How showing up too much can thwart your creativity


The title of this post might sound a little backwards. After all, isn’t showing up regularly — through a daily or almost-daily habit or ritual — key to doing to our creative work?

Absolutely. And that’s not what I’m talking about here.

The showing up I’m referring to has to do with a kind of perfectionistic, I-can’t-afford-to-take-a-day-off mentality which causes us to neglect replenishing our reserves.

There are times when we need to work on showing up. This can be true when we’re building a habit, like exercising or writing or maybe expressing ourselves more to our significant other!

But for some of us (and I definitely include myself here), there’s an “unconscious” kind of showing up that can propel us into the zone of compulsion or addiction.

In other words, it’s not “I choose to show up,” but “I have to show up — in fact, I’m showing up on autopilot without even noticing that I have a choice in the matter.”

What this perfectionistic kind of showing up has looked like for me:

* Never taking a day off from work, not because I didn’t need to take a day off, but because it didn’t occur to me that I could, unless there was an emergency or I was deathly ill

* Always responding to calls, emails and other requests for time very quickly

* Talking to friends or family members who called when my intention was to have time to myself

* Checking social media sites “just in case” I missed something that I “should” be attending to (what a slippery slope that one is!)

* Never missing a class or a workshop or a group meeting even though I was feeling very tired or even ill

* Scheduling client sessions during the time I take my morning walk

* Continuing to move a project forward even though something felt “off”, just so I could feel “productive”

I remember, way back in college, showing up late to a class one day, feeling stressed and slightly mortified that I’d disrupted the group already-in-progress. My teacher graciously welcomed me into the semi-circle, telling the other students to make room for me.

A week or so later, another student showed up late and my teacher gave him a severe bawling out which shocked the whole class. My curiosity got the better of me, and during a conference with my teacher I asked him why he had yelled at this other student for being late, and yet when I was late, he was so kind to me.

He thought about it a moment, and then said, smiling, “It’s kind of like this: you need to learn to be late, and he needs to learn to be early.”

My teacher was perceiving — quite accurately — that my tendency was to drive myself hard and beat myself up when I didn’t “do enough.” Apparently he’d perceived the opposite tendency in this other student.

I felt the vulnerability — and relief — of having been seen.  My teacher helped me recognize that I could start to allow a little bit of spaciousness around my compulsion to show up, to never be late, to never miss a day, to never take planned time off.

I still notice this tendency in myself, many years later, along with a tendency to make myself overly available to others. And when I get into this “overdoing”, “over-responding” place, I find that anything I create has a forced, thin, surface feel to it. The richness has been stripped away; there’s little within me to draw out, or, at the very least, I have trouble accessing what is there.

When we can sit with a request from another without responding to it immediately; when we can say “no” in order to preserve space in our schedules for non-doing; when we can “show up” 90 percent of the time instead of 110, we are feeding our creativity.

We are feeding it by noticing our breath, by noticing our surroundings, by noticing how we are truly feeling. We are allowing ourselves to fill up, rather than running on empty, or on adrenaline. We remember that, sometimes, we can let the world come to us — and it will.

When we slow down enough to invest in the present moment, our words on the page, our paint on the canvas, our listening during a coaching session is more vibrant, more there, more true.

So how do we prevent ourselves from carrying this idea too far and using it as an excuse to not show up when we do need to be showing up?

There’s no easy answer to this.

But if there were an easy answer to it, I’d say it’s this: Know yourself.

Know your own tendencies and your own struggles like the back of your hand. And then trust. Trust yourself to show up as much as you choose to, but never as much as you “should.” Choose. Trust yourself to choose, and choose again.

Do you ever find yourself showing up compulsively? What do you notice about the effect this has on your creativity? I’d love to know!

Image is “Beautiful Flower” © Matthias33 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

16 thoughts on “How showing up too much can thwart your creativity

  1. As always, wonderful post, Jill, and just what I needed again. 🙂 I show up more for other people than I do for myself. I am so quick to say yes to almost all requests, no matter what I might be feeling or needing myself or doing. Learning to wait before jumping in with an offer of help is something I’ve been working on for a very long time. And usually the only reason I stop doing this–for a little while until I once again that this is not healthy before for me–is when I am so worn out and burned out that I can’t help but say no.

    I like being of service and available for others, and I needed to be reminded that to be this for others, I must also take the time to “fill my own well.” And sometimes that means I must say no or I can’t do this. (By the way, I did not say yes to you about help around the holidays when meaning to say no. You ask so little, it’s a pleasure to be able to help you out!)


    • Mary, I so hear you! I think for those of us who really value being of service to others (which is a great gift), there can be a slippery slope sometimes. I know sometimes I’m in the “burnout zone” before I know it! I’m really glad you relate — and I’m sure your memoir resonated for me so strongly because we share some of these same issues! Thanks so much for reading — and I’m glad to hear that your helping me out over the holidays is a good-feeling YES. I’m so grateful for it, and for you! 🙂


  2. Yes yes YES! One of the best things I did this year was treat my creative time like a client… now, that might sound counter-intuitive to what you’re saying, but for me it gave me permission to say NO to other clients and family who might try to steal my creative time. How I spend my creative time is up to me. It might be journalling or meeting a writing friend or working on my novel. But it’s my time and I protect it savagely! (And it goes into my time sheet as ‘productive’ time to satisfy my inner compulsion to achieve all the time. Hugs.


    • Ellen, that makes total sense and doesn’t sound counter to what I’m saying at all! And actually, your post about the seemingly “non-productive” downtime weekend you took recently was part of what got me thinking about this, so thank you! That kind of time is creative time as well, and it’s really important to, as you say, “protect it savagely”! I love how you label ALL your creative time as “productive” to satisfy the inner overachiever. Perfect. Thanks so much for sharing your insights. 🙂

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  3. Absolutely, I am right there with you Jill 😉 For me, as you have said, I tend to get rather compulsive when I am staring out with something, especially if that something is an endeavor that I’m really passionate about. It’s my personal way of demonstrating to myself and others that, “hey, this over here – this is really important to me!” I’ve done this with two things quite recently in my daily life – walking and writing.

    But, and this is a big but (are there really any other kinds?), the habit of establishing a habit can sometimes push you over the edge, especially when you have tendencies towards perfection (raising hand over here). I began to do both of these things, without fail, day in and day out. Instead of me choosing to do it, it became me feeling as though I had to do it, or else I would feel like I slipped up, fell off the wagon, showed that I couldn’t honor my own personal commitments.

    Then something interesting happened – Mother Nature intervened. About a year ago, right smack dab in the middle of hurricane season in Florida, a tropical storm inundated our area with inches of rain for forty-eight hours straight. Yep, no walk for me. I was persistent, but not stupid 🙂

    The funny thing was, I felt good about the time off. I recognized that not every single activity in our lives needs to be regimented and placed into a fixed time slot – every, single, day. Some, maybe, but not all.

    It was then that I came up with a new term for myself – the imperfect commitment. I would strive to do x, y, z five times a week. But, if I didn’t meet my “quota”, it was okay. Actually, sometimes it was more than okay. It was necessary and healthy for the five times I would do it the following week. Like you said, it’s knowing yourself – it’s self-awareness – that allows us to recognize when we need to kick ourselves in the butt to get something done, or give ourselves a well-deserved respite from the chaos that may be running rampant in our lives.

    Sorry to ramble on so long – as you can see, this topic and discussion is near and dear to my heart. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas in such an inspiring and motivating way, Jill. Very well done!!! 🙂


    • Dave, so well said, and that is fascinating — and perfect — that nature intervened and kept you from getting compulsive about your walking habit! There’s so much ebb and flow to nature, it’s not all “obvious growth all the time”. Nature is a great teacher that way. I love your idea of “the imperfect commitment”. Approaching something we want to do and knowing we’re not going to do it perfectly, or every single day of our lives, is so much kinder and more supportive to ourselves in the long run, and it also frees us up to be our best rather than a burned out version of ourselves! So glad you added your insights to the conversation, Dave — thanks! 🙂


  4. Jill, it’s like you’ve been reading my journals – I identified so much with this post! And I particularly enjoyed that vignette from your college days – that teacher sounds very wise.

    I’ve recently started allowing myself to occasionally ‘be late’ to relaxed gatherings or take a little more time off, simply because it’s so counterintuitive and difficult for me to do!

    Thank you for sharing from your experience – you’ve just given me permission to be less perfectionistic, which is a tremendous gift. 🙂


    • I’m so glad you identified with the post, Caroline! And I’m thrilled that reading it gave you a little bit of permission to let go of perfectionism. Your posts definitely do that for me, too, so yay! That’s great that you’re allowing yourself to be “late” now and then or take more time off. It’s always good to show up imperfectly now and then and notice that it doesn’t cause the world to crumble. 🙂


  5. Oh yes, this sounds familiar. Since I made a more focused commitment to my work, {as opposed to it just being something I did for love, rather than love AND money 😉 }, I’ve learned some hard lessons about showing up more than is good for me. Currently I have ‘Silent Sundays’, when I don’t turn on any technology {apart from sometimes in the evening} and spend quiet time by myself pottering, baking, painting, reading or whatever I feel like doing. Lately this has started merging with Mondays too, so I’m just letting it be what it needs to be as I find I’m then much more focused and productive when I ‘go back in’. I also have to remind myself quite often that I don’t need to respond to everything the MOMENT it comes in. 🙂 Running your own business is nothing if not a lesson in self care with a steep learning curve!


    • Tara, I really hear you. I love the idea of “Silent Sundays” (in fact, I did a version of that myself yesterday and stayed mostly unplugged!). I find as well that when I “go back in” I am more focused and productive when I’ve given myself solid, intentional time off. I completely agree with you that having your own business is a huge lesson in self-care — in fact, it really brings up ALL our stuff (kinda like a relationship!). Thanks so much for reading and sharing! 🙂


  6. “We remember that, sometimes, we can let the world come to us — and it will.”

    Oh!!! THAT comment resonated strongly!! Continually working on that one!


  7. Thanks for this post. I needed reminding of all of what you have said. Taking day long breaks is especially important for me. I always return to my work refreshed and much more productive.


    • I’m so glad to hear this served as a good reminder for you! I agree about the day-long breaks. I’ll be taking some time over the holidays to break from routine and I know I’ll return refreshed as well! Thanks so much for reading. 🙂


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