Can therapy help with creativity?

WHY is it so hard to sit down and write? So far this morning, as I’ve contemplated the task ahead of me – an exploration of writing and psychotherapy and, specifically, whether psychotherapy helps or hinders creativity – I’ve tidied my desk, been to the Post Office to renew the car’s tax disc, wasted another 20 minutes in the local café and written a number of unnecessary emails. It’s now 1pm, and I’m hungry. Time for lunch.

What’s going on? I’m a writer and a psychotherapist. I have worked with clients whose creativity has been blocked and who have been helped by psychotherapy. My own creativity, likewise, has been freed up by psychotherapy. I should, in other words, have something to say on the subject. So why the procrastination?

In psychoanalytic terms, what I’m manifesting is clearly some kind of resistance, the term ‘given to everything in the words and unconscious of the analysand that obstructs his gaining access to his unconscious’ (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973: 394). There’s clearly something here that I don’t want to face. So what is it?

Traditionally, writers have shied away from psychotherapy. I’ve heard it said many times that there is no greater danger for the creative artist than therapy; that great writers depend upon being driven by their unconscious; and that, if they understood their hidden wiring, then they would no longer have the impetus to create art. If Dostoevsky, Shakespeare or Tolstoy had had therapy, the argument goes, we’d have no Crime and Punishment, Hamlet or War and Peace.

But then Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Tolstoy, one can assume, were not in need of therapy. In Freud’s terms, they were able to ‘day-dream’, a state of mind he linked to the ability of the healthy child to play freely. In ‘Creative Writers and Day-dreaming’ (1908), a paper first delivered on the night of 6 December 1907 to a group of intellectuals in the crowded rooms of his publisher and bookseller Hugo Heller, he pointed out five characteristics of children at play that, he believed, were common to both children and creative writers. Both, he said, create an imaginary world; take it seriously; invest it with considerable emotion; enliven it with material from external reality; and manage to keep it separate from that reality. Later psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1929) had a different outlook on creativity, which she saw as a reparative impulse: a way of restoring what might have been destroyed by the fantasies of the infant or small child.

What, then, if you want to write but keep finding yourself blocked, or begin writing but cannot continue? If you find it impossible, in Freud’s terms, to day-dream in the way that the creative process requires? In such cases, I’d suggest that psychotherapy, or psychoanalysis proper – using the couch, going for five, 50-minute sessions a week – can certainly help. Unlike shorter forms of behavioural therapy such as CBT (‘cognitive-behavioural therapy’), psychoanalysis and the therapies derived from it are predicated on the conviction that the unconscious exerts a powerful hold over us; in an attempt to access the unconscious, these therapies require nothing from the patient but to say whatever comes into his or her mind. Only in this way, psychoanalysts believe, is it possible to discover what might be inhibiting our full enjoyment of our lives.

For someone creatively blocked, free association will not, at first, come easy. Early sessions will likely feel awkward. ‘What should I be talking about?’ the patient might ask. Others find themselves growing angry and impatient. ‘Why can’t you say something?’ they’ll berate the therapist. ‘Just tell me what to do.’ And yet, paradoxically, it is only if the therapist manages to resist the pressure to engage in more ‘normal’ kinds of interaction – only if she avoids reassuring, advising and the like – will the patient slowly begin to uncover what he really thinks and feels.

Which can be uncomfortable, to say the least. For it goes almost without saying that we hide from ourselves that which we find most unpalatable. And yet, if we are to unblock or liberate our creativity, we surely need to know ourselves. If, for example, it is fear of other’s envy that prevents us writing the great novel we know ourselves to be capable of, we need to understand this. And if, in the course of coming to understand this, we come to learn that the real problem is not in fact the possibility that others will envy us, but our own envy of them, then that too needs to be addressed and ‘worked through’ (Freud, 1914) before we have any chance of productively putting pen to paper.

Interestingly, psychotherapists believe that one of the hallmarks of mental health is what has become known as ‘narrative competence’. If one can tell the ‘story’ of one’s own life in a way that makes sense of one’s fears and anxieties, this will in itself make life’s difficulties seem less opaque and frightening. If, on the other hand, we cannot make sense of our lives and do not know why we have become the way we are, then we will feel ill, out of sorts, anxious, easily knocked sideways by the vicissitudes of life; and prey to depression, panic attacks, psychosomatic disorders and so on.

Narrative competence, too, is something we look to writers to provide – in the hope that they will make meaning for us from the chaos of life. Not only do we hope that we will read a story well told, but that, by the end of the story, conflicts will be resolved and that meaning – rather than meaninglessness – will triumph. And why do we want this if not because it mirrors our wish for our lives themselves?

And so the question remains: is the writer driven to write because he or she cannot make meaning any other way? Because his or her narrative competence exists only when pen is put to paper? If so, then the fear of therapy would seem well grounded, for once personal narrative competence is achieved, then, arguably, the need to create art to understand oneself will become less powerful. If all writers are neurotics whose only relief from their suffering is through creating narrative, then a ‘successful’ therapy or analysis will lessen the compulsion to get things on to paper – but may, in the process, also make the act of writing less fraught and more enjoyable. And what then?

I’m not so sure about this, however. Like Freud’s child, we are all, I think, born with the ability to play, to day-dream, to create. And then life comes along. Play becomes more problematic. For reasons personal to each one of us, we develop inhibitions. Our creativity is impaired. Symptoms proliferate. Many of us respond by living constrained lives, shorn of creativity. We may dimly sense that deep within us there may be a novel, or a painting, but we do not know where to begin in order to allow it to emerge. Therapy can make plain the reasons why it has become blocked and facilitate the liberation of that which lies within us. What the would-be writer does then is his business. It is unlikely to generate creativity.

Which brings me back to my own procrastination. What was it about this seemingly straightforward assignment that meant that I not only took so long to get down to it, but also such a long time to write it? Part of it, I think, was resistance to work, plain and simple – and human enough. But part of it, too, was a wish – common to all of us – not to think too deeply. And here, I think, there is a telling parallel to writer’s block. I think it is too simple and convenient to say that we get stuck because we can’t move on; I think we get stuck because a part of us does not want to move on, for we know that to move on means to become more aware of what is going on deep within us: our lust, destructiveness, jealousy, hatred and envy (as well as all our more ‘positive’ attributes that we’re only too happy to acknowledge). And these are the things that we are resistant to knowing about ourselves. And we are wise enough to know that writing – like psychoanalysis – will reveal us to ourselves, warts and all. And what could be more terrifying than that?


Freud, S. (1908). ‘Creative Writers and Day-dreaming’. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud vol 9: 143-153. London: Hogarth Press

Freud, S. (1914). ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through’ (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II). SE vol 12: 145-156. London: Hogarth Press

Klein, M. (1975). ‘Infantile anxiety situations reflected in a work of art and in the creative impulse’. In The Writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 1). London: Hogarth Press. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 10, (1929) 436-443.)

Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.B. (1973). The Language of Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press

Winnicott, D. W. (1982). Playing and reality. London: Routledge.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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