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VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: This Fear KILLS Your Inspiration to Write
[Heads up! This transcript has been edited for clarity and ease of reading. For a verbatim transcript, click the CC icon to turn on captions.]
Today I'm on my porch. It's a beautiful sunny day in Southern California. I wanted to come up here because today's video is a really challenging topic for me to talk about, so I wanted to be in a place where I felt comfy and open and at ease to talk to you.
It's getting real.
I'm going to share my deepest, darkest fear with you. The stuff that keeps me up at night and can trigger a major anxiety attack if I read something online or anything about this fear––I can really go into panic mode. I've worked hard to make sure I have strategies so I don't totally spiral out when this fear gets triggered.
But first, I want to tell you a little story.
A few weeks ago, I was working on a lyrical essay. My favorite type of writing is definitely more lyrical––some of my favorite writers are Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver... I vacillate between writing poetry and creative nonfiction that's more lyrical and writing fiction that bends into the lyrical. If you’re in the creative life at all, you know sometimes we like to avoid the things we love the most.
I was working on this essay a few weeks ago. I was in flow for about two hours, and it was one of the most exhilarating experiences. I came out of it, and I was like, "Oh, that felt so good!” It felt like I’d just spent a week at a meditation retreat. It was like a release valve in my brain opened up, and I was able to release a lot of anxiety and stress from that flow experience.
And that's not always how my writing experience goes, but it was a beautiful time for me. I ended up thinking:
"Why the hell don't I do this more often?!”
Why is this type of work (the area of creativity I feel the most open and excited about) the work I procrastinate most?
The reason we procrastinate doing our soul's work––the work that we know we’re supposed to be doing––is always fear. Always. No matter what. Whether you're distracted by having to run errands, having to go to the grocery store, having to respond to a work email, regardless of what the distraction or the procrastination is, it is always, always, always fear.
That brings me to my deepest, darkest fear.
That's why I came up here to the porch because it's an uncomfortable topic for me.
Here’s what I’m afraid of the most:
I’m afraid to disappoint people with my writing or say something that might make people angry or offended or hurt.
I'm afraid of doing the wrong thing and being judged for it.
I'm afraid of not living up to my own standards of integrity (what I believe to be integrity) and have people judge and hate me for it.
At the bottom of all of that is a fear of exile. Right? Or a fear of ostracism. A fear that my tribe wants to throw me out and wants to exile me. It freaks me out.
That fear of being ousted from the human tribe (or being judged or criticized or disappointing someone) comes up whenever I do creative work. It really bubbles up and makes me forget why flow and the creative process is actually healthy for me. This fear makes me procrastinate.
Intellectually, I know I'm never going to lose the love of my family members or my friends who know the real me. They know I'm doing my best, and they don't need me to be perfect. They need me to try my best and to reach my fullest potential. But they don’t need me to be perfect, and they're never going to exile me. They're never going to reject me for the person that I am. Intellectually, I know that.
But our limbic brain doesn't understand language. It doesn't understand that the people most important to me will never reject me. All my limbic brain knows is that being exiled from the tribe or being criticized or judged by the tribe is death. We’re herd animals, so thousands of years ago when we were living in tribes, being exiled or thrown out from the group meant death.
I just shared my biggest fear with you. Now I want to ask you,
What is your biggest fear when it comes to creative work?
Do you feel like a huge fraud and that people are going to find out, even though 70% of us struggle with imposter syndrome, including great paragons of creativity such as Maya Angelou?
Do you fear that you're just “not disciplined” or “smart or talented enough” to write a book or be a “real” writer?
Or, are you like me and your deepest fear is that people are going to laugh or criticize or be disappointed or angry or think you're wasting time if you write about X?
Let me know in the comments: What’s your biggest fear that holds your creativity back?
I want to share something that was a big light bulb moment for me this year.
I was reading Susan Jeffers’s wonderful Book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Her thesis is that the root of every single human fear is the thought: “I won't survive.” Again, we're going back to the limbic brain. It doesn't have language. All it wants to do is protect you. So its innate fear is, "Oh, this seems scary. This seems vulnerable. We might get thrown out of the tribe, which means I won't survive!"
In our subconscious, limbic brain (the most ancient part of our brains) is this innate fear that “I won't survive” or “I won't make it through this!”
You might think:
"Oh man, if I get a rejection from this magazine I submitted to… Or,
If somebody writes a mean review about me on Amazon… Or,
If somebody says something mean about me on Twitter or in my workshop group…
I won't survive it!"
That's what your limbic brain thinks. Even if intellectually, your conscious brain thinks, "Of course I'll survive if somebody says mean things about me, that won’t kill anybody." Your limbic brain doesn't know that criticism won't kill you.
Because creative work is so vulnerable, your limbic brain is trying to protect you by sending up those fear signals saying, "You're not going to survive this! Oh my gosh, STOP!"
I want to add on to Susan Jeffers’s thesis. As we've developed as a species, we've added one more deep-seated fear into our subconscious:
"I don't deserve to survive this."
This is unique to our modern culture. I don't believe that our ancient ancestors––who lived in tribes and were hunters and gatherers––struggled with this idea of unworthiness. I think it's a modern problem. It's such a pervasive problem that I believe it sits alongside that innate fear of “I won't survive this.”
Does the fear of “I don’t deserve to survive this” resonate with you? For me, I've struggled with a lot of unworthiness, and I've talked to other writers and people and friends who’ve struggled with this.
You'll often hear suicide survivors (folks who’ve attempted suicide and thankfully failed) say the reason they wanted to die was because they felt that the world, including their loved ones, would be better off without them. To me, that proves my theory that many of us have an innate fear of, "I don't deserve to survive this."
What do we do with those two fears: "I won't survive this" and "I don't deserve to survive this”?
What do we do when they’re so innately programmed into our subconscious? How do we get around them?
I’m not a counselor. I'm not a psychology expert or have any kind of credentials in mental health. What I do know is what’s helped me: awareness. Reminding myself all the time that I can get through any challenge. Reminding my limbic brain, "No, you're okay! You’re going to survive a rejection. You’re gonna survive an angry person on Instagram or Twitter. You're going to survive if you disappoint someone. You aren't perfect, and it's okay to not be perfect."
If I’m continually aware that these are not rational fears, I can push through.
Tim Ferriss has an excellent practice he uses called Fear Setting, which bypasses that innate fear of "I'm not going to make it, I won't survive this!" by getting to the bottom, to the bottom, to the bottom of your fear by asking, "Well, what's the worst thing that can happen?" That tricks your subconscious into believing, "Oh, I guess you will survive this. Go ahead, go do the thing!"
The other thing that helps me is the idea of clinging to non-writing habits, what I call bedrock habits. These can be things like meditation, daily mantras, morning pages… They’re lifesavers for this type of fear. Morning pages are huge! Walking has been nourishing and helpful for me, too. These habits build up small wins for you and remind your limbic brain that you can survive a lot.
If you can walk three miles in the morning every day or three times a week, sure as hell you can submit your writing to the Paris Review or The Rumpus or wherever you want to put your work out there. And you won’t have to fight against so much fear that you won’t survive the rejection.
The last thing is to not beat this fear down. Don’t tell your fear, "Get outta here! You're terrible! You're making life miserable for me!"
I'm coming to terms with the fact that the more we fight or go to battle with ourselves, the more we end up losing. Instead of trying to be a warrior against your fear, invite it along for the ride. Remind it that the worst case scenario is not actually death. And if it is death, oh well, what are we gonna do?
Remind yourself that it's okay, you can survive anything. You've already survived so many things up to this point. You can survive this. Be a friend to that limbic brain and keep going.
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References & Resources
Jeffers, Susan. (1988). Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Ballantine Books.
Ferriss, Tim. (2017). “Fear-Setting: The Most Valuable Exercise I Do Every Month.” https://tim.blog/2017/05/15/fear-setting/