“Who cares about creativity? I have real problems to deal with!” This is a common reply that I get from clients (and sometimes from colleagues!) when I bring up the topic of creativity. However, the more I have a chance to write and reflect on the subject of creativity, the more convinced I become that creativity is an essential part of the healing process.

I recently had an opportunity to interview Dennis Palumbo, a therapist and writer in private practice in Los Angeles, CA. Dennis brings a unique perspective to therapy, as a former Hollywood screenwriter (he was a staff writer for “Welcome Back Kotter” and wrote the film “My Favorite Year”) and now therapist to up-and-coming and established writers, artists and Hollywood executives. The topic that came up was the connection between creativity and anxiety. Dennis mentioned that his clients will often say the following: “If only I could get rid of my anxiety and self-doubt and depression, then I could finally write!” To which Dennis invariably replies:” Write about what?”

The clients I work with often don’t see themselves as creative, but they certainly also express the wish to get rid of all the things that they see as “bad”—their anxieties, sadness and losses—and sometimes express the hope that I can “fix” them. And certainly, an important part of the work that we do is helping clients achieve symptom reduction. However, there are some things in life that can’t be “fixed” or “reduced,” such as the loss of a loved one, or a chronic illness, or the anxiety that we all face knowing that we are finite beings. And sometimes, the only thing there is left to do, beyond accepting the situation, is to “use it.”

“Using it” is a term I’ve heard many times in theatre, as a direction to actors who are facing various feelings that may be coming up in their lives. So, if an actor has an angry breakup with his girlfriend prior to getting onstage to play Hamlet, he can use his anger or sadness and allow it to inform his performance. However, in my experience, clients don’t need to be actors or writers to creatively transform their painful emotions. For example, a client who loses a child to a drunk driver, and then reaches out to other parents to form a support group is using the power of creativity to transform their feelings of grief into empathy and social action. It is my experience that people aren’t satisfied with symptom reduction. Their depression or anxiety may get them into the room but the question remains: What am I going to do with myself, with this person that I am, with all of my strengths and weaknesses?

In this way, anxiety and depression become more than symptoms to be reduced. Instead, they become an invitation into the creative process, an opportunity for a client to create a new and more satisfying life. I am always interested in questions that stimulate the client’s imagination, asking them to imagine who they would be without their problem, or what message they think their problem might be sending them. And I firmly believe that if we, as therapists, care about creativity, our clients will come to value it as well.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections