Cupcakes as the building blocks of resilience. Yup.
Do you ever stumble upon something that you are legitimately so excited about that you just have to tell somebody and you can’t believe that you have made it this far in your life without knowing it already?
This happened to me this week. I was in the last half hour of Brene Brown’s Audible 6 hour lecture series, “The Power of Vulnerability”, and she was talking about the traits of resilient and wholehearted people. Fairly apropos for the current environment. She brought up the idea of using creativity as a tool for building resilience.
I almost drove off the road. I was waiting for a list of impossible tasks, you know the ones- like make amends to anyone you ever hurt ever. The first five hours of the series (I have a long commute) was dedicated to the importance of vulnerability, resilience, whole heartedness and why achieving these things can bring our lives to a whole new level of great. I was sure that this would come with a hefty price tag.
But no, Brene Brown was telling me to do some art. The Brene Brown- the world famous researcher on shame and vulnerability, the self-help guru, college professor, and my constant “commute” companion over the last week.
Not only was she saying to do something artistic or creative, she was saying I didn’t even have to be good at it! The end product didn’t even matter at all.
So of course, the seed of doubt was planted. This was too good to be true. I LOVE doing creative things and here I was, ready to suffer my way to resilience. Could Brene be wrong? Was it all smoke and mirrors?
So I decided to look to the evidence (while doubting a respected scientific researcher), a basic literature review and some definitions. Here’s what I learned (don’t get distracted, validation of hours spent on Pinterest depend on it.).
While we all have an idea of what resilience looks like, researchers define it as the ability to bounce back from a challenge by adapting to change. Expanded, this can include looking at a problem and coming up with many solutions rather than just the worst case scenario. Resilient people show an increase zest (I love the word zest), increase ability to take action, increase sense of worth, increase clarity and meaningful, supportive relationships. Many people assume resilience is just a personality trait, something that some people have and some don’t, when in fact the converse is true.
Resilience is a skill, a skill that EVERYONE has the capacity to learn. It can be learned and practiced.
This is really good news. Who can use a little resilience right now? Show of hands? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some zest?
If this can be learned? How do we learn it and practice it?
There are of course, multiple factors that lead to building resilience. I won’t lie to you and say that you can simply crochet your way there. It’s like doing bicep curls and hoping your whole body gets in shape. While this isn’t true it doesn’t negate the value of bicep curls. Some other activities build resilience as well such as finding role models or mentors and practicing gratitude, but the one that interested me was engaging in creativity.
Now before I lose some of you, this is true even for the people who aren’t creative. So before you start telling me how you are right brained or left brained or whatever there are a few points to know.
Creativity is not “housed” in one part of your brain and does not require activation or deactivation of a specific brain region.
Creativity does not need to be painting or knitting.
Creativity is an active process not a finished product.
Creativity is the ability to bring something new into existence by the reshaping of current materials.
Creativity can take many forms. There are the obvious ones including crafts or artistic endeavors but it can be more subtle.
Here’s a quick brainstorming list.
Rearranging your furniture.
Making a collage of your favorite pics on Facebook
Trying new recipes
Playing a musical instrument
Planning a trip
Planning a party (ok maybe not in the midst of a pandemic)
Going to a museum
Rearranging all your tools, or towels, or books.
Playdoh (ooh, that sounds fun)
Redecorating a room
Making a playlist
Going through your closet and coming up with new outfit combinations
Using rainbow gel pens during your work day (of course the gel pens have to make it to the list)
Building a model
Any activity that comes in a colorful box at your local crafts store
But the question is, how does coloring build resilience?
It sounds great but where is the science?
First, creativity focuses on discovery, not remembering or knowing. It allows us to think outside the box and come up with flexible solutions. It strengthens our ability to withstand ambiguity. Through creative activities, we come up with novel solutions by connecting abstract ideas. One study showed that not only does creativity encourage positive emotions and decrease stress, it showed an increase in alpha wave activity, similar to findings in relaxation and mindfulness. This type of activity in the brain helps suppress the obvious options (aka. worst case scenario) and allows new ideas or “aha moments.”
Second, creativity builds up our tolerance for vulnerability. While this sounds awful at first, vulnerability is not some type of wallowing weakness but is being brave enough to put yourself out there, unprotected, to see what can happen. It strengthens our ability to suck at something and not give up. To do something for the sake of doing it, not for approval or self promotion. It is being sure enough of our core value to risk doing something outside of our comfort zone, something we may fail at. Pretty handy skill to have when faced with a pandemic, or work drama, or a loved one’s illness. It builds our ability to handle anything. It builds our confidence in ourselves.
Just as creativity is re-configuring materials into a new form, resilience requires positive adaptation, re-configuring our current reality into a new form. With creativity, the adaptive skill learned is the pleasure in mastery, rather than just satisfaction in obtaining the desired outcome.
Mastery is not dependent on the outcome but on the effort.
Similarly, in tough times, resilience allows us comfort in the adaptation/ self-mastery of our lives in the face of serious stressors.
The moral of the story? The challenge?
If need be, stop telling yourself you aren’t creative and just try something. You don’t have to be Picasso. The attempt at art builds your creativity muscle AND your resilience. You don’t go to the gym, work out once and come out a weightlifter. The same is true here.
If you do consider yourself creative, find a small way to be creative every day. Stop browsing Pinterest and try something. And give up the idea that these ventures are a waste of time or not that important. You’re not wasting time, you are building resilience. It’s more than just self-care in the moment. You are getting ready for bathing suit season in January for once (we all know that starting crunches in June doesn’t work).
Brene wasn't wrong.
You are fighting emotional exhaustion, one decorated cupcake at a time.
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