I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many people care so deeply about their passions that they end up being crippled by them.
I used to be that way myself.
I’ve been an artist my whole life–drawing, painting, writing, dancing, playing instruments… most kinds of art have appealed to me at some point in my life. I’m quite familiar with the horrible, gut-wrenching dread that accompanies being a creative person. Whether I was entering my art in an art show, trying to get people to read the comic book my sister and I made, or putting on a goddamn sequined tutu for a dance recital, it was always there.
My steadfast friend, self-doubt.
Creeping in and settling there, waiting, never leaving, not even if I was successful. It’s that damn Impostor Syndrome. I felt like I’d always get turned down for everything, and if I didn’t, there must be some mistake or they couldn’t find anyone better, or it was just a one-time thing and I shouldn’t get used to feeling hopeful. If I wasn’t spending my time trying to convince myself to just get over my fears and make art already, I was chewing my fingernails because I’d made art but it probably wouldn’t be good enough.
It was bad. And sometimes, it still is. And I know that there are many, many writers–well, not just writers, but creatives in general–who feel the same way. Some of them are so scared that their fears completely paralyze them, never allowing them to interact with the world in the way they want. They want to reach out, to show everyone what they can do, but what if they’re rejected? What if someone makes a bad comment? What if someone says horrible things or bullies them? When someone tells an artist like this to just “get over it”, it’s about as effective as telling someone with crippling depression to just “cheer up”. In fact, I’d surmise that this is a sort of anxiety that could accompany other anxiety-spectrum disorders. It simply isn’t as easy as just sucking it up and moving on.
But I’m here to tell you that it gets better. These words sound empty, but I mean them truly, wholly, absolutely.
I mean, I wouldn’t say that I’m completely over the fear of rejection and failure. I am not sure that I’ll ever be able to be so confident that these feelings don’t enter my being. But I’ve definitely improved. I’m not immune to criticism or rejection; I’m certainly not entirely confident in everything that I do. I don’t have a long list of impressive credentials behind me. I’ve only just started reaching out and overcoming my fears.
I want to share five tips with you that I think might help you, particularly if you’re at the point where you feel controlled by your anxiety. I’m no psychiatrist, so obviously this is just my unprofessional, writerly opinion, but it’s worth a shot for you to read and maybe try one or a few of these things.
Give yourself a worst-case scenario.
When I was about ten years old, I had to play a really difficult piano song in front of a church congregation. It wasn’t my church. I didn’t know anyone.
In my Minnesotan-Lutheran style, I went to the basement where the post-sermon potluck was going to be. I sat among the cakes and dips and hotdishes and listened to the muffled voices coming from upstairs. I was really nervous. My stomach felt so tight that even the tastiest of butter-filled sweets couldn’t coax me into feeling any happier. I actually started crying, my heart racing and ears pounding.
My father came up to me and clearly thought I was being a baby. I mean, I was. But to me, the fear of being judged, even by the little old German and Norwegian ladies who could probably hear about 35% of the notes I was playing, just made me want to run away and fear-vomit all over the maroon Buicks lined up in the parking lot. This wasn’t nervousness. This was a full-on panic attack.
My dad, the logical-thinking engineer that he is, asked me what was wrong. I told him I was scared. He looked around at all the delicious goodies surrounding us. Then he pointed to some peanut butter cookies and said, “What do you have to be scared of? It’s those. It’s gotta be those. Right?”
And I looked, and saw he was pointing at cookies, and thought it was the most ludicrous thing.
“No, dad! I’m scared of going up there and playing in front of all those people!”
“Well, I think you’re lying. You’ve got to be scared of those peanut butter cookies. What’s so bad about the peanut butter cookies? What’d they ever do to you?”
“Nothing. Dad, I’m not–”
“So what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
I stared at him. What was the worst thing that could happen?
“Well, I could make a mistake.”
“Okay, you could make a mistake. What else?”
“I might totally forget what I’m playing. I have to play it completely from memory.”
“That might happen. What else?”
“I could trip and fall on the way up.”
And so it went. I told him all my worst fears, one by one.
“So what’s the worst thing that could happen?” he asked again when I was finished.
“I will look stupid.”
And that was it. All those fears were rooted in my fear of looking stupid. So then he pointed at the cookies again.
“Is that any sillier than being scared of peanut butter cookies?”
My face burned. Of course it was. looking stupid was horrible. Peanut butter cookies were–well, they were just cookies!
“Yes, dad. It is worse than being scared of peanut butter cookies. No one is scared of cookies.”
Then he said something that has stuck with me ever since:
“If you make a mistake, the church won’t burn down. If you forget the notes, you won’t die. If you trip and fall, someone will help you up. Those aren’t the worst things in the world. The world won’t end if you make a mistake or forget your notes or fall over and scrape your knees.”
He was right. I wiped away the tears. He hugged me, proud-dad style.
“And when you’re done,” he said, with great conviction in his voice, “we’re gonna eat those cookies and show them you’re not scared of them.”
If you make a grammatical error, if your story isn’t as well written as you could have made it, or if you fall flat on your face in front of everyone, the “church” won’t burn down. The potluck is there to comfort you afterwards. And the congregation might judge you, but you’re in a church. That just reflects poorly on THEM.
Don’t let the peanut butter cookies own you.
Remind yourself of your worth.
This is a tough one for a lot of us. Sometimes we get so depressed or so lost in our lives that we can’t see a way out. We want to follow our dreams, but the bills ride in on the backs of nightmares. Sometimes others treat us like we’re nothing, and we begin to believe it’s true.
It’s at these times when that voice inside of us loves to remind us of how goddamn worthless we are. We will never be writers. We will never be as good as that guy or that gal. We are doomed to a life of failure–failing our family, our friends, and ourselves. If we can’t even make ourselves happy, what good are we?
That’s when you know you need to stop.
Breathe slowly, evenly.
And then calmly tell that voice in your head to fuck off.
That voice doesn’t deserve a polite request and it doesn’t deserve your meekness. Tell it with all your being that it is not welcome.
Remind yourself of your worth. Accomplishments are accomplishments, no matter how small.
Are you a college grad? That’s an achievement you should be proud of. That takes a lot of work.
Are you a parent who made your child smile this morning? You’re the world to them. That’s important.
Are you a person who treats animals and others with kindness and respect? You make lives better. You matter.
These sorts of things are easy to bury in an age when who has the most, the best, the fastest, the sexiest seems to win at everything. We are bombarded with reminders of what we don’t have and how we don’t measure up on a daily basis.
Your life is no one else’s but yours. Whether you’re religious or spiritual or none of the above, you have a right to live your life in the way you want and without feeling like you need to be the absolute best at everything.
Like I said above, failure isn’t the end. And if you’re feeling so depressed that you feel worthless, remind yourself of the smallest things that matter.
And then go write about it. Because these feelings translate into beautiful writing and it’ll help you heal.
Write like no one will see it.
If you’ve made it this far into this post and you’re still feeling pretty reticent about putting yourself out there, then try this on for size:
Just write like no one will see it.
Blush and pound away at the keyboard in complete solitude. Get a story or poem or whatever written, and just let it be. Don’t rage-delete it. Don’t send it to anyone or post it anywhere.
Just let. It. Be.
Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of practice before you feel ready to get out there. You practice instruments. You practice dance or martial arts. You practice everything that you want to be good at–writing’s the same way. So get some content written and hide it away if you don’t want anyone to see it. That’s completely fine. Not everything has to be Pulitzer quality. Give yourself permission to just write for the sake of writing.
Purposely write the worst thing you can think of.
Then laugh and tell yourself that now that you’ve done your worst, you know you have nowhere to go but up.
This might sound really dumb, but sometimes it helps. If you feel like EVERYTHING you write is crap, go out of your way to write real crap and compare.
Wow. Your stuff isn’t really as bad as you thought it was, is it?
And if this isn’t really floating your boat, go onto Amazon and find some one-star books. Read some passages out loud. Feel your tongue stumbling over the rough syllables and awkward sentence structure. Trip over horrible dialogue. Laugh.
Then go write something better.
I know that sounds mean, but sometimes you need to take some extreme measures to kick your catastrophic thinking back a few notches. Those thoughts are toxic. They do so much damage over time. Purposely jarring them loose can do the trick for some people!
Remind yourself that even the most famous authors get rejected.
Quick, think of the author you admire most.
He or she got rejected, guaranteed. Probably many times.
You’re no different. No one is any different. This is just one of the many hurdles that authors face. You have the option to take other paths if you prefer to avoid rejection altogether–doing 100% self-publishing, for example–but for many authors, the dream of being published is a strong one. The life of an author can be great, and it can be full of self-doubt, fear, and anxiety. Knowing that you’re not alone can help you feel more hopeful about your future as a writer.
Also remind yourself that, had this author given up, you wouldn’t be as inspired to become a writer today. What if you give up? What if you never accomplish your dream of becoming a writer? You’ll deprive future writers of the chance to look up to you. This field doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Your writing will be loved by someone. And in turn, you might inspire greatness in a person who otherwise might not have started typing away about those pesky characters in their heads.
Overcoming the fear of writing is tough. Overcoming any fear is tough. But it’s a worthwhile endeavor to pursue because it brings you closer to being happier with yourself–and your life.
Now please, go do as stock-photo girl above did, and PUNCH FEAR IN THE FACE.
Best of luck to you, writers.