You’re nervous. You’ve been writing and revising this poem for a week. You finally show it to your husband, and he dismisses it with a curt, “Meh.”
You’ve been taking dance lessons for the past month to prepare for your wedding. A week before the big day, your fiancé crushes you with a casual, “I guess some people just can’t dance.”
Or you’ve been toiling away preparing for a work presentation for three days. On the big day, your boss rolls her eyes and interrupts the presentation with, “Does anyone have any good ideas?
Creativity takes courage. We have to put ourselves out there and risk all sorts of feedback, productive or otherwise. Improvement requires perseverance. If we’re ever going to get better at our craft, we have to keep creating.
But sometimes we don’t. Creative suppression and creative mortification can stop us in our tracks and make us give up, either temporarily or permanently. Improv offers us a model for avoiding creative suppression and mortification and for fostering creativity.
What is creative mortification?
Professor and creativity expert Ronald Beghetto defines and distinguishes creative suppression and creative mortification.
Creative suppression is when someone’s creative expression is impeded. This can happen when someone criticizes you or just because you have some self-doubts. As Beghetto states, it’s temporary and relatively harmless.
Creative suppression would be if I volunteered an idea during an office brainstorming session, my boss said it was dumb, so I stopped volunteering any more ideas during that particular meeting.
Creative mortification, no surprises here, is not so harmless. It’s when someone or something kills your creativity…forever.
Beghetto defines creative mortification as, “The loss of one’s willingness to pursue a particular creative aspiration following a negative performance outcome.”
Creative mortification would be if someone says your art sucks, so you stop pursing a career in the arts altogether. Or if you quit your job after that brainstorming session because you thought you weren’t creative or smart enough to hack it in that particular industry.
No one is arguing that we should stop giving others feedback altogether for fear of crushing their dreams. Feedback and criticism are vital parts of the creative process. But I do think creative mortification, as a concept, is important to understand if we want to create more trusting and innovative learning and working environments, environments where creativity flourishes.
The role of shame
Obviously, not everyone is equally prone to creative mortification. One of Beghetto’s studies set out to measure the relationship between creative mortification and factors such as self-conscious emotions, self-theories of competency, and intellectual risk taking. Basically, he was looking at how people’s emotions, attitudes, and behaviors affected their likelihood of experiencing creative mortification in the first place.
The fascinating take-away is that shame, above all other self-conscious emotions, was the most significant factor in someone experiencing creative mortification. If someone felt ashamed, they were more likely to throw in the creative towel.
Improvisation has a lot to teach us about shame and judgment and could serve as a model for stopping creative mortification in its tracks.
3 ways improvisation kills creative mortification
There are three things improv can teach us about preventing creative suppression and mortification.
The first way improvisation can be a model for limiting creative suppression and mortification is its enhanced listening.
In order for scenes to work, improvisers can’t just memorize lines. They have to really listen to all the details in a scene in order to use those details to create more ideas for the scene.
What better way to avoid shutting someone’s creativity down than simply listening to them? Not interrupting. Not critiquing or evaluating. Just listening.
2. Yes And
The next way improvisation can teach us how to foster creativity has to do with the Yes And rule or the rule of agreement. In improv, scenes are totally, well, improvised. This means that improvisers are better served when they agree with each other’s contributions and then add new details. Yes And.
Improvised scenes are created because of this kind of contribution and agreement cycle.
As the author of "Improv and Ink," Mary DeMichelle, explains, "In Yes And we are saying Yes, I am here, present, listening and unconditionally accepting what you are offering; and I value your offer so much I will add to it."
There’s no need to be embarrassed or ashamed when your ideas are, not only listened to, but agreed with and added onto.
Think back to the examples in the introduction. Yes to the poem. Yes to the dancing. And yes to your work presentation.
3. Reserving Judgment
Which brings us to the third way improv can teach us to limit creative suppression and mortification. Improv is all about reducing judgment.
Viola Spolin, author of Improvisation for the Theater and creator of the theater games that became Second City improv as we know it, writes a lot about the importance of improvisers not seeking approval or disapproval from anyone. She was all about the intrinsic rewards from playing and believed that if someone was waiting for an external thumbs up or thumbs down, they weren’t optimally engaged.
Reserving judgment helps improvisers take risks and make big choices. It can also help foster creativity.
Convergent and divergent thinking
Two modes of creativity are divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent is ideation. It’s coming up with as many ideas as possible. This is improv: listening, Yes And, and reserving judgment.
Convergent thinking is evaluating those ideas. Obviously, this is an important stage. Not all ideas can be the one. In certain creative scenarios, we have to evaluate ideas to see which ones are better than others.
But I would argue that divergent and convergent thinking should be kept completely separate. We should be conscious of our current mode of creativity and not evaluate and critique when we’re supposed to be ideating. And not ideate when we’re supposed to be evaluating and critiquing.
There’s no need to evaluate the merits of your wife’s poem.
You probably shouldn’t critique your fiancé’s dancing abilities. Like ever.
And you should definitely let your employees voice their ideas. You don’t have to enact all those ideas, but there’s power in them feeling truly seen and heard.
This way, we lower those self-conscious emotions like shame and embarrassment. We create space for the joy of ideation and risk taking.
It’s so many people’s default setting to critique and evaluate: “I hate this.” “You could have done this better.” “I would have done this.”
But is it really time for convergent thinking? Or have you jumped the gun?
If we listened, Yes Anded, and reserved judgment more often, we would provoke less shame, which would cause less creative suppression and mortification. We could ideate until there were no more ideas left in the room.
Now that’s a model for creativity.
Read more about the intersection of improv, science, and the everyday at my blog Play your Way Sane and please comment below.
Beghetto, R. A. (2014). Creative mortification: An initial exploration. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(3), 266.
Beghetto, R. A. (2013). Killing ideas softly?: The promise and perils of creativity in the classroom. IAP.
Drinko, C. D. (2018). The Improv Paradigm: Three Principles that Spur Creativity in the Classroom. In Creativity in Theatre (pp. 35-48). Springer, Cham.
DeMichele, M. (2015). Improv and ink: Increasing individual writing fluency with collaborative improv. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 16(10).
Spolin, V., & Sills, P. (1999). Improvisation for the theater: A handbook of teaching and directing techniques. Northwestern University Press.