Fear | Bad Habits, part 4

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


photo credit: TimothyJ *

I guess this one is kind of obvious – fear is by definition the opposite of the Fearless Creativity we are trying to define and cultivate. However, since fearlessness is our theme, we kind of need to define fear in more precise terms, identify the things that creative people are all-too-often afraid of. And most importantly, those that keep us from creating.

Of course, not all fear is bad; it can be a powerful motivator… and more than a few people have written about how we can go about capitalizing on the energy of our fears to catapult us into creative action we might never have thought ourselves capable of.

So yes, fear can be very motivating. However, I’m not sure it’s not necessarily the healthiest motivator. I think there may be other ways to build the same motivation (and what is motivation but a force that moves us forward, as opposed to a force that keeps us still?) in a better, more sustainable and sustaining way.

Again, I don’t believe that it is really possible to be completely fearless. I also don’t believe that facing down our fears in the usual ‘heroic’ sense, doing battle with them, is necessarily the most productive metaphor we have for dealing with the anxieties that work against our creative flow. I think this pitched-battle mentality may do little more than feed them, put energy into the system that gives them power over us.

Let’s Get Closer

However, I do believe in transcending fear. I believe in keeping our fears close by, where we can keep our eyes on them, but finding ways to reduce their power through familiarity and quiet courage.

How do we manage this? How do we become, not literally fearless, but able to move through our fear, let it pass around us, and keep moving forward? The first step is to Name Your Fear. Figure out what you’re afraid of. Make it explicit, bring it into the open, put it on the table: What, seriously, is the worst thing that could happen? Let’s get it out in the open. How bad is it really? Would your life end?

Remember that we’re talking about creative fears here. This is not meant to trivialize or belittle fear based in real-world situations – much less phobias, which can be very debilitating and which are often much more complicated to untangle. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t want to pretend I can make your fears about the world in general disappear by showing you intellectually how silly they are…

However, I do know a thing or two about fears that tend to get in the way of creative work. Here are some of mine:

  • I’m afraid I’ll run out of creative energy one day, that I just won’t care about it anymore, and that I will never again feel the ‘rush’ of creation.
  • I’m afraid I’ll run out of ideas and have nothing left to say, or no ability to say it in an effective or satisfying way – or that I’ll be somehow muzzled, unable to feel enough to give the ideas I do have life.
  • I’m afraid I’m not really ‘good enough’ at what I do and that if I did stop creating, no-one would really notice or care all that much.
  • Or worse, that I will keep giving it everything I’ve got, really lay it on the line, and truly believe in my work and its merit… and that no-one will really notice or care all that much.
  • I’m afraid that I will let these fears hold me back from ever really delivering on the promise of my talents, such as they are. I’m afraid I’ll be too afraid to really go the distance, and will always keep something back.

Resistance is Futile

I read a quote somewhere, which I can’t find anywhere so I may as well have made it up, which goes along the lines of: the agony of creating is less than that of that not creating. When I really think about it I’m more afraid of letting fear hold me back from ever creating something worthwhile with the time and the tools available, than I am of doing the work in front of me, right now, and doing it soulfully and well. However, the small fears that keep us from ‘just doing it’ are often more immediate and insistent, and as a result we put off facing that bigger, deeper fear until it’s too late.

I think there are some really common fears among creative people, and maybe some of those listed above will resonate with you, too. I certainly don’t think they’re particularly unique to me. Fear of failure, of really trying and coming up short, is certainly a common aspect of what Stephen Pressfield has called ‘The Resistance’ – that enormously complex and multi-faceted system, or set of systems, which we build within ourselves and which keeps us from doing our work.

Fantasy Island

One system I’ve observed in myself and in others is the ‘fantasy of possibility’. It’s often not the work we are attracted to, it’s the idea of the work, the potential. We imagine ourselves having done something extraordinary, and of course all the praise and success that follows.

It all seems so easy in this fantasy… but how crushing, how crippling it would be if we took the risk, did the work and nothing happened! What if, when viewed in the harsh light of reality, our creation didn’t turn out to be the masterpiece we’d been imagining, and nothing happened? We’d be destroyed. So the primitive, self-protective part of our brains says, Why take that risk? Why not stay in the safety of the fantasy? Everything turned out great there. Isn’t that good enough?

We are afraid that if we commit, then we let go of possibility. If we never follow through, we can forever hold onto the illusion that we could have been great, done great work. But if we do the work and it is not great, we will have to face that, and we will have to face the judgment of others – whether it is imaginary or not… and we’ll have to face the judgment of ourselves, our own disappointment. It’s easy to see why many people get addicted to the illusion. But ‘could have done’ is not the same as doing. Really creating something, even something small, is a bigger thrill.

We’re on your side

Finally, lurking somewhere at the bottom of all of this, I believe, is fear of success. What if we follow through and it does pan out? What if the fantasy plays out perfectly, and the world gives us all the attention we think we want, what then? There will be nowhere to hide! Our inadequacies will be on display for all to see.

I call this the Phony Syndrome, and for me and, I suspect, for many others this is one of the most debilitating manifestations of fear. It’s the deep-rooted belief that at some point, whether literally or metaphorically, someone will come up and tap us on the shoulder and laugh at us. Just kidding! We’ve all seen through you this whole time, did you think you were fooling us? Everyone can see that the emperor wears no clothes.

The Phony Syndrome is a sham. It’s a game the Lizard Brain plays with us to keep us from taking risks. As a performing artist, the most valuable thing I ever learned is that when I’m on stage and the audience is watching and listening, they want me to succeed. They want it to go well, they want to like it, they’re on my team. They are not all sitting there hoping I will screw up. They are invested in the experience as well, they want to enjoy it.

I would wager it’s the same with you and whatever audience your work has or allows. We’re not hoping you fail so we can gloat. We’re on your side. As creative people, we have to look squarely at this fear that everyone is judging us all the time and looking for faults in everything we do, and see it for what it is: a debilitating hoax. It simply isn’t true, 99% of the time.

That isn’t to say we should stop caring about doing it well, blithely slap any old thing together and sign our names to it, since everyone wants it to be great anyway and won’t notice the difference. They will – they will notice that, they will notice if you’ve stopped caring. That’s the only way you can really be a phony.

But short of that? If you can look your fears in the eye and step around them and get on with your work, your piece or performance or project… I’m here to tell you that the world is friendlier than you might think.

continue with FATALISM

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

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