Emily S. Whitten: Combatting Fear

What do we seek in life, when we get right down to the basics? And, particularly for those of us in creative fields, how is our drive to create and share our creations tied to what we are seeking?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can look at myself. I seek both lasting and reliable personal connections, and the chance to make a difference in the larger world. To shape the world just a bit – to share a thought that’s dancing just behind my eyes, and throw it out into the sea of people that make up this world, to see if it strikes a chord. To discover: are there others out there like me? Do they get what I’ve put out there because they see the world the same way? Or does it make them see things differently somehow? Does something I’ve done change someone? Or make them feel better, or happier, or understood? Does it tug at the emotional core we all have but don’t always understand, or does it make them laugh, or cry, or feel, or think? Does it matter to someone?

We all want to know we matter, but a lot of us are afraid to really put ourselves out there for fear that we will discover we don’t. This can especially be a problem for those of us in the creative fields. I write this as someone who regularly faces the fear of getting too far into an idea or finishing it because I don’t know if the finished project will live up to even my own expectations, let alone another’s. And as someone who hesitates to send that finished project out into the world, because what if it’s something I think turned out well, and then I discover that people don’t care, or worse, that they hate it?

And yet, I have, at various times, managed to overcome my fear and send things out there (this weekly column included) and through this have at least learned that no matter what the reaction (whether it’s someone who loves it, someone who disagrees, someone who vehemently insults you, or someone who tells you you’ve won the prize / contest / awesome person medal of the week), at the end of the excitement, I am still standing. And I learned that I don’t regret having taken the chance, because acting is always better than doing nothing out of fear. And that I still have the desire to continue to create and share my work. That is such a reassuring thing to remember, at the dark hours of 3 a.m. when you think no one in the world will care about this thing you are spending your time on.

As someone who’s right there with you if you have suffered from this creative (or general life) fear as well, I think the root of a lot of our hesitation to live fully is the fear that we will give our all and find out that we don’t matter or people don’t care the way we want them to, and that this will steal our joy in creating (or living). But living in fear profits no one. There is nothing personal to gain by not taking a risk except for the absence of a fleeting hurt or pain; but along with that absence comes so many emotions that are long-lasting and even worse – guilt, regret, self-loathing, feelings of failure, feelings of uselessness or worthlessness. And those negative feelings tend to have a way of multiplying and reinforcing each other in an endless loop that’s hard to escape. That loop is not something anyone would choose if faced with the direct choice; and yet so many choices we make (or opt not to make) will lead right there.

We may think that by staying in the safe places within ourselves and not sharing our deeper thoughts or creations we are protecting ourselves; but really what we’re doing is stagnating, and denying ourselves the opportunity to experience or do great things, and to actually obtain what we are seeking – relationships with kindred spirits, and the knowledge that we do make a difference, whether it’s to another individual or to a whole sea of fans. Whether it’s brightening someone’s day, or making them think, or inspiring them, or instilling a lifelong appreciation of our work in someone else, it’s something we will only gain by, as Billy West is wont to say, “being fearless.”

So how can we be fearless? Well, one thing to do is to remember, especially when creating, that the whole point is that what you’re doing is something fun, that you enjoy and are passionate about. And to also remember that if you like this thing you are doing, then it’s very likely that someone else out there on this big, big planet will like it too. After all, we’re all special, but we also share commonalities. That’s what makes the world interesting. Another thing to remember is that when people do tell you they appreciate your work, they mean it. If someone goes through the trouble to contact you and tell you they like your creation, or to re-post it, or discuss it, or anything like that, they like it. And it’s important to let yourself accept that as much as you would the dark thoughts about how maybe no one will like it, and to remember it.

It’s easy to say we should remember these things, but we all know it can be much harder to do. What stops us? Why do we get to a certain point, and then – bam – fear moving forward. Well, for me, sometimes once I get to a place where I can really see where my idea is going, my mind starts racing ahead to all the great ways it could play out, and I can really envision the possibility for something big; and the thought of being able to see it and not actually achieve it hurts. And I draw back from that anticipated hurt, unsure if I am more than just a person having a little fun with things. Unsure if I can be a “real” creator. But the thing about real creators, at least the ones I’ve talked to and who would have to be considered “real” because they are objectively successful, is that they’ve generally all felt some variations of fear (and usually continue to, at least sometimes). And more than that, have encountered some form of rejection. And then, they were able to push past those things.

What if your fear is that you aren’t good enough to be in that group of real creators? Well if you weren’t at least capable of getting to that point, you probably wouldn’t be so excited about creating (not the idea of creating, or the idea of how rich or famous you might be after creating, but actually creating). The drive to create is what makes for good creations – our passion is what builds worlds. Do you really, desperately, want to create something amazing and see it become concrete? Then you have the spark, and you have the ability (or can work at developing it), and you really, truly, just have to face the fear of failure and force yourself past it, to sit down, commit to your creation, finish it, and send it out into the larger world. And to face the fact that there may be rejection, and you may need to learn more, and think about your process, and work harder, and polish your creations, and send them out again.

And to recognize that facing your fears is an ongoing process, and one which may require conscious work to practice successfully (this also applies to other things you are afraid of in life, work, or relationships – face your fears and work on them so you can take that risk, or you may regret it and be unable to go back!). I write about this subject with passion, in part because these difficulties are things I face as well; and these are words and ideas I have to remind myself of very often. No matter how gung-ho we are about our creations or our desires to achieve what we want, there is always going to be fear and apprehension lurking somewhere in the background. The key is not to deny it, but to recognize it, give it a hard look, realize that giving in to it literally brings us nothing, and tell it to take a nap for awhile so we can get some real work done.

You can’t win every second of every day; but you can work on trying to make those doubtful, fearful seconds dwindle to their rightful place – a quiet check on potential realities and possibly on your ego, that don’t actually stop you from enjoying the hell out of your life and creative process.

So go enjoy the hell out of things! And until next time, Servo Lectio.