The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Your Writing Fears

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.

You done?

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.

much love,

Ollin

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13 comments on “The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Your Writing Fears

  1. I love Thich Naht Hanh. I actually got the opportunity to experience a day of mindfulness at his retreat, Plum Village, in France. Being in the moment is the key to all riches in the world. Our obsession and fear relating to writing truly exists in our self-obsession with our own egos. When we let go of this, the healing process for not only ourselves, but for everyone else also blooms.

    • Ollin says:

      Wow! I’m so jealous Marla! I totally want to go to Plum Village one day. Would love to be in Hanh’s presence and learn from him in person.

  2. Jack Dowden says:

    Meditation is awesome, I can attest to that. However, I’ve never been the biggest fan of phrases like, “Overcome your Fear of [insert thing here].” If there’s one thing I’ve become attuned to from years of meditation, it’s that I haven’t lost any of the fears I ever had. No, they’re still there. But I can face them. I’m still afraid, but I’m able to act despite it.

    A lot of people go around looking for a way of getting rid of the anxiety they have about something. Guys who are afraid of talking to women spend THOUSANDS on books and guides that pretend to teach them how to get over their fear. None of these “guides” really address the main issue though. They teach you how to mask it.

    Masking your fear isn’t the same as facing it and dealing with it. As someone who’s been writing for years, I can say I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of the fear that comes with my writing. But I can deal with it. I can be afraid now, because I know I’ll think of something in a few minutes, or tomorrow. You deal with your fear until it goes to sleep, and then you get ready for it all over again the next day,.

    • Ollin says:

      I think I would disagree with you only in the fact that in the state of meditation I have never felt fear. Which to me tells me that the fear isn’t real. Only a state of fearlessness. It does not mean that I will never feel fear again in my life, but I can approach a state in which I do overcome fear. I never said that you would never feel fear again, but i said that there is a definitive way to overcome your fear: meditation. And I was right about that: in a state of meditation you do overcome your fears. You can disagree with me but next time you meditate try to examine the fact that you are not afraid when you reach that moment of true transcendence.

      Please don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself and you will find that I am right. I am not interested in defending my position on things as I am interested in defending the truth itself.

  3. Yvette Carol says:

    Hi Ollin! Have you ever experienced the real fight-or-flight response, like in a big way? I have. And it was something else. Talk about mother nature being amazing! I used to live on the beach, and take a swim every day at the same time. One day I was in the water, and turned to see a man running near to the treeline. I did a circle in the water and looked again, and he wasn’t there. It struck me as odd. So when I came out of the water, I thought I’d climb the little bank next to the path I normally walked (to go back up the trail to my house). I peered through the bushes at the trail, but couldn’t see anyone hanging about. Then I heard breathing. I looked around and realized the man was right beside me. From standing still, I did this enormous leap, springing right up in the air and out, clearing the bushes completely. I landed already running, and sprinted up that beach like a lightning rod. I’ve never before or since been able to jump like that. It was the most adrenalin-charged, super-powered feeling I’ve ever had!

    • Ollin says:

      I have experienced panic attacks. But i haven’t experienced a moment in which the flight or fight response actually saved my life in a real life threatening situation, no. Your story is fascinating! Thank you for sharing, Yvette.

  4. piathabia says:

    Thank you for this post.

  5. Katie says:

    I really loved the activitiy at the beginning of this article. I was immediately calmer and more focused. It’s crazy how much we ‘zone out’ and become completely unaware of what is going on around us. Thank you for sharing yet another great piece.

  6. Rose says:

    Wow, this really helped me! Not just in writing, but in everyday life, too. So thanks!🙂

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