Both the fear of failure and the enormity of what’s possible can cause creative anxiety.
I have been a professional artist for more than a decade and have been creating art for longer than that, but there are still times when I want to run screaming from my studio at top speed — as if my paintings are standing there with pitch forks waiting to come after me.
Sometimes the simple action of entering my space and staring at my materials is enough to cause my stomach to jump with anxiety. This experience is a strange mix of excitement and immense fear.
Whether “bad” or “good,” creative anxiety triggers stalling, procrastinating, pizza gnawing and Ben and Jerry diving...and oh yeah, binge watching whatever series is being talked about on social.
Over many years of teaching, coaching and counseling university art students and professional artists individually, I have gathered a great deal of experience working through this creative anxiety and want to help more people do the same. This year, I am developing some seminars and workshops dedicated to the pursuit of pushing through creative blocks and anxiety, turning the symptoms into strengths.
Anxiety can be broken down into 'good' and 'bad' anxiety.
Because I prefer to end on a good note, let's take a look at the bad first. Here's some bad news: the brain is wired for negativity. Crap. This means that about 60% of the time, we see the glass as half-empty and look for confirmation that we suck. When we are in this mindset we don’t focus on the evidence that we are, in fact, fundamentally okay and super capable of changing the world.
Because I'm a therapist I like to turn words into acronyms and ideas into images so that we can remember them more easily when we're overwhelmed. An acronym that I like for the word 'fear' is "False Evidence Appearing Real." Fear follows me into the studio and harasses me with questions like:
What if I can’t come up with any good ideas?
What if I waste these expensive materials on something that goes nowhere?
What if I spend hours and hours on this thing and nobody wants to show or buy it?
What if I’m just being ridiculous thinking I’m going to sell this piece for thousands of dollars? Like, real dollars?
How can I outdo myself this time?
Why did I buy so many shades of white paint, anyway?
Even now, fear is right behind him, demanding my attention. It is relentless with its criticism and disapproval. That's the job of fear. The negative voice of fear is a part of the brain—hidden deep in back of our skull...literally (the amygdala) that's wired for survival, the part that senses danger and tells us to fight, flee or freeze. But at the end of the day, is a blank canvas really as dangerous as a charging animal? Definitely not.
So how do we get our nervous system to know the difference between bad fear and good fear?
When I start to feel creative fear, I become overwhelmed and want to run. But then I remember that this is MY art! The thing that I love to do, the thing that's kept me up at all hours of the night...so why don't I want to start creating?
As a therapist, I can assure you that this is normal. I tell my clients that this on a regular basis. Creative Anxiety is the whole deal. It's your life energy, showing you what is possible.
I get that my amygdala is my brain’s mechanism for signaling danger and that there is a vast difference between a charging tiger and a blank canvas. So, why does a pile of acrylics scare me out of the room and into the comforting arms of my couch ...especially when I enjoy the creative process so much?
Here are some strategies I’ve developed to deal with the kind of creative anxiety that stops you. When your fear starts pushing in, I suggest the following:
Greet your fear like an old friend.
It's normal to feel fear and apprehension when you're staring a blank canvas or page and hoping for magic to happen. Resisting anxiety takes more energy than accepting and working with it.
It may sound stupid, but give your fear a name. Let's say it's name is Henry. Tell Henry: "I hear you. Come on in, but sit over there and bet quiet. I have work to do and if it doesn't come out right the first time, I'll fix it later."
Procrastinate with purpose.
Procrastination is just anxiety with a bad reputation. We procrastinate to create space between decisions. When you feel the need to run away, give yourself permission to run. But put a time limit on your procrastination so that you don't fall into a deep hole of web surfing...or as I like to call it: "researching."
Two minutes of sitting down and deep breathing can really help your productivity. All of my favorite art books are in my studio so I can turn procrastination breaks in to inspiration breaks. Sometimes opening the books can be a breath of fresh air, but keep it to a minimum so that you don't become stuck.
Spend only 20 minutes on deciding your next step.
It's easy to make excuses for not moving ahead. Practicing this rule helps work out your "creative risk muscle" and makes taking risks easier over time.
Work on multiple projects at once.
I find that working on many pieces in a kind of round-robin style accomplishes a few things. It keeps me productive when I get stuck on a piece or want to postpone a decision (20-minute rule), and it focuses me on the process rather than the product.
Working on multiple things at once alleviates any one thing of all the responsibility to be "good."
It's a commonly held belief that fear keeps us from taking risks.
Fear of rejection, fear of failing, mediocrity, disappointment keeps us in a holding pattern. But there's another fear that is at play. It is a silent, hidden fear that you may have never recognized in yourself. The next time you feel fear pushing you away from your creative work, think about this: you are running from your own potential and success. I know that it sounds nuts, but we are more afraid of our own success than of our failure.
When you become afraid of your own potential, excited by the possibilities in front of you, knowing that you're about to make something that never before existed - here's what I suggest:
Breathe and acknowledge what is new.
Take a deep breath and create some space for yourself. Enjoy moving the materials and try to stay present.
Prioritize your next moves.
Ask yourself what about the process you find more exciting. When you decide, attack that part first. Continue to consider your own interest in the process in order to keep prioritizing the next step.
Stay open to detours.
As you move through your process, you'll find your exploration birthing new questions and ideas, and often the pile of "trash" that is accumulating on the side of your work table may be even more fascinating than the project that it is coming from. Take the "trash" seriously and observe that creativity is a living thing. Stay open to changing your route of exploration as your interests develop and direct you. Let your instincts drive your next moves.
Listen to your intuition!
Your intuition has a lot to tell you. Learn to trust it. It can be scary to take creative risks but they are ALWAYS worth it. Taking risks is what it takes to honor your gifts. Whatever comes of this, realize that this is one of the best problems you can ever have. The fact that you are struggling with fear means that there is something beautiful waiting to be born from you. Now it's just a matter of taking action.