Ego and Creativity
Douglas Eby

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Art By: Jeff Westover
Art By: Jeff Westover

O ne sense of the word "ego" is distorted self-regard, what psychologist Carl Jung referred to as "inflated consciousness... hypnotized by itself." Many creative people recognize the need to modulate this kind of ego in order to facilitate the creative process. Responding to a magazine poll question "What kills creativity?" actress Gillian Anderson ("The X-Files") replied succinctly, "Ego."

But there are more internal and subtle aspects of ego, qualities of consciousness that help create the more external kinds of "ego" behavior. We have powerful tendencies to set up discriminations and stories about ourselves and others that limit creative expression. As actress Madlyn Rhue noted (in the book "Actors as Artists" by Jim McMullan and Dick Gautier), "The mistake we all make is in thinking that certain standards exist and that we must meet these standards in order to establish our place in the universal hierarchy. But hierarchies in artistic expression are not valid nor universal; they're personal." And Julia Cameron in her book "The Artist's Way: commented "We tend to think, or at least fear, that creative dreams are egotistical... This thinking must be undone."

Acting presents many challenges to the sense of self. Film acting coach Jennifer Lehman has noted (personal interview) "As actors, you feel at the grace of everyone: they're the ones who can give you a job. You question Will that director like me?' It's a challenge to walk in totally loving who you are, not in an egotistical way, but out of respect for creative expression."

Creativity and creative excellence has to come out of exploration. Mary Rocamora, founder of the Rocamora School in Los Angeles which provides classes in awareness work and talent development, notes "A technical rendering of the idea of 'ego', rather than simply a colloquial rendering, would include any self-judgment, or any ideas and concepts about 'how things should be'. That voice comes in and starts to mess with the creative process. Ego is any place where thinking is superimposed on awareness."

She notes that many arts are based on the "interface between technique and freedom. Once the form has been mastered, creativity is freedom within the form, a matter of the unknown interfacing with the known. The real magic is when awareness recognizes its own process, when it sees that childlikeness, that innocence, spontaneity, sense of abandon, that lets impulse emanate through form."

Melora Hardin, an accomplished actress with a number of movie and TV credits (including the film "Absolute Power" with Gene Hackman), finds that working as an actor "you're constantly being tested. It's such a team environment, doing any kind of show or movie, so you're constantly maneuvering around all these different personalities. It's sometimes hard to stay in awareness because you've got to create a good working situation with these people, and the tendency is to let the ego come marching in and think it can take care of everything, and make everybody comfortable. I always envision my ego as a marching soldier who says 'I've got everything under control' and tries to be like my Knight in Shining Armor, like this very heroic character, and ultimately it's really not. The best part of you for the team is your awareness, the part of you that can actually sit back and be patient." But, she notes, awareness is a slower process, and "there's not a lot of support for that in our culture. We're a much more fast-paced society that appreciates and rewards the fast thinker, the fast talker, the wise-cracker, the banter. That's definitely true in filmmaking. Not that awareness can't banter, it certainly can, but the ego gets more strokes than awareness does."

Hardin says that beside the awareness training classes she has had, what helps her is "anything that connects me with my body. Dancing and yoga, any physical activity, anything that is quieting and intimate and personal to you. Dancing can be incredibly self-focused, but with a specific, focused intention. You can be really self-centered, but it's not in a way that spins out your ego; it's focused on achieving a task, like making the line from my hand to my toe more beautiful today than it was yesterday. There's something so meditative and completely egoless about that. Anything where you have to focus so intently on what the discipline calls for is a great way to keep yourself quiet and focused-in. It just makes your brain shut up."

Rocamora, who has counseled a number of creative professionals, gives a specific example of awareness in action: "An actress I have worked with was recently in a major film where the very green director insisted that he knew what he was doing. She had had nothing but conflict with him for a while, just because he was unresponsive, and didn't realize that she knew more about movie making than just being 'the actress.' So at one point she went into the editing room unannounced, and she just put her arm around his shoulder to try to create connection. She started saying 'What would happen if we moved this scene over here, and put that one there?' This was all in a very light, non- threatening way, non-invasive, and so gentle with him, and not adversarial. She spent a day with him, and all of a sudden, he was responding, and moving into a creative consciousness about how to edit this movie that would never have happened if he had been left to his own devices."

Dancer Martha Graham once said in a famous quote that relates to thought and creativity: "There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."

Douglas Eby, M.A.

Douglas Eby's E-mail

Douglas Eby M.A. writes about creative growth and talent development, especially related to gifted women. He hosts the Gifted Women Forum on America Online (keyword: online psych), and is author of the Women & Talent site at

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