Creativity

Overcoming fear in the creative process

4 ways that fear can hinder the creative process and what to do about it

Of all the things I’ve thought about myself, I never would have thought to describe myself as ‘fearful’.

But, when I began a regular dialogue with myself by journaling every day, I started to see how much fear held me back in my life. I have lived a lot of my life in fear, mostly without knowing it.

As I developed my journaling and creative practice, I noticed a strange thing happening. As much as I loved creating, I also found a great deal of resistance towards it. I would sign up for the latest course, buy the art supplies I’d been lusting after, then stop.

The tricky thing about fear is that it has so many disguises, we sometimes don’t even recognise it. I wasn’t not creating because of fear! How silly. No, I was just really busy, you see. Plus, I wanted to do it just right, so I was waiting until I had the skills and time to perfect it. Also, it was really important that the house was clean and I checked my emails before starting.

No, it wasn’t about fear at all, right?

Nonsense. It was fear all along.

But because of the way that fear is so sneaky it took me a while to realise what was actually going on. Resistance is fear. Avoidance is fear. Perfectionism is fear. Procrastination is fear. It was just fear in its many disguises.

I suspect I am not alone in battling the many faces of fear when creating. I wanted to share some of the things I have learnt and the tricks I have used to beat fear at its own game.

This is one of the easiest ways fear gets us, because it can seem so legitimate. Of course you have to clean the house, that’s not fear – that’s being responsible. And you’ve been meaning to organise your bookshelves for ages anyway, so now is as good a time as any. And today is probably a good day to sort out the dry cleaning you’ve had waiting to take in. And of course, you can’t begin until your desk is tidy.

STOP!

It is amazing what we can convince ourselves to do when we are procrastinating on a project. I can put off folding the laundry for days if I feel like it, then as soon as it’s time to start writing a blog post I can hear the laundry calling my name.

Or, it could go the other way: I sign in to my computer to see the next video in the art course I’m doing, and before I realise it I’ve spent two hours on Facebook and another hour reading blogs.

That’s the thing about the internet – it is the ultimate procrastinator’s tool. It can start with a simple ‘I’ll just check my email’ and then you fall into the procrastination vortex, only to resurface an hour later wondering what happened.

But procrastination is nothing more than fear, particularly when it comes to the creative process. You need to be wise to the signs and look it right in the eye.

Try this:
  • Make a list of all the ways you procrastinate. Be as specific as possible.
  • Post this list somewhere you can see it so that you can be aware of when you are procrastinating.
  • If you’re prone to online distraction, use an app that blocks access you the internet for set periods of time (yes, you will survive).
  • Something a bit different: In your allotted ‘creative time’, deliberately do all the things on your list (or as many as possible) instead of creating. Procrastination is often an unconscious process, so once you start trying to procrastinate, it usually stops working.

There is a lot more to procrastination than what I’ve covered. For more amusing and insightful reading on procrastination in general, you can’t go past this article and then this one on Wait But Why. Yes, I spent some time reading those posts instead of writing this one.

Perfectionism

This one is a bit tricky because it can be quite deeply ingrained, especially if you are a bit of a Type A personality or prone to perfectionism in many areas of your life. This is something I struggle with constantly when creating.

In fact, I like to buy spiral-bound notebooks for art journaling because I can always rip a page out if I ‘mess it up’. In my mind, working in properly bound books is tantamount to getting a tattoo on my face. It cannot be undone! It takes all my strength to just create anyway.

But your work will never be perfect. And that is why perfectionism is one of the most destructive ways we stop ourselves from creating – because it is based on a myth: that our work could possibly be perfect, if we just try hard enough.

No. That’s a lie that fear tells us.

And in believing that, we are really short-changing ourselves because often we know that if we don’t start it, we won’t mess it up. If we keep it in our minds, it can remain perfect. I love this line:

Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing perfectly – Robert H. Schuller

Or, stated more simply: a done something is better than a perfect nothing.

Try this:
  • Buy yourself the cheapest notebook/journal/supplies possible. This should take away the ‘preciousness’ of them. Fill them with wild abandon and then buy another cheapie.
  • Do something poorly on purpose. Don’t try to make it good – just do it as if you didn’t really care. Then do another and another. Practice being ok with not being perfect.
  • Make a copy of the quote/saying above and place it somewhere prominently in your workspace.
  • Something a bit different: I think that the benefits from journaling or art journaling are often found in the process of creating, not in what we create. When you sit down to create, try to focus on the process instead of the product. Take a few deep breaths before beginning and bring your attention to the present. Eliminate any other distractions. Take pleasure in the movement of the pen across the page, the sweep of the brush. And when you are done, throw the finished product away.

Avoidance

This could potentially have been put under the heading of Procrastination, but I wanted to pay particular attention to the way that avoidance can manifest itself in other ways.

Similar to procrastination, we can often find ways to avoid doing what we deeply long to do, simply because we feel fearful. In particular, I find busyness and numbing to be two powerful avoidance tactics.

Busyness is symptomatic of life in the twenty-first century. We are more overwhelmed by professional, social, familial and financial commitments than ever before. Add in possible health commitments, domestic commitments and other distractions and it starts to become impossible to imagine fitting in time for a creative practice.

But if you want to make time to create, you will – you can. Make sure that you are not using busyness as an excuse to avoid creating.

Numbing is another tactic that can help us avoid creating.leap

Creating is scary stuff: we have to be comfortable with making mistakes, growing, being vulnerable. It’s easy to avoid the dangers of this if we just watch TV, or have a drink, or go shopping, or have another nap. These things can take the edge off our feelings of fear, and disconnect us from ourselves.

The scary thing is that we can’t just numb some feelings – when we numb feelings of fear and vulnerability, we also numb good feelings.

It is only through facing the scary feelings that come with creating that we get to experience the growth, inspiration, accomplishment and bliss it can bring. That’s not to say that all creative experiences will be a bed of roses, but, more often than not, facing the fear and vulnerability head-on leads to a rewarding experience.

Try this:
  • Literally schedule in creative time. Write it in your planner, on the family calendar, put an alert in your phone – whatever. Tell your friends/partner/self that this time is sacred and will not be given up. Try to make it the same time every day/week so that you and others know that Sunday evening is creative time and you are unavailable then. Getting into a routine can help to make creativity a habit.
  • Make a list of all the ways that you numb. My main numbing activities are watching hours of TV episodes, eating when not hungry and oversleeping. Yours might include online shopping, watching lots of movies and drinking. Whatever these numbing habits are (no judgement please!), you need to bring awareness to them.
  • I have found journaling to be invaluable in bringing awareness to my numbing habits. Often I will sit down to journal and think, ‘I don’t have much to say, there isn’t a lot going on’. This is usually a sign to me that I’ve been numbing in some way or other, because I don’t seem to be feeling much. Try journaling regularly each day to check in with what numbing activities you have been doing and how they are making you feel.
  • Get comfortable with discomfort, and go gently: accept that you will feel some feelings you may not enjoy, but that they cannot harm you and they will pass. Be gentle with yourself.

Inner Critic

I couldn’t write a post about creativity and fear without mentioning the inner critic. While not necessarily a separate category from those above, it does deserve special attention.

The inner critic tends to rear its head once you actually start the work. It’s the voice inside that tells you your work is no good. Often it will spiral into a rant along a the lines of: this sucks, you can’t do this, you’re worthless, just stop.

It’s a shame that once you have overcome the obstacles of perfectionism, procrastination and avoidance to actually start creating, the inner critic is waiting to pounce. You’ve managed to sit down and get to work, but the inner critic makes it so painful and unpleasant you want to stop.

The inner critic is once again based in fear. Often the inner critic and perfectionism can work hand-in-hand to make the whole process one big crapfest.

All I can say is this: the sooner you learn to deal with your inner critic’s wily ways, the sooner you will make progress creatively.

Try this:
  • Draw a picture of your inner critic or find an image that represents how you think it looks. Give it a funny hat, or a monocle, or a silly bow tie. You could even give it a name, so that when you’re creating and it speaks up you can think, oh that’s just Dave doing his job. Silly Dave. This takes a lot of the power away from it.
  • Talk to your inner critic as you create. Every time you have a thought along the lines of this is no good, respond out loud by saying something like ‘thank you, but I will keep going anyway’.
  • Write a dialogue between you and your inner critic in your journal. Ask it questions, tell it how you feel, stand up to it! You might be surprised by what it says!

* * *

Artists and creators have struggled with various forms of fear for centuries, and will continue to do so. It is natural as part of the creative process because being creative requires vulnerability and risk.

The topic of fear and creativity is widely discussed and this post barely scrapes the surface – there is so much more I could say! For further reading, check out this book or this book or even this book!

In the meantime, hopefully these ideas will help you to get around fear and give you a way into your creativity.

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10 thoughts on “Overcoming fear in the creative process”

  1. What a great post. I’ve been battling with these issues for so long. I particularly liked your tip on doing all your procrastination tasks on purpose! That makes so much sense. Of course I wouldn’t want to be forced to spend half an hour on facebook!

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  2. Fantastic post. I have battled all of these on my creative journey over the last 12-24 months. I now recognise when these are getting in the way and work through them. Perfectionism has been the biggest barrier with my silversmithing. Fear of “wasting” materials has hindered my ability to play and learn so I put pressure on Myself to create wonderful pieces every time even though I was a student. Sharing this one in my newsletter Monday thanks xx

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    1. Thanks Deb! I know what you mean about wasting materials and supplies – it can take the joy out of the process. And thanks for sharing the post with others 🙂

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  3. I cried when I read this!
    I feel as though you have been watching me for years, maybe even decades! You held up the mirror! …right down to one of my repeating life quotes! “Leap and the net will appear.” has gotten me through much in life! Thank you for reminding me to apply it to my creative journey!
    I have no excuses now, I have been found out!
    … and the next time I try to read a blog post to procrastinate, this will be the one I read…over and over again until the message sinks in…again!

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    1. Hi Janet, wow I’m pleased to hear this has resonated with you so much. Thank you for your kind words, I hope this helps to inspire you to create more!

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  4. This is so me the whole article. It is a constant battle. I know inside that I have some good ideas I just never execute. I have to agree with Janet. This is a post I will need to read over and over again. Thank you!

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