told me about an app that helps you track your kids’ growth and development.
It gives you this little warning when your kid is in the middle of a development leap by putting a little storm cloud ⛈️ on their timeline and letting you know that it would be normal to expect fussiness, bad sleep, and more freakouts than usual.
Most days I completely forget about the app, but then on a day when it all feels too bananas for words, I’ll check my kids’ timelines and realize — Ohhhhhh — one (or both) of them is in the middle of major expansion. So basically: expect extra chaos.
It doesn’t take away the pain of my kid waking up 20 times a night, and it certainly isn’t perfectly accurate, but it helps to know that my kid’s brain and body is in the process of becoming instead of blaming myself for being a not on it enough mom.
It allows me to normalize what feels like a breakdown, and replace some of the internal pressure I’m putting on myself with compassion.
Our creative process works in a similar way.
We want creative expansion to feel like a movie montage — inspiring, beautiful, speedy — where after the duration of one very motivational song, we are magically evolved.
But when you are in the middle of it, expansion often feels uncomfortable, lonely, and if you’re sensitive like me — sometimes very dark. It can feel like we are not growing at all —or worse, moving backwards — and we can start to take this as a sign that we must be doing something wrong.
If only we had an app to remind us that this is literally the creative process doing its work. That all beautiful things are birthed in darkness, and that the breakdown comes before the breakthrough.
I’ve supported 1000s of creators through periods of expansion in my coaching career and based on what I’ve seen, here are 10 of the most common signs that you are on the verge of a breakthrough:
- Paralyzing self-doubt
- Angst or creative thrashiness
- A feeling like nothing is happening around your work (like the sound of crickets), which you decide is your fault
- Increased levels of insecurity, fear, or imposter syndrome
- Questioning everything
- Feeling scattered with lots of ideas and an inability to choose a focus
- Lack of motivation or inspiration/a feeling of dryness
- Vicious bouts of perfectionism that are keeping you from releasing your work
- Systems or strategies that once worked start breaking down
- Applying to grad school (even if you’ve already been to grad school ?)
Do any of these resonate with your experience recently? If so, I want you to remember that the struggle doesn’t mean something is wrong or broken — it means you’re in your creative process, and you’re onto something.
In his model of the Flow Cycle, Harvard cardiologist Herb Benson pioneered the idea that periods of flow are always preceded by periods of struggle and tension.
Nature reflects this (and we are nature). There is tension when the seedling first busts through the soil. The first steps a calf takes are terrifying. Uncomfortable. Vulnerable. We can’t reach our fullest expansion without first going through the tough part.
AND here’s the really important thing:
When you’ve received a message from the culture that your job is to fit in and please everyone, periods of expansion are most likely going to feel unfamiliar, scary, and like you are breaking the rules.
Because from the perspective of a broken system that depends upon you not fully expressing your voice — you are.
So when people ask me about how to get rid of fear, self-doubt and imposter syndrome on the creative path, my answer =
1. Reframe fear, self-doubt, and imposter syndrome as the sound of progress (they don’t belong to you, they belong to a culture afraid of your power)
2. Whatever you do, don’t let them drive the car.
Because creative expansion does not mean avoiding the struggle. It means having strategy and support in place for when the struggle comes, so you can move through to the other side as compassionately as possible.
In The Original Source Creativity Incubator, we help you create the plans and support for the hardest days, because they are a necessary part of birthing beautiful work.
In TOS we teach you how to know and harness the different stages of the creative process and how to work through all phases of the flow cycle in a way that works for you. As a member of our TOS alumni community shared with me recently — “these are the tools I’ve always needed to do my work but never learned in any of my formal training.”
I get it. Me too. That’s why I do this work.
And if any of this post resonated, I hope you remember that choosing the creative path means you will have doubt. You will have days when you want to throw the towel in. And this means you are a courageous human creator, in a fractured culture, doing the difficult/important work of bringing truth and beauty into the world.
The goal is to keep choosing creativity over and over again, even through the dark, unbearable nights, and offering yourself radical love as you go. Sometimes it feels awful. Sometimes it feels like bliss. It’s always the most vulnerable thing.
Keep going. You’re onto something.
Image Credit: Reynardo Etenia Wongso