“Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?”- You Say, song by Lauren Daigle
For most of my adult life, I’ve relished and craved the highs of creative inspiration. In my experience, little compares to the exhilaration of being fully immersed in a creative stream of consciousness.
Unfortunately, creative personality types eventually discover that, despite their best efforts, the flames of inspiration don’t always burn bright. As much as we might like to feel perpetually inspired, the fact remains that even the most reliable muses sometimes take a vacation.
One of the problems with creative euphoria is it can make “ordinary” experience feel more ordinary, even just plain dull. Less creative individuals seem relatively unaffected by these lower energy states, perhaps because they’re less familiar with creative highs. If your top speed is only 55 mph, cruising at 45 doesn’t feel all that different. Dropping from a higher speed (e.g., 85 mph), however, feels much more dramatic, making 45 seem like a snail’s pace.
Further complicating matters is the fact that creative personalities are more likely to experience what’s called cyclothymia. There’s still some debate as to whether it’s best considered a type of temperament or a mood disorder. Cyclothymia is essentially a milder version of bipolar disorder, marked by moods that swing from euphoric highs (i.e., “hypomania”) to depressive lows. Since symptoms are often mild or transient, mental health treatment is often not (but in some cases should be) pursued. According to Mayo Clinic, common signs and symptoms include:
- Strong feelings of happiness or well-being (euphoria)
- Extreme optimism
- Inflated self-esteem
- Talking more than usual
- Racing thoughts
- Increased physical or social activity
- Heightened drive to perform or achieve goals (sexual, work, or social)
- Decreased need for sleep
- Feeling sad, hopeless or empty
- Loss of interest in activities once considered enjoyable
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Fatigue or feeling slowed down
- Thoughts of death or suicide
The TEMPS-A is a self-report questionnaire designed to measure variations in temperament. Here are a few of its descriptors for cyclothymia:
- “My ability to think varies greatly from sharp to dull for no apparent reason.”
- “The way I see things is sometimes vivid, but at other times lifeless.”
- “I go back and forth between being outgoing and withdrawn from others.”
Studies have shown that cyclothymic individuals are more likely to pursue creative fields like architecture, the arts, or the humanities. They are less frequently drawn to STEM fields, however.
The hypomanic side of cyclothymia appears particularly relevant to creativity. In fact, one study demonstrated that hypomania was the best predictor of self-rated creativity. That said, milder forms of hypomania are typically more conducive to creative achievement, as more severe forms may impede perseverance and follow-through. Moreover, the link between hypomania and increased social activity may help explain correlations between extraversion and creativity.
Navigating Low Moods & Depressive Symptoms
Inspiration junkies may find it hard to resist the creative energy of hypomanic states. But what goes up must eventually come down. And the sharp descent from blissful highs to despondent lows is not always easy to weather.
One reason these drops are difficult is they seem to occur for no apparent reason. We might feel great one day—like our creative engine is running on all cylinders—only to wake up feeling down and uninspired the next. Not only that, but creative projects may suddenly lose their appeal, seeming less interesting or compelling than they did just a few hours earlier. This causes us to scratch our heads in bewilderment, wondering how or why this dramatic shift took place.
To compensate for the fickleness of the muses, creative types may try to perpetuate periods of inspiration for as long as possible. So instead of stopping their work at a reasonable hour and starting fresh the next day, they push through in hopes of utilizing every last drop of creative energy. And while this may work okay for smaller projects, trying to consistently pull creative all-nighters is a probable path to burnout.
Additionally, creatives may scrutinize themselves and their lives in search of clues for understanding (and mitigating) their low moods. They might ask themselves questions like: Do my moods really have a mind of their own, or are there ways I can control or influence them? Should I try to alter my negative moods, or should I simply ignore them and plow forward?
Empirical research has shown that there are in fact mood-enhancing behaviors such as getting regular exercise and a good night’s rest. And while these practices are certainly helpful, they can only take us so far. Rarely will they ameliorate concerns about creative inspiration.
A Different Take on Low Moods
I have no intention here of enumerating a comprehensive solution to this issue, but I do want to highlight one potentially helpful strategy. If it’s true that, as research suggests, creativity and cyclothymia are linked, then it may also be the case that intermittent low moods are part and parcel of being a creative personality. Viewed this way, low moods don’t constitute a disorder, but are inherent to a certain type of temperament.
Here’s another way of looking at it. We know that creativity is a process composed of different stages or seasons. There’s a time for incubation, a time for creative output, a time for critical evaluation and refinement, etc. Could it be that low moods correspond to a specific phase of the creative process (e.g., incubation)? Or, if you prefer to use a seasons metaphor, might they represent the winter of creativity?
The upshot of what I’m saying is this: If low moods are personality-related or a natural part of the creative process, then maybe they’re not enemy we think they are. To a certain extent, it may be better to work with them rather than resisting or resenting them. Perhaps creatives should experiment with accepting low moods (assuming they’re not severe or suicidal) and see where it leads them.
Acceptance of low moods doesn’t mean wallowing, self-loathing, or being a couch potato. Nor does it require complete abstinence from creative work. I’m thinking more along the lines of taking these moods in stride and being open to what they might teach us. Patience can certainly help with this, as can having fallback activities that are less reliant on inspiration.
Finally, I suspect that a life of nothing but euphoric highs would eventually start feeling mundane to creative types who thrive on novelty and variety. So experiencing the valleys of low moods may help us better recognize and appreciate creative peaks. From this perspective, it may not only be possible to accept our low moods, but even feel a measure of gratitude for them.
To learn more about living abundantly and effectively as a creative personality type, be sure to explore our online course, Finding Your Path as an INFP, INTP, ENFP or ENTP.