If you’ve ever experienced that niggly feeling of frustration that you’re not quite fulfilling your potential, let me introduce you to a concept called ‘creative tension.’ Not everyone has heard of it but as many experts suggest, creative tension is something that we should all tap into in order to lead a more fulfilling and creative life.
What is creative tension?
Maybe you’re hoping to take your business in a new direction or perhaps you need to tackle that creative writing essay that you’ve been mulling over for days. Either way, it’s widely suggested that creative tension refers to the feeling or process we all have to go through to get from A to B and achieve our creative goals.
Psychotherapists and authors of the book Metaphors in Mind, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley sum up the concept of creative tension quite nicely.
“A brilliant idea will not be birthed before its time, but we don’t like waiting,” they explain, “and creative tension is the feeling that occurs when we are looking for a new idea, wanting to solve a problem or get a start-up off the ground.
“The gap between what we want to create and it not happening generates a tension, and for many people, this is an uncomfortable feeling. One way or another, this tension will seek resolution. It pushes us to find innovative solutions, to finish a project or to seek out new markets.”
How did the creative tension concept come about?
One of the first people to discuss the role of tension in the creative process was organisational consultant and tension-resolution theorist Robert Fritz. Author of the book The Path of Least Resistance, Fritz explained that a gap between our creative vision and current reality, which he dubbed ‘structural tension,’ exists in all parts of our life.
“During the creative process, you have an eye on where you want to go and you also have an eye on where you currently are,” Fritz explains.
“There will always be structural tension in the beginning of the creative process, for there will always be a discrepancy between what you want and what you have. Why? Because creators bring into being creations that do not yet exist. Structural tension is a fundamental principle in the creative process.
“In fact, part of your job as a creator is to form this tension."
The elastic band metaphor
To explain the creative tension concept further, Fritz came up with a metaphor. Imagine yourself stretching a rubber band between your right and left hand. Your right hand represents your ‘vision’ and your left hand represents your current reality. The greater the gap between them, the greater your creative tension will be.
The Psychology of creative tension
Writing for their website Clean Language, Tompkins and Lawley were some of the first behavioural experts to draw a parallel between creative tension and a concept known in psychology as cognitive dissonance.
It was social psychologist Leon Festinger who first coined the term cognitive dissonance, defining it as ‘a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent.’ Some examples include coming up with excuses for something you’ve done that is not in line with your usual behaviour, blaming others for your actions or giving overly edited versions of your actions, to cast yourself in a good light.
And although creative tension and cognitive dissonance are not identical, Tompkins and Lawley claim that our mental processes for each are very similar.
“When the way the world is, and the way we expect or want it to be are different, a ‘cognitive dissonance’ and an internal tension result,” they explain.
“Both creative tension and cognitive dissonance demand resolution. Creative tension pushes us to create something new, whereas cognitive dissonance pulls us to find ways to maintain our existing views and beliefs.
“The creative tension which results from not being able to think our way out of a problem can lead to a mismatch – a cognitive dissonance – between our self-image and reality, amplifying the tension we feel.”
Tompkins and Lawley explain that when we’re presented with our internal creative tension, we have a decision to make: “Do we acknowledge reality and look for a way to productively utilise it, or do we find a way to justify staying the same?”
Creative tension as a source of motivation
Many experts argue that however uncomfortable creative tension may feel, it is a positive driver in the creative process. Peter Senge, colleague of tension-resolution theorist Fritz, agrees with this. The author of The Fifth Discipline explains that for many of us, it is our source of energy and motivation.
“The gap between vision and current reality is also a source of energy,” he says. “If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move towards the vision.”
Dealing with the discomfort of creative tension
Cath Duncan, life coach and creative grief support practitioner points out that creative tension can be so unpleasant, it can create feelings of fear and anxiety. Whether or not it successfully motivates us all depends on how we use it and whether we are willing to take on the challenge.
“Creative tension can grow unnoticed in the soil of dissatisfaction,” she explains. “Depending on the size of the gap and the significance of your vision, resistance to creative tension can turn into difficult, self-defeating problems such as self-doubt, stress, poor motivation, anxiety, anger, envy, conflict, depression, poor health, sleep troubles, and numbing or addictive behaviours.
“The discomfort of creative tension may not feel good, but it facilitates the increased release of important problem-solving resources such as attention, focus, energy, and creativity.
“This leads to greater success at innovating new ideas and taking action to bring that special and dearly hoped-for vision to life. When we understand how creative tension works, we can learn to intentionally construct and leverage creative tension to more easily and effectively create the professional products and changes, and personal life experiences that we really want.”
Tompkins and Lawley agree that creative tension can empower you, if you approach it in the right way.
“Rather than trying to get out of creative tension, we have found the first thing to do is to name it and then to ‘become comfortable with being uncomfortable’,” they explain.
“Learning to live with creative tension means we can take a more considered, longer-term perspective. “The most successful entrepreneurs [and creators] keep evaluating whether what they are doing is likely to work, or whether the feedback they are receiving from the outside world is a message that they need to adjust or change their approach to – or do something else entirely.”
Using creative tension to fulfil your life goals
If you’re prone to procrastination and know you could use your creative tension more wisely, check out the work of Mark Hopkins. In his book the Shortcut to Prosperity, Hopkins claims that tapping into your creative tension will help bring more happiness, fulfilment and prosperity into your life. “You might believe, like many people, that the world dictates the situation you now find yourself in and that you can either accept it or be bitter about it,” Hopkins states in his book.
“Frankly, that’s a load of bull. In fact, you can shape your life into almost anything you want it to be.
Can you start a new career track? Absolutely. Can you go after that promotion? Yep. Can you go back to school? Why not? Can you do something more meaningful with your time? Please do!”
He adds: “Your vision is the prize. It’s what you think about when you’re hauling your butt out of bed in the morning, when you’re pushing through a long day, when you’re tackling one more challenge, and when you’re having fun doing it.
“You just need to take the time to think about what you want, what you really want, and then write it down and internalize it. The result will be a creative tension that starts working for you, pulling you toward the vision you created.”
Laying out your creative ‘vision’
When it comes to laying out this vision, Hopkins says it’s simple and it can be applied to any area of your life. Simply ask yourself how you feel about your self-image, work life, home life, or even life purpose, and then answer the following question: ‘Based on this reality, what changes would be necessary to move from your current reality to your personal vision?’
Hopkins claims that you should avoid stating what you ‘should be’ and instead, write down what is personally motivating to you, being completely honest about where you are now and concentrating on what will ‘fuel your internal fire’.
“Your vision should be so big that a part of your brain is saying ‘No way, I could never do that,’ while another part of your brain is already starting to plan the steps on that path,” he says.
Finally, if your creative tension has been lying dormant for some time, be warned. “Once you start the process, you’ll never stop,” he says, suggesting that you should check-in with your personal vision every few months, to assess where you are at.
So, as you’ll see, many experts believe that tapping into your creative tension can be challenging at times. But overcome the fear, lay out your personal vision and ‘think big’ and you could reap all sorts of rewards.