Is fear holding you back? You have big ideas, and you can see it in your mind but as soon as you start creating (or pursuing that dream or starting that project) that inner doubt and critic stops you in your tracks. We’ve heard it all before–You aren’t smart enough/ talented enough; You can’t do this; Who do you think you are; That sucks, you suck; What if I fail; It isn’t turning out like what I envisioned–and on and on.
It is amazing how we were fearless creators as children. Give us a piece of paper and some crayons, and we would draw for hours or until we ran out of paper. But then there is that inevitable turning point where criticism found its way into our creating and then we were paralyzed by thoughts of “but my horse (cat or another animal) doesn’t look like a real horse.”
Someone told us that.
Someone unleashed their inner critic on our sweet, expressive budding creator.
And at that moment planted the seed of inner criticism that would grow into the thorny bush that pricks and scratches us every time we reach, grow, explore, and dream. It becomes a huge thorny wall like the one that kept sleeping beauty hidden in her castle asleep for all eternity never awakening to her full potential.
Guess what? You don’t need Prince Charming to cut through that nasty hedge of yours. You have the power to transform your fear into a powerful “magic” detector.
Fear dogs all of us, but we don’t have to let it win.
You can make peace with your resistance/ fear and take back your creativity; it just takes some strategies, habits, and a shift in mindset. But where to begin? The first step is to recognize your resistance for what it is. It is adept and hiding behind several masks to confuse us.
the many faces of fear
- Your inner critic
Fear has many aliases. Whatever guise, it is currently taking in your life matters less than its impact. Fear is the enemy of creativity. It shuts us down, cripples us, and leaves us seeking hiding aka avoidance and numbing behaviors. You know the ones–TV/ Netflix binge-watching, eating, sleeping, gaming, texting, endlessly scrolling social media, and news or information binging (my personal go to, well that and sleeping). The goal of these behaviors is to numb the pain and anxiety that our inner critic (fear) stirs up. I have been known to deep clean my studio for hours rather than face my next piece.
fear’s Top 10 playlist aka types of fear
I’m a failure.
What if I succeed? I am not ready. It will change everything. Let’s just not try. Let’s wait.
I am not good enough/ smart enough/ know enough. This is often why we are jealous or critical of work that we think “I could have done or done better.” Our subconscious sees how just showing up is half the battle, and we belittle the work of those who are showing up for not being “great” when we aren’t even in the ring.
What if I make a fool of myself?
I will start when…my kids start school/ go off to college, when I retire, after I take another class, when I’m [fill in the age], when I have the money…really, the answer is “it is never the right time.”
My ideas are not good enough.
Someone else has already done it AND better. And its twin…
There is nothing else to be said/ done because it has all been done. You can and should add to the discussion and build on the work of others. Some of the best products and ideas started with what someone did before, and someone else tweaked it, improved it, and made it better. We all need to hear something several times before it sinks in. Also, sometimes, we need to hear it differently. So, your creation, your version, your voice is unique and may be just the version someone needs to connect to the idea.
I tried, and it didn’t work, so what’s the use. This is an easy lie to fall for. It is rare for anyone to get it right the first time. You need to fail many times before you succeed. But we all have this image in our minds of the one person who seemingly succeeded on their first try, so of course, there must be something wrong with us. Just not true.
So if fear is the enemy of creativity, what is fear’s kryptonite?
Surprisingly, gratitude, faith, and action.
Fear lives in a world of scarcity. Fear tells us that there aren’t enough:
- money–grants, fellowships, residencies
- jobs/ opportunities
- good things
And Fear tries to convince us that there isn’t enough to go around. So, if something good happens to someone else or if they get the job, grant, etc. then there won’t be anything left for us.
When we are afraid that there isn’t enough, we don’t take risks; we don’t share resources, we are negative and pessimistic. Our creativity is crippled, and we stay stuck.
But when we embrace gratitude, which lives in an abundant world, we deny Fear its power over us. Why does gratitude work? It works because we begin to bring our focus on all the gifts we have, the good in our lives, and we begin to seek it out daily. For example, when that refund check arrives in the mail, we no longer take it for granted but appreciate it more fully. These moments counter the scarcity messages of Fear and help us be grateful for all the many moments each day where wonderful things have happened.
When your inner dialogue starts running amok, think of five things that you are grateful for, items, both big and small and write them down. It could be a simple as a sunny day, your morning cup of coffee or tea or more profound like your family, supportive friends, your health, etc.
Adding a daily gratitude practice can help keep fear at bay. I love the app 5 Minute Journal. (There is also a paper journal version of The 5 Minute Journal.) Bonus with the app is that you can add a daily picture and you can download and print it all out (a great way to then have it printed via Picaboo, Shutterfly or other self-publishing sites and you can have a lovely paper version with images of a year of gratitude.)
Fear tries to convince us that what we dream isn’t possible. All the “what ifs” and the doom and gloom of our fear create doubt. We lose faith in our dreams and in the vision we had for our projects. The antidote to this doubt is unwavering faith.
How does this work?
Faith is the belief that things will work out even when you can see how. It is trusting that if you jump, there will be a net to catch you or wings to help you soar. It is letting go of knowing how it will all work out before you begin.
Here’s the secret. Fear wants you to believe that you need to have every detail sorted out before you begin. It wants you to believe that if you don’t have a solid, incredibly detailed plan, then you won’t succeed, so don’t start.
The truth is that serendipity is part of the journey. When we move toward our dreams, when we begin to create what we see in our mind, what we need will make its way to us–people, resources, and opportunities. And this is where gratitude comes in again. It is a circle of momentum–gratitude, faith, action, gratitude, faith, action…again and again.
Faith is powerful but combined with action; it tames fear’s nasty tongue. When we create and make, we move forward. It brings us happiness. Any progress brings us out of the crippling frozen state where fear wants us to stay, that safe, known place, and moves us closer to our dreams and vision. It is the combination of unwavering faith and extraordinary effort, as Hal Elrod notes in his recent book The Miracle Equation: The Two Decisions That Move Your Biggest Goals from Possible, to Probable, to Inevitable, that results in miraculous results in your life, in consistently achieving your goals.
Creating/ making is Fear’s kryptonite? You scoff, “When I try to create is when fear hits the hardest, so how can it be my secret weapon?” When we create, we are tapping into our imagination and freeing ourselves. Yes, it is also when fear rears its ugly head, but if we push on, we can subdue it, lean into it. Fear is generally seen as that big wall that keeps us from moving forward but if we can start working and making we have won half the battle.
So, how do you blast through that wall and get working? Well, first, you need to understand the nature of fear and our relationship to it.
Fear is such a universal obstacle to creativity that numerous books advise how to conquer, overcome, and make peace with fear. One of the most popular books, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art focuses on the neverending battle of writers (and all of us) with fear. He refers to this obstacle as “resistance.” Resistance is the side effect of fear that keeps us from realizing our full potential, sharing our gifts with the world, and fulfilling our dreams. It appears as self-sabotaging behaviors, procrastination, and crippling inaction.
He sees our struggle with resistances as a war. But who wants to see their creative journey as a never-ending battle, a perpetual fight that turns your computer or studio into the battlefield. That certainly would repel even the most committed creative. But there is another way to view fear and resistance.
Seth Godin’s approach in The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? resonates more for me. Instead of looking at resistance and fear as a foe to battle, he sees it as an ever-present speed bump (which can turn into a wall) that we must overcome and make peace with and more importantly as an indication that we are heading in the right direction. While he agrees with much of what Pressfield says, for Godin, it is a dance, not a war. We must acknowledge the fear and recognize what it is, a big neon sign that says “this way to greatness.”
What does that mean? The presence of fear or resistance indicates that you are on the verge of something big, that you are getting closer to fulfilling your potential, to making a breakthrough.
Fear is ultimately a “magic” detector. The louder the mental noise, objections, criticism, anxiety, and negativity (the beeping of your “magic” detector), the closer you are to the “magic.” It is pointing the way. Instead of turning away, this is the sign that you should lean in, breathe in and soldier on. This is when the dance starts, as Godin notes.
So if this is such a pervasive problem and so many authors have addressed sharing great strategies to overcome, then why is it still such a problem for everyone?
- Because we think that we are the only ones who suffer. “Those great [fill in the blank–artists, writers, inventors, musicians, dancers, singers, creators…] are more talented, smarter, have had better luck or support, and don’t struggle like me. That is why I will never succeed. Let’s face it, I am just an imposter, and this project/ dream is unrealistic for me.” Even as I write this, I wonder if others, if you, struggle with fear as I do. It is easy to assume that others are confident and that my doubts and fears are a sign of my limitations, my lack of talent, and some personal failing. I remind myself that all those books about fear and resistance are the sign that I am not alone.
- Because our fear knows how to wound us perfectly to keep us flying low and staying in our comfort zone, that inner voice and critic knows where all the bodies are buried and isn’t afraid to pull them out in salacious National Enquirer style to shame and humiliate us into submission, usually at 2 am when we are most vulnerable. Hell, it is dark and creepily quiet then so why not have a committee meeting with me, myself and I to rehash how much of a loser I am, the mistakes I made today and way back in grade school (oh, don’t forget that horrible moment in high school too) and why my dreams are stupid, and I will never achieve them. “Myself” is particularly bitchy and mean. Why can’t we voter her off the island already? I am ready to snuff out her torch and send her packing (and no, I don’t want to see her at the post Survivor reunion, thank you).
- Because it is hard work. It’s that simple. It is hard to show up each day and face the resistance, to listen to the voice of our fears and dance and lean into the pain. We often don’t have the strategies, habits, and structures in place to consistently slog through the morass. We need to learn some ninja mind tricks to subdue Fear. And the surprising truth is the mind tricks are for us, not Fear. We are in control, and we have to remain behind the steering wheel and tell our fear to stay buckled in the car seat in the back. AND if she is good, we may stop for ice cream later.
ninja mind tricks to subdue fear
Give up perfection and make lots of first waffles: You know the first waffle or pancake is always wonky or sticks to the griddle but still tastes good and helps us see if we need more oil or need to adjust the temperature (in France it is the first crepe, the one that is thrown away, that seasons the pan and lets you know what to adjust). Instead of trying to get it right the first time, see how many different ways you can do it. Remember, our first efforts should be seen as experiments and not masterpieces. Free them of that crippling label.
- Write that paragraph or sentence five different ways–move the sentences around and see what happens.
- Paint or draw the same composition but using different color palettes, different lighting, or from different angles. For example, look at Monet’s light studies of Rouen Cathedral.
- See how many different variations you can do of your project. Then look at all of them and see if one stands out or pull the best parts of the bunch and bring them together in a final version.
The key is that you are not trying to make your first attempt perfect. Fear LOVES it when you seek perfection because it will ALWAYS convince you that what you are executing isn’t. When I am writing or drawing, for example, I regularly think that what I am creating sucks. I want to stop. It doesn’t live up to that image in my head, but I lean into the feelings of inadequacy and slog on (or if Fear wins that day, I take a nap, bury my head in the fridge, start binge reading information on the internet or binge watch movies and TV online. I admit it, sometimes Fear wins, but it is just one battle. In the end, I still win the war.).
If the inner criticism is particularly bad, I set a timer and make myself work for a set period and then set the work aside. I am surprised by how often I find when I return to it later that what I created didn’t suck and that with some tweaks is quite good. And when it seems lackluster, at least I have something to tweak, rework, or the worst case scenario, I learned what not to do. And back to the drawing board, I head.
Perseverance: Commit to working on your project for a set amount of time. Set a timer (How awesome that smartphones have built-in timers.) for 20-30 minutes and make yourself work on the project without distraction, breaks or stopping until the timer goes off. Give yourself permission to take a break afterward. Even 5 minutes is a great starting point but do commit to extending the time each sitting by 5 minutes until you get to at least 30 minutes, 50 minutes is great. Don’t edit, erase, start over. Just do it. No judgment at this point. You can do that when you come back to it later. Then get up and take a break for 5 – 10 minutes. Then start another session.
Bonus tip: Don’t let not having enough time limit you. I often have people say that they don’t have enough time daily to work on their project. “I only have 20 minutes [or some other amount of time] at night or in the morning. By the time I get situated to start, my time is up.” Don’t let the amount of time you have available be an excuse. It is amazing to learn how many of the most well-known individuals in history were able to produce their work in small amounts of time daily (for example, Toni Morrison, a single mom who worked full-time and taught in the evenings, wrote her novels by carving out time early in the morning before her day started. To read short bios about the creative habits of artists, musicians, writers, performing artists, inventors, scientists, and more, read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey.). In An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake, Srinivas Rao suggests a good strategy for maximizing the time you have to create:
- Set out what you need the night before or at the end of each session so you can get started right away.
- Before you finish for the day, make a note about where to start during your next session. This could be a few bullet points jotted down or a sticky note on a painting indicating where you want to go next or an outline for the next paragraph or chapter. The key is to finish each session with a plan for the next and the items you need to begin ready. You will get to work faster and also overcome the inertia factor that keeps us procrastinating.
Reframe the pain: When you start an exercise program, especially something like weightlifting, you expect to be sore. You know that it indicates that you worked hard, are progressing, and making changes to your muscles. Embrace fear in the same way. See the discomfort and the screaming inner voice just like sore muscles from a workout. It is all an indication you are moving in the right direction. If you give up working out because of sore muscles, you never push past that initial pain phase and develop the strength and physical changes that you are possible of. And the cycle repeats. As you push to the next level, you will have sore muscles again. It is part of the growth process.
The same is true with creativity. If you don’t push past the negative inner dialog, the anxiety, the fear, then you won’t get to the magic, to your great work. You will start and stop and stagnate at the beginning phase, which will only reinforce fear’s message that you aren’t good enough. But you are good enough. Lean in and remember that it is part of the process and a sign you are headed in the right direction.
Get comfortable with the discomfort, with the pain, with the inner critical dialogue. Remember that your ego wants to keep you safe and doesn’t like change. It’s like a little kid that is convinced that mushrooms taste bad and refuses to eat them. Never mind that she has only tasted them raw and only once or that she just thought they smelled bad. You know that there are a myriad of ways that they can be prepared, and you have a recipe that is amazing. Trust your instincts and not fear’s. Forge ahead and tell her that you hear her but that you are still moving toward your magic.
Create routines: We have all heard the stories of the writer who consistently cranks out pages of text daily or the artist who seems to have a team of studio elves that help them create huge quantities of work monthly. We think, “Well they are just super talented, or they never suffer creative blocks. They must be on a perpetual caffeine high. I just don’t work that way. I have to wait until inspiration hits me.”
Well, I’m going to tell you a secret…Those super productive creatives aren’t necessarily any more talented than you. They DO suffer creative blocks, but they have discovered the essential creativity hack–ROUTINES.
They have daily routines that they follow religiously. And if they fall off one day, they course correct and get up the next day and get back on their routine.
They understand a critical fact that the fastest way to reach a flow state is to have routines. Routines train our brains and also help us overcome procrastination. They aren’t hung up on creating masterpieces. They just show up and do the work every day. It is surprising how much you can accomplish in as little as 20-30 minutes a day if you commit to a routine and set yourself up for success.
But you say, “This is all fine and good, but I am overwhelmed. Jen, where do I start? ”
If you want to learn how to tame your fear, overcome creative blocks, reach a flow state faster, and create a personalized routine that gets you consistently completing work, then join me in Florence, Italy October 18 – 25, 2022, for the Ignite Your Creative Potential retreat.
You will get one-on-one coaching with me where we will develop a plan for you to create the great work you are called to make. Its a bold investment in you that tells the universe and your fear that you are committed to bringing your ideas to life, that you are putting everyone on notice that it is time for you, time for your dreams.
It’s a chance to be part of a supportive, creative community where you can connect authentically with kindred spirits with ambitions and creative callings like you.
Part R & R, part inspiration jumpstart, and part exploration into the mystery of imagination and the creative process.
We will be walking in the footsteps of the Italian Renaissance masters, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Donatello, and more. Enjoy fresh pasta and gelato while discovering hidden gems.
Let this be the year that you harness your “magic detector,” fear, and say yes to you, yes to your dreams.
My experience with Ignite Your Creative Potential retreat has become one of my fondest memories and that is why I am going again. I would describe the experience as esoteric…an incredible week of being immersed in Renaissance art, architecture, and history with a group of like-minded artists, learning creative tools (some used by the Renaissance masters) to use in your own work, the street art of Blurb and Clet, beautiful vistas of the city all laid out in front of you…this is just the beginning. They say that experiences make you happier than things. I thank you for that experience.