Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Cath Duncan from Creative Grief Studio and Remembering For Good.
In my last post here, I spoke about creative tension, and a bunch of people said they’d never heard of it and asked me to share more about what creative tension is and how to use it. So here we go…
The concept of creative tension is talked about by Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline. Robert Fritz also has some great stuff about creative tension in his book, The Path of Least Resistance.
Creative tension is essentially a structure that helps to facilitate creativity and change. (Tweet this.)
You create creative tension when you clearly articulate your vision and your current reality, and the gap between your vision and your current reality becomes apparent. This gap creates an emotional and energetic tension that seeks to be resolved.
Fritz calls this a tension-resolution system and he gives the example of stretching a rubber band – as you stretch it, this creates tension, and the tendency of the rubber band is to pull back to resolve the tension in the system. Imagine that your vision is represented by your right hand and your current reality is represented by your left hand and you have a rubber band around both hands. The greater the gap between your vision and your reality, the more the rubber band will stretch, the greater the tension that will develop, and the stronger the motivation and energy will be to resolve that tension.
Creative tension helps you to be more creative
Our minds don’t like the cognitive dissonance in saying “this is what I want” and recognizing that we don’t have it. Your mind is highly motivated to relieve that cognitive dissonance by closing the gap between your current reality and your vision, and so this allows you to release more energy and resources and creativity into finding ways to close that gap.
Another principle that’s probably contributing to the usefulness of creative tension is the Zeigarnik Effect, which says that when we have an unresolved question or problem, we continue holding that problem in our minds – sometimes only unconsciously.
This also fits with the Scrooge Principle that Dan Coyle talks about in The Talent Code and the theory behind eustress. Our minds and bodies seek to preserve energy, but when we’re faced with an unresolved issue, a big challenge, or the tension of the gap between our vision and our reality, this triggers us to release more energy and attention into dealing with the problem and generating solutions and we perform at our peak. Betty Edwards, in her awesome book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, talks about how we usually tackle problems with our left-brain-directed thinking first, and only if the left brain can’t solve the problem, or if it’s a problem that the left brain doesn’t like to work with, will the left brain hand the problem over to the right brain. When we create creative tension, the left brain is more willing to hand the problem over for the right brain to get involved as well, and that’s when you start to find more creative solutions.
So there are lots of different names for creative tension and lots of different models that fit with it and seem to support the idea of creative tension. At the end of the day, what these models are all saying is that creative tension is based on an understanding of how our minds control the management of our attention, energy, and creativity, and then using that understanding to create a structure that creates an energy that seeks to be resolved – what Fritz calls the “path of least resistance” – and to flick the switch so that we can apply our best thinking to the issue.
How we relieve creative tension
Creative tension can feel pretty nasty – especially if you’re not well practiced in using it. It can feel a lot like anxiety and it can be easy to feed this anxiety with all your reptile fears, to start to get anxious about your anxiety, and to get wound up with so much anxiety and stress that you can’t think clearly and it all just feels really bad.
Creative tension motivates us to act with urgency to reduce the tension by resolving the issue somehow. The problem is that most of us relieve creative tension by lowering our vision so that we reduce the gap between our vision and our current reality. This successfully reduces the tension, but it also reduces your motivation and creativity to make your vision a reality, and of course, you’re not going to create what you really want – at best, you’ll be successful in creating the “reduced” version of your vision.
What you need to do, if you want to successfully create and use creative tension, is to focus on the following three things:
1) Clearly articulate your vision in as much detail as you can.
Don’t worry about using metrics and goals. Just ask yourself the question, “How will I know I have it?” It’s also important that you’re describing a vision, and not an anti-vision. A vision talks about what you want, while an anti-vision is focused on what you don’t want. Focusing on what you don’t want makes your mind associate back into your current problems, and even your past problems, so it serves to reinforce the problem and it’s not effective for creating creative tension.
2) Observe your current reality honestly.
If you’re trying to pretend that you’re somewhere you’re not, you’ll reduce the creative tension and risk choosing irrelevant strategies for resolving creative tension. Watch and listen and pay attention to your present. Ask for feedback and opinions of your current reality from other people to get more angles on your understanding of your reality. Question all your stories about reality so that you can peel away the self-deception and the stuff that’s interpretive and get to the core truth of what your current reality is all about.
3) Notice what next obvious steps for bridging your vision and your current reality come to mind and do those.
You won’t necessarily know the full “how” at the outset, but as you keep refining and articulating your perception of reality and your vision and keep taking the next obvious step, you can trust that the creative tension will seek to resolve itself by getting you to where you want to be.
Creative tension, stress, frustration, and attachment
One of the tricky things about creative tension is that there’s a sweet spot where the anxiety levels are “just right” to release your peak performance and best thinking. As some people highlighted in the comments on my last post, as with most things, there’s a balanced place, a middle ground where you’ll do and feel your best. Too much stress and anxiety and you’ll drop into distress, and your performance and the quality of your thinking will plummet with it. So don’t go pushing yourself to articulate a ridiculously huge vision in the hope that creative tension will get you there. Bigger, faster and harder is not necessarily better.
Linked to this is the problem of over-attachment and frustration. Spending a lot of time refining and focusing on your vision can lead to over-attachment and frustration when you haven’t got it yet, and this frustration can cause you to be more impulsive and urgent in your decision-making and behavior, and to shut down your open-focused creativity and miss unconventional opportunities to make your vision a reality. Creative tension shouldn’t make you feel frustrated. That’s not useful.
Here are some ways that you can prevent creative tension from becoming over-attachment, frustration and stress:
- Hold a playful attitude. You can be clear on what you’re aiming for, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Try to see obstacles and failures as being all part of the game, making the game more interesting.
- Don’t beat yourself up or dwell on mistakes or failures. Negative self-talk can quickly tip you over from eustress into distress, where your performance and the quality of your thinking drop.
- Look after yourself and schedule time for rest and pure play. You can’t be in the optimum creative zone all the time (Charlie talks about this a lot). Dan Coyle says we seem to be capable of between 60 and 180 minutes of deep practice and then we need a decent break. Make sure you eat, sleep, exercise, and rest well.
- Notice when you’re resisting reality and practice letting go of the need to force things to go your way. (Yeah, I know this is a whole post by itself!)
- Stay open to different ways that you could close the gap between reality and your vision. Hold fast to your “what” — your vision of what you want to create — but be very loose about your “how” — how you create it. Make sure that your vision is a genuine “what” and not a “how.” Check this by asking yourself, “And what will that get me?” a few times and ensuring that you’ve chunked up to the highest level of what you want.
- Don’t entertain feedback and anxiety from other people who are struggling to tolerate the gap between your reality and your vision. Their anxiety about the presence of that gap can make you overly anxious about it, which can tip you from eustress into stress. Hang out with people who can tolerate creative tension and who won’t try to talk you into lowering your vision just so they can feel more comfortable about your choices.
- Resist complaining about not being where you want to be – to yourself or to other people. This increases frustration and can make the creative tension unbearable.
Thanks to all of you who asked for further clarity on creative tension – I really enjoyed thinking this through and getting it down on (virtual) paper.
I’d love to hear from you… how have you used creative tension? How’s it working out for you? Any other questions about creative tension?
Thanks for this explanation/clarification!
I often use the technique you outlined, to get from Point A to Point B…but I never realized it was called this!
Maybe the biggest tension I created was quitting my dayjob. But within that much bigger goal, I had to set a lot of littler “Point Bs”.
But on a monthly basis I try to create little tensions by asking “where would I like to be next month?” What would I like my days to look like?
It’s a constant job of reassessing and re-visioning, I think.
Cath Duncan says
Tara – great strategy! Setting lots of little “point Bs” helps to keep you from getting into overwhelm and distress and keeps you in the playful zone. And constantly re-assessing, adjusting, re-visioning is important too. Staying agile an willing to revise your vision and your strategies is a great way to avoid getting overly attached and stuck.
Abubakar Jamil says
That was a good explanatory article about creative tension. I’ve heard about it but you made me undertand it better.
Thanks for writing it.
Cath Duncan says
“I’ve heard about it but you made me undertand it better.”
What an awesome compliment! Thank you, Abubakar.
Jackie Lee says
What an excellent post, and as you were explaining I realized “oh… that’s what I’ve been feeling”. I particularly like the idea of not lowering your dream to decrease the tension. I think that’s a mistake a lot of people (including myself) make.
Thanks for this post, and getting me thinking about how I can more effectively use this in my life.
Cath Duncan says
Glad it resonated for you, Jackie.
A great article and another spin on Law of Attraction and bridging that gap and getting into the Vortex. Working on that balance to get that creative tension going. Thanks for the post!
Cath Duncan says
Pleasure, Darlene. I know a lot of people will link creative tension to the Law of Attraction. I chose not to mention LOA because I don’t subscribe to the explanation of LOA presented in The Secret. I know there are a lot of different interpretations of LOA. That’s probably for a whole ‘nother post, though!
I generally use creative tension as a way to get moving. My preferd way is to promise I will do something I want to do to another person and to have a deadline.
I also have a tendency to get overwhelmed and my best tip for this is to simply sense my body.
Try doing something being aware of your entire body.
Cath Duncan says
Samuel – great tip for grounding yourself and getting out of overwhelm – get out of your head (and your reptile fears) and into your body and present awareness. Thanks for the reminder!
Jane Bradbury says
Thank you for a great explanation of creative tension; I’ll need to keep re-reading it to pull as much from it as I can.
But one sentence struck me immediately, ‘The problem is that most of us relieve creative tension by lowering our vision so that we reduce the gap between our vision and our current reality.’ That made me sit up and take notice because I am doing that right now.
Cath Duncan says
Here’s a tip for dealing with that big gap and holding to your big vision without getting overwhelmed or wanting to drop the vision so you can relieve the anxiety: As Tara suggested, create a bunch of smaller visions that can form a bridge between your current reality and your big vision and then focus on your next small step.
When it comes to your ultimate, big vision, it can be useful to relax and play, articulating it in a crayon drawing or something equally childish (this helps your critical self to get the message to chill out because we’re just playing right now) and then chunk down to a few smaller visions that can form the bridge to your big vision and then forget about your big vision and revisit it only every few months or so. You don’t have to focus on it everyday. Continual focus on your big vision can lead to stress and attachment.
Jane Bradbury says
Thank you Cath, that’s another great tip I can follow.
Willie Hewes says
Thanks, this was really excellent. I think I was one of those who asked about creative tension, so it was good to read more about it.
I don’t use ‘big vision’ type techniques a lot; my natural tendency is to just play a bit on a small scale and see where it takes me. I’m starting to come around to the idea that having a destination might help me make the miles though, so thanks for the think-food.
Cath Duncan says
I think both the big vision and the small steps and staying present are useful. Ideally you want to be able to do both eagle and mouse vision and have the flexibility to pop between them easily, making adjustments to keep them aligned with each other.
Cath Duncan says
Ooops… this one was in reply to Willie 🙂
Great post! I like the part about taking the next obvious step, and that you need to trust that the creative tension will get you to where you want to be. I think when you schedule some “rest and pure play time” in, sometimes the missing answers appear unexpectedly. Recently, when taking some rest and pure play time, I came across some amazing local art marketing workshops. Just what I was looking for, but I wouldn’t have found them if I was trying to force it. Thanks for some great ideas! Neve
Marc Winitz says
“You create creative tension when you clearly articulate your vision and your current reality and the gap between your vision and your current reality becomes apparent. “…I thought that was just called “frustration” 🙂
Great post Cath and your’e framework at the end is very useful on it’s own.
Mars Dorian says
Isn’t creative tension just another word for flow ? That’s what I experience when I’m fully engaged with the work that I luv and that challenges me enough to sweat.
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Very good summary of creative tension and a good reminder for me. I am in a large faith based organization where the tension between two paradigms are very evident and create tension or as I have saying “creative tension”. On one side is the non-profit hierarchical pyramid with top down authority and power and the other is the ellipses or elliptical paradigm that is flat, informal, religiously aspirational. For many reason which I will not get into right now, the governance and senior staff are constantly in tension between holding onto the “religions soul” of the organization and the “institutional structure” that is needed to implement the mission and vision of the organization. I have been working on articulating this “creative tension” so that we can move away from “us and “them” dialogue that is not helpful or productive. I have often used a strategy of creating “urgency” as a mechanism to stretch the tension when the rubber band is slack (organization is withdrawing or does not want to deal with conflict which as a religious organization is often the case). Urgency must used very carefully and thoughtfully and I only use it to bring people back to creative tension dialogue and engagement that keeps the conversations about defining what and who we are together and a toward development of our perceived future. More than any other organization I worked with, I have found that monitoring my own “resistance” to reality or new ideas is critically important. The reality is that working to resolve tension within the “gap” is exciting and messy. Thanks again for your article. Very helpful.
Derek Walsh says
Creative tension sounds like jargon to me. Doesn’t a vision stimulate desire? It does for me. Aren’t we normally aware of what is our most obvious realities? Don’t we then act on making things better? Isn’t that what we call “life” or perhaps “consciousness” ? Is this not just the normal functioning of our will? That is: need; desire; intension; action; result; and analysis.
Thanks for the head’s up on creative tension.
Had not heard of the concept until very recently when reading
Colin Wilson’s ‘The Quest for Wilhelm Reich’ where Wilson mentions the idea.
Thanks again Cath.
As to Mr Walsh’s, “Creative tension sounds like jargon to me. Doesn’t a vision stimulate desire? It does for me.”
Of course vision stimulates desire but in my 50 plus years experience it doesn’t always get the job done.
In simple terms it requires some eustress to turn pretty pictures of the possible into reality.