Editor’s note: this post was first published in 2011 on Make A Living Writing.
Before you read this article, I would like you to try something:
Move your eyes away from your computer screen and take a deep breath. Feel the air as it moves through your nostrils, down your throat, and feel it fill your diaphragm to the brim. As you do this, I want you to take in your surroundings.
Notice the light as it flows through the window, acknowledge the noises you hear, the chatter of the people around you, the chairs and other objects that surround you. Do not resist anything you see, hear, or feel. Just become aware of everything.
Do this exercise right now. When you have done this for a few minutes, come back to me.
If you did it right, you should feel a little bit more at peace and relaxed.
Most importantly, you should have felt that a certain, negative emotion was not present: fear.
Now, before I go on about how to overcome your writing fears, you need to first understand how fear works. Once you understand how fear works, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself and you’ll understand what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt meant when he said:
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
When Fear Was A Good Thing
Fear actually serves a very important purpose in our human physiology.
Dr. Joan Borysenko, in her book Minding The Body, Mending The Mind, calls the process by which fear manifests itself in our mind and body as the “fight-or-flight response.” I won’t go into too much detail about this response, but what you need to know is that human beings were initially designed with sophisticated hardware that utilized fear to help us survive “life or death” situations.
You see, there was a time when we humans were just hunter-gatherers out in the wild, susceptible to dangerous predators. In those days, when we saw a tiger, our mind sent a signal to our body. The body, in response to this signal, made our palms sweat, made our heart beat faster, caused our muscles to tighten, and sent a shot of adrenaline through our veins. Our mind was so sophisticated that, in a nanosecond, it would prepare our body to run as fast as it could (or to fight as hard as it could) in order to survive a tiger attack.
When Fear Became A Bad Thing
This “flight-or-flight” response was very useful back in the caveman days, but as many of us are realizing, our primordial response to highly stressful situations has now become harmful to our livelihood.
Have you felt, for instance, after receiving a rejection letter, that your heart started to beat faster, your palms began to sweat, and a shot of adrenaline went through your veins that sent you reeling?
You have felt that way?
Guess what? We all have felt that way. That’s because we, as human beings, are hardwired to respond in this way to high levels of stress and fear.
In the example above, your mind mistook that rejection letter as a tiger about to attack you–and so your mind sent a signal to your body telling it that it was time to run (or fight for its life).
Human beings were not built to handle a 21st Century workload. We were built to hunt, gather food, eat, poop, sleep, have sex, and avoid being eaten by predators and that’s about it.
How To Overcome Your Fears
As we’ve discussed, your mind is designed to look at something you fear as a tiger ready to kill you. However, the truth is you will never die from having your writing rejected, criticized, or misunderstood. I repeat: WRITING NEVER KILLED ANYONE.
But you are still afraid, right? So, how do you get past your fear when your mind wants to view every rejection as a tiger ready to attack you?
The answer: you need to stop relying on your mind to overcome your fears.
It’s your hunter-gatherer mind that’s behind all your fears, so how can you expect that same mind to help you overcome your fears?
Not gonna happen, right? So, that’s why the only way to move past your fears is to move past your mind.
“But how do I do that?”
Well, remember that exercise I had you do at the very beginning of this article?
That exercise is called meditation.
Meditation is one of the best tools a writer can utilize to overcome their fears. Because when you meditate, you leave your fearful mind and return to your body and the world around you. You return to reality and discover that there is actually no tiger around that is ready to attack you.
Your “fight-or-flight” response is neutralized.
“Are you telling me that the only thing I have to do to overcome my writing fears is to take a long, deep breath and look around me?”
Yes, the answer is that simple.
But even if the answer is simple, the process of meditation is not. Just like your ability to write, meditation is a skill that you need to learn, practice, and perfect.
If you need help getting started, I recommend reading books by Dr. Joan Borysenko, Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, and Thich Nhat Hanh to help start your journey into a daily meditation practice.
(Here are two articles from my blog that discuss meditation in further detail: The Key to Finding Peace When You Sit Down to Write and Patience.)
Good luck to you, and remember: when it comes to your career, you really have nothing to fear but fear itself.