That’s a big step, really. It lets me deal with my creativity problems in a completely new light. See, there’s this moment when I’m thinking that I would like to sit down and write. And I feel this lethargy suffuse me, like I’m being slowly dipped in a pool of warm chocolate. It would be so much nicer to just read a bit. Check my email. And there’s this thingamajig I’ve been looking for all week.
But when I scratch below the surface I feel something else. I feel this suction in my gut, as if I’m about to crest the first ridge on a roller coaster. It’s faint, but it’s there and if I scratch at it I can pull it up for my conscious inspection. And I see fear.
Fear comes in different form. We’ve got fear of failing and fear of falling and fear of spiders or success. We’ve got all kinds of interesting fears, like turophobia, which is the fear of cheese (OMG, it’s cheese! Run! Run!). But when we get down to it there’s only one type of fear: the type that knots our guts, stops our breath and makes our hearts race.
It’s great at hiding though. And when it’s hidden it will masquerade as all kinds of things: laziness, anger, hunger, boredom, you name it. I bet there’s even a way that fear can masquerade as a 200-pound chocolate bunny (pics or it didn’t happen). Knowing when you’re feeling hidden fear is the key to becoming productive – you can eat as much as you want but if you’re eating because you’re trying to dull your fear you won’t stop no matter how sated you are.
Then kill it.
For me there are a number of tells I’ve come to recognize as fear or potential fear:
- I’m too tired. I wasn’t a second ago, and I’m not to tired to watch M.A.S.H. reruns but right now I’m just so faint that I can’t create, can’t sit down to work. That’s not being tired, that’s something else.
- I’m angry for no reason at all. I snap at my wife and kids. I feel like throwing my bike through the window. I bang the table and no matter what I do it’s wrong, it isn’t working and it’s only making me angrier.
Anger is specific: you’re angry at something and once you stop thinking about your anger and keeping it fresh in your mind every 30 seconds (about the time that psychology says that you can sustain an unreflective anger) it will fade. So if you keep being angry it’s something else (for me it can also be being in pain, I get snappy when I’m hurting).
- I’m distracted, remembering all these other things that I should do instead. Sometimes this means that I have too much work on my desk but that’s easily solved: I write down everything I need to do and put it in my priority pile. If I still keep getting distracted after that, then it’s something else.
- I get a craving for junk food. This one is rather tricky as I also crave junk food when I’m tired. On a good day, when I’m rested, happy and fit to take on the world, I never want any snacks. Even if I’m hungry I crave a carrot rather than sweets. But when I’m tired or afraid I’ll happily stuff my face with anything from potato chips to slices of cheese wrapped around spoonfuls of honey or jam (I don’t have turophobia in the least). And when that happens I need to step back and ask myself what’s on my mind.
- I decide to let go but can’t. I really hate this one. It’s when I decide that OK, I’m not going to get anything done today so I might as well skip writing, or designing or whatever. So I sit down with a good book and suddenly I’m reminded that I need to write, that I’m going to miss my goals or I’ll forget everything I’m working on and everyone will see that I’m a hack.
- I can’t sleep. This is an extension of the above, but doubly insidious. I’m not susceptible to time stress but I’m very susceptible to fear. I’ll be tired, get to sleep and wake up two hours later and be unable to get back to sleeping. And since it’s the middle of the night I can’t do anything about the thing I’m afraid of. So I pace, and I get tired, and I get angry and in the end nothing has become better.
It took me a long time to recognize these symptoms as fear. We’re not taught to feel fear. Hell, I’m supposed to be a big boy and don’t cry. I’m a man, hairy chest, ooga-booga! I get to be angry and throw hissy-fits but I’m not supposed to be afraid. Fear is for girls (and don’t get me started on the misogyny of that statement).
I was well past my 20’s when I grokked that it was all right to feel fear. Not just realized it, not just accepted it, but grokked it completely. And that’s when I started to be able to remove fear from my life.
Ironic, isn’t it? Once I could allow myself to accept that fear was one of my driving emotions I was able to analyze it and do something about it. I still feel fear, it’s not like I’m immune, but now I can recognize it and say “OK fear, this is you and me going for a barn dance again, and I’m going to kick your hullnuts so you might as well leave now”.
And sometimes that actually works.