5 Strategies to Overcome Fear
& Create with Joy
I pulled my brush and watched the cobalt blue paint pool and wash over the paper, like it was moving on it’s own. It created just the effect I wanted. I was unaware of time or sound. Next steps rolled across my mind and effortlessly commanded my fingers to lay the paint down perfectly on the paper. I thrilled at what would happen next.
I sometimes have creative moments like that.
I lose track of time in creative abandon. I have clear vision of what I’m creating and the path to get there. I move from one task to the next with ease and anticipation. Creation pours out of me and moves me with holy inspiration.
BUT. Just today I threw my notebook across my bed and slammed my laptop shut in disgust. So frustrated and angry to tears that I couldn’t get the words right. Even after working on it for hours I couldn’t get it right. I doubted I could ever write anything of value and felt like a fake.
Sometimes creating is stressful and frustrating! We can feel paralyzed by fear and question every move we make. We might feel stuck, unsure, and give up on what ever we were creating.
Such a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! Do you ever feel like you have a split personality while creating? Sometimes you’re rocking it, but other times you want to pull your hair out?
What is the difference? What causes one moment of creating to be awesome and another such a pointless act of frustration? How to get past fear and feel more joy while creating? These are questions that have plagued my creative life.
I’ve thought at times, “I need a Creativity Therapist!”
Well, Friend, I discovered that there are such things as creativity therapist! Authors, artists, and creative thinkers have written and spoken about these very things and serve as worthy mentors to the creatively challenged like me.
Here’s what some of them have to say about overcoming fear and creating with joy. These ideas can help you no matter what you’re creating. I’m taking notes!
I learned from author and researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that there is a term for that joy I sometimes feel while creating: flow.
His research found that this intense enjoyment, or “flow”, has several characteristics:
- You are doing something challenging that you have the skill and ability to do successfully.
- You feel confident and have no worries about failure.
- Your goals are clear with a reward in mind and includes immediate feedback.
- You are Intensely focused and concentrating on what you are doing without interruption.
- What you are doing becomes almost automatic and effortless.
- You forget about yourself in the moment, but your sense of self is strengthened. You feel awesome!
- You lose track of time.
- You love what you’re doing and you would do it just for the experience and not for any other end goal.
I have experienced flow! I bet you have too. But why can’t we flow everytime we create?
I’ve learned that there is a delicate balance between skill and challenge to be had.
To create in flow, you must have the level of skill necessary to be successful, but it can’t be so easy you lose interest . It needs to be challenging enough to demand your full attention and to stretch you.
It is this magical balance between skill and challenge that flow flourishes. It’s the sweet spot of feeling joy in creating.
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Learning this makes all the difference for me! I now understand! This imbalance is one place where the door to frustration is left open for me when I create. Sometimes my skill does not match the challenge I give myself. In walks fear through that open door and I am shaken out of flow.
Fear is a Killer of Creative Flow
We allow fear in when our skills do not match the challenge before us. We doubt ourselves, question our ability, and worry. We judge our work. We fear looking silly, rejection, embarrassment, disappointment, and failure.
Maybe my problem is the same for you: often my taste is finer than my ability. I have a vision of what I want to create and when the work I create doesn’t match, fear crashes in. I feel like giving up.
Somewhere I’ve expected master work with apprentice skills.
Ira Glass spoke on this specifically, and Daniel Sax created a short film using his words. It speaks to my heart.
Here is the brilliant film by Daniel Sax and Ira Glass’s words below. I really recommend watching the video as it is eye candy and a creative masterpiece.
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.
But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.
We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
This gives me great hope for my creative ambitions!
It also makes me want to cry.
The kind of mastery Glass is talking about – that my good taste expects of me – will take years! I want to be as good as my vision right now. I am impatient with myself and the process. Are you too?
But growth and becoming take time. Just like seeds that must work through their long days underground before they push through the soil to see light. The tender shoot must stretch upward over a season before it can bear fruit. There is no rushing of this process even with intense desire.
Does this mean we as creators have to be miserable with fear and failure until we master the skills of our craft?
Does it mean we can’t feel joy until our skill bridges the gap of our expectations?
No, I’m learning, it does not.
How do We Love Creating During the Skill-Challenge Gap?
The solution, I’ve realized, is simple but not easy. It will take a lot of retraining our brains, practice in self-love, compassion, and courage.
To experience joy in creating -or flow- you must either increase in skill (so your ability matches the challenge) or decrease in expectation (so that the fear of failure doesn’t crush you).
I suggest we do both:
Remember I said simple, not easy.
How can we do this?
Here are 5 strategies to help us create with joy while becoming the masters we want to be.
1. Let go of perfectionism
Perfectionism keeps us from creating! Do you ever feel paralyzed while creating? Let go of the “masterpiece mentality”.
“The perfectionist fixes one line of a poem over and over — until no lines are right. The perfectionist redraws the chin line on a portrait until the paper tears. The perfectionist writes so many versions of scene one that she never gets to the rest of the play. The perfectionist constantly writes, paints, creates with one eye on her audience. Instead of enjoying the process, the perfectionist is constantly grading the results.”
~ Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, p. 120
Let yourself be a beginner with beginner mistakes.
Everyone that ever created anything good was a beginner at some point.
“By being willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one.” ~Ria Sharon
Learn and improve your art without pressure to be perfect.
“What you create doesn’t have to be perfect…Don’t let fear of failure discourage you. Don’t let the voice of critics paralyze you–whether that voice comes from the outside or the inside.” Dieter F. Uchtdorf
Instead of goals based on mastery, set goals that match your skill and ability yet still push you, such as:
- Work on my craft each day for an hour.
- Produce 3 pages of writing a day.
- Spend a half hour each day practicing my skills.
- Take a course or a class to increase my skills.
- Learn a new skill on Mondays and practice it each day for the following week.
And finally, decide that good enough is good enough!
“ ‘A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places,’ said Paul Gardner. A book is never finished. But at a certain point you stop writing it and go on to the next thing. A film is never cut perfectly, but at a certain point you let go and call it done. That is a normal part of creativity – letting go. We always do the best that we can by the light we have to see by.”
~ Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, p. 120
Letting go of masterpiece expectations will help you gain confidence— and joy!
Working towards a goal that you can accomplish builds assurance.
“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” Joseph Chilton Pearce
“Moreover, it’s crucial that the creative thinker refrain from self-editing and…making perfection the enemy of originality. Innovation requires errors and failures because they lead to ideas.” Rod Judkins, Pushing Your Envelope from The Science of Creativity, p. 67.
2. Believe you can
There is a thing called “growth mindset” and if you have it, your success as a creator is unlimited. Without it we are sunk even before we get started. Growth mindset refers to our belief that we CAN learn new things. That we can improve our skills, abilities, and results. If we can’t do something, we can’t do it YET.
When you feel stuck it’s easy to think, “I just can’t do it! I’ll never get it! I just don’t have what it takes!” A fixed mindset says, “If I can’t do it now I’ll never be able to do it.” And as we’ll see, that is a lie.
Cultivate a growth-mindset mentality.
“I can’t do that…yet!”
“I don’t know the answer…yet!”
“I haven’t solved the problem…yet!”
That small word “yet” holds in it so much possibility and potential!
It is what gives us power to try again when our skills don’t meet our challenge. It gives us the hope that we CAN and WILL get better and be successful eventually. It helps us not give up when we are frustrated.
Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck coined the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She explains:
“People with a growth mindset…see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort…They understand that no one has ever accomplished great things — not Mozart, Darwin, or Michael Jordan — without years of passionate practice and learning.”
Some might think that’s all just wishful thinking. How can I trust that my work and effort will really pay off. Maybe I’m just wasting my time on creative pursuits that won’t go anywhere.
I can think of 3 reasons why we can confidently choose a growth mindset:
3. Be patient
While we are working on filling the gap between our skill and our vision, it’s easy to grow weary. Chey Rasmussen, of The Skinny Artist, has a great article here about the power of creative patience. He says:
“As we develop patience within our creative pursuits, we gain the power to follow through. We grow in the ability to resist slamming the door on whatever we’re building. When trying to create something truly amazing, that ability to forge ahead and push through discomfort is EVERYTHING. Without it, unfinished masterpieces pile up, and we’re left with nothing to show for any amount of work we’ve put in. We lose confidence in our ability to finish anything, and we begin to doubt our skill and ability to create.
Patience is when our burning desire to reach the end goal is complemented and reinforced by trust in a reliable process that we know will get us there eventually. This desire to achieve and this contentment and trust can seem to be antithetical to each other, but with practice, you can learn to have them cooperate and balance each other out quite nicely.” ~ Chey Rasmussen
4. Be more playful
Why is play so important? Tanner Christensen of Creative Something says:
“The research shows that play-like activities put us into into a psychological state where it’s ok to fail, where it’s ok to wonder ‘what if?’ A result of that thinking is the ability to freely explore the unknown. From that exploration creative insights are much easier to spot.”
What does this play look like?
It’s experimenting with paint on a canvas just for the sake of seeing the colors drip down the page and move together.
It’s dancing in your living room like no one is watching.
It’s slowing down in your day to witness light flickering through the tree branches and purple shadows sprawling on the grass and imagining how you might recreate it.
It’s creating something with your inner critic ignored.
It is creating for the joy of connecting two ideas to give birth to something new altogether.
5. Practice living a creative life
I’m not talking about the skills of your craft that you are already working on. I’m talking about practicing the skills of a creative life that I’ve mentioned above: letting go of perfectionism, believing in a growth mindset, and being patient with yourself, and playing more.
One great way to practice the creative life is from a great creative therapist, Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way. Her entire book promises to be a path to greater creativity and I plan to study it deeper. I’m only a fraction into the book so far and I love a couple suggestions she gives:
- Morning Pages
- Artist Dates
Morning Pages are three pages of long-hand writing that you write each morning. Write whatever is on your mind. They’re a tool to help you learn that your mood doesn’t matter when it comes to creating. It’s the discipline to do it even when you feel like crap and don’t want to create. You find that you still can create even when you don’t feel like it. These pages also help you stop judging yourself and get past your inner censor that tells you things like “oh that’s no good” or “you can’t do that”. You just keep writing and this tells the logic brain to get out of the way and let the artist brain play. (see The Artist Way, p. 9-18)
The Artist Date is “a block of time, perhaps 2 hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness…An excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers.” You don’t take anyone along except you and your creative self. Some examples: “a long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunrise or a sunset, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighborhood to taste foreign sights and sounds.” (see The Artist Way p. 18-24)
These two tools, the Morning Pages and the Artist Date work in tandem like a radio receiver and transmitter. Writing our Morning Pages sends out messages of your dreams, hopes, fears, irritations, and worries. Your Artist Date opens yourself to receive insight, inspiration, and guidance.
This combination sounds exciting and promising! Although I have always been a prolific journal writer, and I do take time out for adventures, I haven’t used them precisely as tools of creativity and I am excited to give it a try. Maybe you will find them inspiring too!
In reality, we will never close the gap between our skill and good taste.
Just when we have increased in enough skill that our work is really good, our tastes will expand and become deeper, richer, and our skills will need to grow too to keep up with our expectations.
In order to experience flow, or intense enjoyment in our creative life, the tension between just enough challenge to keep it interesting and enough skill to keep you confident will always be resonating and expanding.
This is growth.
Skill increases. Challenge increases. Your growth spirals up into cycles of progression.
Hey friend, you can do it! You’ve got this! Keep creating your art, bridging that skill-challenge gap, and feeling joy through the process by letting perfectionism go, believing you can and will improve, being patient with yourself, and playfully living your creative life.