By Roxanne Donovan - Writing
COMPLETE WELLACADEMIC BLOG POST. This to-do stood out among the others. Its silent recrimination ringing loudly—Why haven’t you gotten to me yet?
The answer boiled down to one word: Fear.
Fear and I go way back. Her presence inexplicably comforts me even though she can wreak havoc on my life, reminding me of a self more imagined than real.
Fear is best at derailing my writing. Her whispers—you’re not good enough, you have nothing important to say, you’re more lucky than skilled—made writing excruciating. Every. Single. Moment.
It is excruciating still. Sometimes. And the distance between always and sometimes is a huge win.
The journey to this point has not been easy. Fear is a worthy adversary, even for a psychologist trained in ways to cope with emotions. And I’m not alone. Many writers struggle with Fear in what appears to be a losing battle. And that’s not okay. Because Fear is vulnerable, wins are possible.
It’s worth repeating: wins are possible. Here are a few ways I use science to help me (and my clients) triumph over Fear.
Pull Fear from Darkness to Light
I thought I could hide from Fear. Crouched in shadows, I held my breath and waited for her to recede. But the dark is no place to face Fear. Avoidance feeds fear, helps her seem larger than life, uncontrollable.
Pulling Fear into the light makes her more tangible. The more visible Fear is—her contours and angles—the easier to deal with her.
So I named her and her goal. This is Fear, a.k.a. Imposter Syndrome and Anxiety. She tries hard to keep me from writing.
This small step makes Fear easier to recognize. Hello, Fear. I see you’re back.
Acknowledging Fear before she does damage opens the space to bring her—and myself—out of the shadows. In the light, I’ve discovered that…
Fear has preferences
Fear loves to, prefers to, show up when I’m writing something new (like this blog post) or writing in a new(ish) voice (e.g., autobiographic) or writing with others I admire. It sucks when all these things intersect, which is happening more and more.
Fear has stamina problems
Fear is strongest early in the writing process. She knows if she keeps me from starting or stops me from finding my rhythm, she wins. Her strength, though, wanes over time. Knowing she can be beat means it’s vital I write through Fear.
Fear has selective memory
Fear is amazing at recalling harsh critiques. Gentle critiques? No worries, Fear can sharpen them until their points penetrate any armor.
Positive feedback? In those rare moments of recall, Fear is adept at distorting the message or messenger. She only said she liked it; it must be crap if she didn’t love it. He’s too nice to tell me the truth.
Recognizing that Fear’s whispers aren’t my full truth is an ongoing struggle; Fear’s voice sounds deceptively like mine. But I’ve found effective interventions. One is creating a gentle counter-narrative that challenges Fear’s penchant for the negative. My writing is good enough. I chant this mantra each time Fear starts her whispers. I initially repeat it without conviction knowing that writing as if I believe still works.
Compiling positive feedback into an easily accessible document is another way I challenge Fear’s whispers. Savoring the positive emotions that come up while reading the feedback dials down Fear’s volume, which makes hearing my counter-narrative easier.
Shame is Fear’s superpower
Fear thrives on shame, a feeling of unworthiness. The result: a pull to hide Fear, to perform (or fake!) a competence and ease in writing that I don’t truly feel. This inauthenticity only amplifies my shame which in turn amplifies my desire to perform.
Vulnerability is Fear’s kryptonite
Breaking out of the shame-performance cycle requires vulnerability. By vulnerability, I mean taking the risk to speak my writing truth to other writers, repeatedly. Why? Sharing Fear with empathic others makes her burden easier to bear. Equally important, it reminds me I’m not alone...and neither are you. Fear is a part of our lives, even those academics who make writing look easy.
Caveat: For women of color, hiding Fear can be an adaptive way to cope with daily indignities and systemic oppression. So be gentle with yourself if enacting vulnerability takes time. A trusting network of confidantes is something that must be nurtured to grow. Organizing a writing sister circle whose expressed goal is to provide compassionate accountability is one place to start.
Shout out to my sister circle: Joycelyn, Nichole, Griselda, Karen, and Jackie (my biological sister who is also an academic). I am grateful beyond measure that you welcome and encourage my authentic self, enabling me to face Fear, practice self-compassion, and get back on the writing path when I diverge. As I did with this post.
In peace and solidarity,