You can listen to me read this essay here (35 minutes)

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How to shift overwhelm, procrastination, resistance and perfectionism

Like me, I suspect you’ve been seduced by one or more facets of this gem called creative resistance (AKA artists/writer’s block): perfectionism, procrastination, resistance and overwhelm.

And, like me, I suspect you’ve been trapped in that nasty mind-swamp, unable to break free and do your creative work.

Lucky for you, I’ve got a fair bit of experience recognizing those vicious states of being, and plenty of tools for shifting out of them.

Hint: the most effective tools I’ve got for shifting resistance involve connecting with my body and getting intimate with my nervous system.

(To get started right now, go ahead and sign up for my free PDF on healing painful stories (the ones you’ve experienced as well as the ones you’re telling yourself) with 10 body-based writing tips.)

But first – a story about how I got entirely overwhelmed, procrastinated like a champion, indulged in resistance and perfected my perfectionism, then learned how to get out of it.

I’ve always been a creative person and have always thrived most when I’m doing something, anything, creative, on a regular (daily) basis.

Yet, in my 20s, I spent a significant number of years very very stuck, actively fighting through various kinds of resistance – resistance that would often entirely block me from creating. Then all I’d do was spin around in my head, thinking and daydreaming and longing to do the creative projects that were in my head, but not doing them.

It was so frustrating.

I also, in my 20s, had chronic fatigue, a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, lived in almost constant heartbreak and a great deal of stress (it comes with the territory as a solo mother, but I was, unfortunately, very gifted at amplifying that stress.)

It’s my belief that these states of un-health functioned as my bodypsyche’s ways of trying to get my attention. Unfortunately, I was also skilled at ignoring everything to do with intuition, body awareness, body communication, or synchronicities and divine guidance.

So, what would happen is I’d dream up these grand visionary art projects, and then I’d find every reason I could to not do them. I had so many excuses and I’m going to share them with you, because I imagine some of them will be familiar.

Here is the story of one of my creative visions, and how I resisted making it real.

I had daydreamed and schemed a dreamy series of paintings, large-scale dramatic portraits, with symbolic meaning imbued in every element, accompanied by stories. Mythic portraits.

I wanted to do these portraits on my family and friends. I also wanted to create a large number of them so they’d be a series, and I wanted to show them in galleries, plural, and be a wild success, and make sales.

None of which I did.

Let’s check out my wild excuses!

After coming up with this ambitious creative vision I found every reason why I was too overwhelmed to start. Here are some of the excuses I cooked up:

  • I needed time away from my young daughter in order to paint. She was too excited about everything creative I made, and I didn’t want to be painting these portraits with her around, getting into my supplies, wanting to help, and ruining my paintings.
  • Therefore I needed an art studio first. Because they were also far too big to paint in my little apartment. That would cost money.
  • Because these paintings were going to be large-scale, I wanted to get all the canvases and paint supplies all at once. That would be quite expensive. Even more money.
  • Because I needed an art studio first, and large canvases and plenty of paint, therefore I needed to make more money first, so I needed to get another part-time job. That would cost time.
  • Because I would be getting a part-time job I wouldn’t have time to go to the studio to paint, so I may as well not bother starting, yet.

Overwhelm and procrastination was effectively at work!

Oh, but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone, so I ruminated some more. I came up with some new roadblocks:

  • Rather than just start and learn as I went, I decided I didn’t really have the skills for that style of painting, and I wanted to do them really well, make them awesome – you know, because I wanted to show the series in galleries and submit them for a gallery tour, so therefore, I decided I needed to take classes in portraiture first.
  • But that would cost money. And you already know the rabbit hole the money argument took me down.
  • Also, if I was going to take classes, and really do it right, then I’d want to learn oil painting, and that would cost even more money, and, also, take even more time to learn how to do that right.
  • Then, I realized, if I wanted a gallery exhibit, I’d have start networking and building relationships with the people who run the galleries I’d be interested in, and that’d take time, and I didn’t have a website or professional online presence, so I needed to do that first.
  • And that would cost time, and money, and if I took on a part-time job then I wouldn’t have the time, so I wouldn’t be able to start until that was finished.
  • And I want it to be so awesome, but also meaningful, and if I want to do portraits of real people, I’ll need to devote time to asking them to sit for photos and interview them about their meaningful symbolism and that’ll take time, and I already have so little time…
  • And then I’d feel obliged to give the portraits to the portrait subjects, or I’d feel weird about selling them, so I’d lose money, and it all felt weird.
  • So I just wouldn’t start, yet.

Perfectionism as well as overwhelm and procrastination was at work!

All of this resistance, I’ll argue, was also an addiction to the state of longing-for, but not having. A state which resistance facilitates so very effectively. So I’d just kept on…

Burying my head in a bucket of sand and daydreaming for another couple years, getting more and more pent-up in my head, my heart and my body, and not doing anything creative, except occassionally in little tiny intense bursts.

And so on and so forth.

Sound familiar?

Finally, one day, I hit my tipping point of frustration.

It was the summer, my bodywork clientele was slow, I wasn’t juggling a second and third contract (as I often was in those days) and my daughter was in daycare. Money was tight, but time was abundant.

I dug out the art supplies I already had in my house, and looked at what was available.

3 fine-art pens. Lots of watercolour paper. Plenty of watercolour paint.

I walked out my front door, sat on my little porch, and set myself up with a little table, a chair and all of those art supplies which had been languishing in my storage closet as I agonized over my grand creative visions.

I faced myself towards the sun, I wore as little clothing as I could (because summertime in northern Canada is brief, and sunshine is heaven-sent,) I picked up my art pen and I started making marks. I had surrendered.

I’d squeezed myself into such a state of overwhelm, procrastination, perfectionism and resistance that I finally cracked, and stopped striving. My creative heart hurt too much from pinching off all creative expression, and I just accepted what I had in front of me, and decided to enjoy doodling with those supplies with no expected outcome, and no timeline.

Just sunshine, art supplies and time.

What showed up astonished me. Nothing big and grand and serious. Just feather after feather and circular pattern after circular pattern, all of which I filled in with bright, happy colours. For a moment I was embarrassed. This wasn’t serious art! This wasn’t in my vision! They were joyful!

But then I got over the embarrassment. I was finally back in creative flow, I was being delighted and astonished by what was arising, and I felt so much happier.

What changed?

  • I started allowing what was inside me to come up and out, to unfold and reveal itself, without my own pressurized ambitions and agendas.
  • I scaled back my plans to what was doable in the moment. And reminded myself to be ok with that.
  • I stopped comparing myself to others.
  • I started allowing myself to feel pleasure in the act of creating, rather than in the twisted turn-on of unrequited love, AKA the state of longing-for but not-having.

‘Yeah, yeah, that’s great Janelle.’ You may be thinking. ‘But I’m still so stuck.’

Or, you may be thinking: ‘yeah, yeah, Janelle, but I don’t want to spend years and years stuck like you. Help!!!’

I hear you. Because I dearly wish I’d had mentors who’d pointed these things out and helped to talk me through them. I may be very good at learning things the hard way, but I don’t think we need to thrash around without guidance for years (like, ahem, me) to learn and grow and get unstuck.

So here’s how you shift yourself out of overwhelm, procrastination, resistance and perfectionism much faster than I did.

All of these tips are, by the way, based not only on my personal experiences of resistance but a great deal of formal study and inner-work, in the body, mind and soul realms. I’ve done the work so I can support you in yours.

  1. You get really intimate and familiar with how those states feel like in you (your bodypsyche – physical and emotional sensations), and what triggers those states to show up and intensify.
  2. You get familiar with your body’s nervous system, and it’s fight/flight/freeze response, and how that ties in with those stuck states.
  3. You make friends with your body, and pay attention to it.
  4. You collect a bunch of body-based and expressive arts techniques, all designed to shift you out of stuckness and into creative flow, and then…
  5. You use all these skills the next time you start to get creatively stuck.

(To get started right now, go ahead and sign up for my free PDF on healing painful stories (the ones you’ve experienced as well as the ones you’re telling yourself) with 10 body-based writing tips.)

And that is how I’ve managed, in the past 4 years (while also juggling 2 jobs, raising a daughter on my own and moving cities) to:

  • do enough personal lifestory writing to have enough material for the first draft of my memoir (which I have no plans to publish, btw!)
  • create my Art of Personal Mythmaking online course (and market it and teach it online 4 times)
  • create a podcast and interview my guests then edit and publish 60 episodes (thus far)
  • sew a denim quilt out of old jeans
  • paint an epic 100-portrait series and have two art shows featuring these portraits
  • produce two local professional dance showcases in two different towns (the Bare Bones Dance Showcases)

If I can do it, so can you!

And just so you know, I’m not a high-energy person. I need a lot of sleep (less than 8 hours per night makes me miserable) and I need a lot of quiet time and downtime.

I don’t have any secret get-up-at-4am writing regimes (I’m a miserable morning person and like to sleep as much as humanly possible.) I don’t push through and force anything.

The reason I can do so many wonderful creative projects, despite having a lot on my plate, is because I am rarely in resistance anymore.

Resistance uses up a tremendous amount of energy, and freeing yourself from resistance means you can redirect that energy towards your longed-for creative projects.

Knowing how to catch yourself, shift out of those states and stay in creative flow makes so much more possible.

So let’s explore how you can shift overwhelm, procrastination, resistance and perfectionism and make things happen in your life.

Regardless of what else is going on in your life.

Step #1: get really intimate with how the states of overwhelm, procrastination, resistance and perfectionism feel for you and identifying what triggers and intensifies them.

Ask yourself the following, and write your answers down.

What does overwhelm look like, feel like, think like?

For example, when I start to get overwhelmed, I notice that piles of clutter start to build up. Which then overwhelms me further. Overwhelm thinks like a squirrel – scattered, sharp right turns in subject matter and topic. I start to feel as if my inner landscape is populated by a few personalities all talking out loud about different things at the same time, so I have difficulty focusing.

Overwhelm feels, in my body, like contraction. I start to feel smaller, my vision feels darker, and narrowed in. It’s hard to notice my surroundings clearly, because I’m actively shutting myself down.

Because I’m also a highly sensitive person and an empath, overwhelm feels like me being too tuned in to other people’s emotional states. My energetic and emotional boundaries get more porous, making it difficult to make myself a priority and turn the volume down on my surroundings.

What does procrastination look like, feel like, think like?

I already shared my version of procrastination in list above – various flavours of projecting roadblocks into the future so I can stop myself from doing the next small steps towards my own creative goals. When I’m procrastinating my body feels pinched behind the eyes, my heart clenches up and an overwhelming panic starts to build underground in my bodypsyche. Everything gets pressurized and I devote plenty of my energy into not-doing the things I’m putting off.

How do you procrastinate? What is it motivated by? The motivations are different for everyone. My procrastination is often motivated by fear of being too visible, fear of feeling shame by being visible (which feels like I’ve been punched in my belly and am nauseous at the same time), fear of success – thus becoming more visible – and fear in general.

What does perfectionism look like, feel like, think like?

Perfectionism for me is a variation on the themes in procrastination – fear of exposure, fear of not getting it right, fear of not being good enough, fear of being shamed, fear of feeling shame, fear of embarrassment, fear, fear, fear.

What about for you?

What does resistance look like, feel like, think like?

Resistance, for me, is all of the above, with the added sensation of feeling like I’ve got a vibration inside my body that is not in sync with the rest of my body. Like I’ve got my foot on the gas and the brakes simultaneously so I start to feel stuck and panicked.

What about for you?

Step #2: get familiar with your body’s nervous system, it’s fight/flight/freeze response, and how that’s connected to your stuck states.

If my comment about having your foot on the gas and your other foot on the brakes resonated, you’ve got a dysregulated nervous system. Just like me!

Creative challenges are nervous system challenges.

The bad news is it feels awful, and most people in our current cultures are somewhat dysregulated.

The good news is it’s possible to gently and incrementally shift out of that state, and when you do, everything else in your life, particularly your creativity, flows with so much more ease – no need to ever again be a tortured tormented artist!

To swiftly describe a deeply complex subject area – our nervous system physiology gets dysregulated when we encounter chronic stress, as well as overwhelming traumatic stress, abuse and threats in which we are helpless/unable to release our survival responses – our fight/flight/freeze responses.

When we are unable to fully release our fight/flight/freeze responses that extra energy gets caught, whirling, in our nervous system and we become, in a sense, locked into states which time does not heal.

Some symptoms that might mean you’re in a dysregulated nervous system state are:

  • a life or lifestyle that includes chronic unrelenting stress
  • extreme shyness
  • hyperalertness/jumpiness/nerves (including hyperfocused type A workaholics)
  • overwhelming emotional states/rage for no reason
  • difficulty expressing emotions
  • lethargy/shutdown/overwhelm/fear
  • an underlying sense that you can’t relax/safety doesn’t exist
  • spinning, incessant critical thoughts
  • aches and pains that move around for no clear reason
  • anxiety/depression
  • chronic illnesses/fatigue that aren’t helped by anything you try (allopathic or alternative)
  • IBS gut issues that don’t resolve themselves no matter what you try
  • pelvic discomfort
  • regular coping through the use of substances (drugs, cannabis and/or alcohol)

Some experiences that might mean you’re in a dysregulated nervous system state are:

  • having had surgery
  • major and/or ongoing dental work
  • birth trauma (you as a newborn or as a mother giving birth)
  • car accidents
  • being exposed to other people’s traumatic experiences and stories often
  • adverse childhood experiences
  • abuse (physical, emotional, mental, sexual)

Creative challenges are nervous system challenges.

And our bodies hold the key for shift. We can’t out-think these states because they’re in the body, in the nervous system.

Dealing with a lot of overwhelm, resistance, procrastination and perfectionism often mean you’re stuck in a freeze response and, sometimes, a subtle fight response (pushing again/pushing back/digging your heels in.)

A flight response is evident more often when you launch into projects but can’t seem to ever finish them, flying quickly off into the next big adventure, project or initiative, only to flee that one before completion, and so on and so forth.

Step #3: so let’s make friends with our bodies and pay attention to what they’re telling us.

It may feel like a lot to take in – understanding our nervous systems and healing dysregulation, but the great and wonderful news is that it’s possible, and it’s through gentle body-based techniques.

To shift out of creative block and stuck states, and to heal our nervous systems, we cannot push hard.

We cannot force things. We can simply open up to the possibility of gentleness and cultivate a regular attending to our senses.

Making friends with our bodies looks like this:

Asking ourselves how we’re feeling in any given moment. Feeling in our bodies. This is the key.

For example:

  • If my mind starts spinning and my apartment starts to accumulate little piles of clutter, I know I’m spending a lot of time in the state of overwhelm. This is my clue to pay attention.
  • How are my thoughts? Spinning. Ok, and when my thoughts start to spin, I do a body scan, and ask – what am I feeling in my body? Because I know that worry and overthinking stirs up my guts, and they start to ache and bloat, I send my attention there and check in.
  • Guts, how are you doing? “Yucky. Stop worrying so much – you’re making us hurt,” they say. Ok. Got it. Anything else – shoulders? Jaw? Back of neck? How are you guys feeling? “Tight and tense.” Yeah, ok. I don’t like this state I’ve plunged into. I better shift it, because I know, from experience, if I just leave it as it is, it’ll get worse. 
  • So I go to Step #4 and use my toolkit.

Step #4: for steps 1-3 to work, you’ll need to have a collection of tools that help you soften your nervous system to shift out of stuckness and into creative flow.

After you’ve taken the time to notice what state you’re in and check in with your body to collect a list of sensations, you’ll need to go through a list of things that help (all gentle, all body-based) and start using them. This is key.

Some of my favourite tools are included in this free PDF on healing painful stories (the ones you’ve experienced as well as the ones you’re telling yourself) with 10 body-based writing tips.

We have to DO the things on our getting-unstuck list of tools in order to actually get unstuck.

Otherwise, we will simply contribute to our stress by staying in our stuck states of trying-to-figure-it-out in our heads, of over-researching, of overthinking, of seeking the big dramatic magic cure and of avoiding the gentle daily practices that will truly move us out of our stuck states.

For example, when I’m in my gut-aching overthinking clutter-accumulating states, I know that any one of these things, on my personal self-regulation tool-collection list, will help:

Quick and free tools:

  • Bringing my attention to my breath and doing a full cycle of 10 in-out breaths, making sure that my exhale is slightly longer than my inhale.
  • Doing a simple 2-minute OMG exercise (Orient to the space around me with my eyes (3 times), Mobilize by wiggling my fingers and toes, Ground by sending my energy and attention through my body, following the path of gravity down into the earth.)
  • Eating something that has plenty of healthy fats and proteins, for grounding.
  • Spending 5 minutes giving myself a good self-hug/squeeze, including firmly grasping my forearms and legs in my hands and squeezing with a solid pressure.
  • Setting a timer for 12 minutes and flow-writing.
  • Doing some body-oiling (can use many different oils including grapeseed, almond or coconut oil, best after a shower or bath)
  • Putting on a danceable song and dancing my heart out, letting my body move me, rather than the other way around.
  • Taking a 20 minute minimum walk, preferably in nature, without listening to podcasts/music/audiobooks.
  • Doing a 30-minute prerecorded breathwork session, on my living room floor.

Lengthier less-free tools:​

  • Taking a yin or vinyasa flow yoga class – either in person or off the internet.
  • Getting a session in a sensory deprivation float tank.
  • Getting a BCST (biodynamic craniosacral therapist) session from someone who has training in trauma and the nervous system.
  • Getting a Somatic Experiencing session.

All you need to do, as you develop this list of getting-unstuck tools, is pick the most doable thing on that list, depending where you’re at and how much time you have, and do it. And then you check in with yourself again.

No ifs, ands or buts.

Because if all we do is cultivate self-awareness without building a toolkit of ways to move our awareness into tangible change, we’ll just trap ourselves in the very uncomfortable state (yes, I’ve been here too) of seeing, with exquisite clarity, exactly how we’re getting ourselves stuck in resistance, but without being able to do anything but watch ourselves do it.

So, to recap: here’s how you shift yourself out of overwhelm, procrastination, resistance and perfectionism much faster than I did.

  1. You get really intimate and familiar with how those states feel like in you (your bodypsyche – physical and emotional sensations), and what triggers those states to show up and intensify.
  2. You get familiar with your body’s nervous system, and it’s fight/flight/freeze response, and how that ties in with those stuck states.
  3. You make friends with your body, and pay attention to it, and keep checking in with it.
  4. You collect a bunch of body-based and expressive arts techniques (and you can start with my free PDF), all designed to shift you out of stuckness and into creative flow, and then…
  5. You use all these skills the next time you start to get creatively stuck.

Give this process a try. See what arrives for you. You’ll be delighted. You’ll be surprised. Absolutely no overthinking or figuring-it-out energy required.

I look forward to seeing your impressive and ease-filled list of creative projects, as you continue to move through resistance to create, write, paint, dance and play with ease!

And if you want more guidance, THE ART OF PERSONAL MYTHMAKING: my transformational memoir-writing course – which supports you in writing the first draft of your memoir, reconnecting with your body and transforming your relationship with your lifestories, reclaiming yourself – is available, with live as well as self-paced options. Click here to learn more.

xoxo,

Janelle

P.S. If you want to start writing your lifestories down now just download this PDF with 10 impactful memoir-writing prompt.

P.P.S. If you want to get started, but are worried about how to write through painful memories and/or trauma without getting overwhelmed or distressed, I made another PDF with 10 gentle but effective ways to do so. It’ll help with getting through resistance too.