Creative Bravery: Four Antidotes to the Fear of Self-Expression

Posted on Aug 12, 2022

Closed door in neon hallway

What is your first memory of creative energy?

I remember so clearly that night in our family room in Houston. I was about three… and I could feel it. I was dancing around, laughing and waving my arms in the air. But something was different.

Suddenly I could feel that the other people in that room were uncomfortable with me, wanted me to stop. What did I conclude? “I’m just too big. I’d better reel in my energy. And quick!” It was a turning point in my life. But it took me another few decades to realize it.

Maybe you  have a memory like this too.

I was a curious child. In love with life. Playful. And excited. I told stories with my dolls. Made paintings with my fingers. Danced naked in the back yard. And ran around until I cried myself to sleep with exhaustion.

Each of us comes into the world an untamed bundle of wild creative energy. We reach. We experiment. We play. We grow. 

The likelihood is that you started out this alive too.

As we grow up, we begin to be socialized, conditioned to fit into the world we were born into. We learn to conform in order to get our needs met. Maybe you heard some of these words along the way:

  • “You’re just too big for your britches.”
  • “If you know what’s good for you….”
  • “Control yourself.”
  • “Children should be seen not heard.”
  • “Tamp it down!”
  • “Do as you’re told.” 
  • “Be a good boy.” “
  • "Sit there and look pretty!” 

If not these, what words still resonate in you?

Those of us who were controlled with these kinds of messages – often by desperate parents without better skills – end up feeling afraid to be fully alive, fully expressed, fully creative.

At a biological level, fear helps us survive. But as we mature, if we don’t examine the relevance of our fears today, the same physiological reaction produced by real threats gets activated by countless non-life-threatening imaginings. Especially for those of us with strong imaginations.

So fear – the experience, the feeling, the sensation, the chemistry of it – is inherent in the creative process. Because…

Creativity is disruptive.

"Creativity at its essence sees things differently, asks Why, wants more than this, looks for alternatives, wants change. So Creativity is a threat to the status quo, to the way things have always been. And to follow your creative calling, you’ll have to step out of line." – Katherine Robertson-Pilling

Our creative fears are often polarized between two extremes, neither of which is exactly true.

  • There’s the fear of failure and the fear of success
  • The fear of being visible and the fear of being invisible
  • The fear of being ignored and the fear of wild, uncontrollable impact
  • The fear of never doing the work and the fear of doing the work… with little result
  • The fear of being too old or being too young
  • The fear of economic insecurity and the fear of competing
  • The fear of having someone steal your ideas and the fear you have no talent

The creative path lies in the middle… and in putting one foot in front of the other.

The voices of fear in our heads – and in the airwaves around us – are numerous. And they cost us our vitality.

And lest you think you’re the only creative person who is afraid, or you think you should never be afraid from time to time, renowned American painter Georgia O’Keeffe will reassure you.

Georgia O'Keeffe on fear

 If we don’t learn to make friends with the remnants of fear from the past, we will never be able to achieve our future dreams.

That’s what creative bravery is all about. And guess what.

Fear is inevitable in the creative process.

Why? 

  • First, to be creative, you have to do things you’ve never done before. Time and time again, you’re a beginner setting out into uncharted territory. You might need to create a new technique to realize what you could only imagine. Or you might be a master of your method but never have sold a piece of work. There’s always new territory to explore.
  • Then, to do original work requires that you step out of the box the system has built for you. And this can feel like your very survival is at stake, especially if you're contradicting the people you love.
  • You will likely reach the limit of your knowledge. There’s always a point when you’re not sure you can control the outcome, when you cannot guarantee the results you can envision.
  • The creative process involves passage through the archetypal land of Chaos. The opposite of the Status Quo, this is the limitless land where nothing is known, stable, controlled, predictable or comfortable. The opposites of all the things that comprise the status quo.

But...

Fear has value for your creative process.

Fear tells us what we have to do…. The more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. – Steven Pressfield (The War of Art)

The resistance that fear embodies when there’s something new to do must be honored, must be mined for its treasures. And they are many.

  • Fear, when you face it, brings you back to yourself. It demands that you ground yourself in what you know in order to step into what you don’t. 
  • When you move through fear in service of your calling, it causes you to grow and develop and expand your way of being in the world. 
  • It teaches you to discern facts from feelings – what is real versus what is imagined – because you want something more.
  • It awakens you to your passion and commitment for what only you can see.
  • It builds a bridge between the originality of your idea and the ecstatic feeling you only feel when you’ve gotten the job done.
“The empty space is the great horror and stimulant of creation. But there is also something predictable in the way the fear and apathy encountered at the beginning are accountable for feelings of elation at the end.” – Shaun McNiff

Creativity makes facing your fears worthwhile.

It is through the daily practice of your creativity that you become the person who does the work, conquers the fears and reaps the rewards. 

In The Wheel of Creativity, I’ve diagrammed the creative process in four key phases or quarters, each with three stations. In each station, there’s a task to achieve and a reward when you achieve it, which keeps you moving through your process. 

In each phase, there is also a particular flavor of fear to face. And each fear has an antidote you can only discover by doing the work. 

Quarter 1 is Vision.

This is the domain of the Mind, Thought and the Idea. You can keep overthinking your idea so long that you never take action. 

  • Can I really create what I can see?
  • Will I be able to support myself?
  • Can I handle making mistakes?
  • Do I have any talent?
  • Is the best I can do still just mediocre?
  • Am I too late to the game?
  • What if there’s no market for my work?
  • Can I handle the criticism?

So the fears here can keep you paralyzed, stuck in your head. In order to overcome them, you have to FREE YOUR MINDSET.

The Q1 antidote is PLAY. Joy, fun and play help reduce the stakes and defeat the hyper-serious slavedriver in your head. So, turn off the censor. Delay the how. Let yourself dream. Practice creative thinking in the everyday.

Quarter 2 is Exploration.

This is the domain of the Spirit, Intuition and Research. This is the process of letting go of what you know, creating space for the original idea to emerge. And when that idea is not obvious, it’s easy to turn back to what you know. 

  • Who do I think I am?
  • Am I good enough?
  • Will I fail?
  • Will someone steal my ideas?
  • Am I missing something crucial?
  • Is what I see really original?
  • Will I have to do things I don’t want to do?

So the fears here focus on uncertainty. In order to overcome them, you have to IGNITE YOUR IMAGINATION.

The Q2 antidote is CLARITY. The human mind has difficulty tolerating uncertainty. And the quality of our questions determines the quality of our lives. Learn the facts. Practice the steps. Gather information. See what’s out there to overcome your fanciful vagueness.

Quarter 3 is Incubation.

This the domain of the Heart, Emotion and the Prototype. And when you can’t see anything happening, it’s easy to lose faith and give up. 

  • What if I can’t control the outcome?
  • Am I too old? Am I too young?
  • What if they reject me?
  • What if I’m ignored?
  • What if the people I love don’t love me anymore?
  • Can I measure up to my past successes?

So the fears here are about losing faith while you wait for signs of life. In order to overcome them, you have to CHANNEL YOUR EMOTIONS.

The Q3 antidote is SELF-AWARENESS. The fears may come from past experiences, conditioning, even trauma. The physical reactions in your body can be detached so you can continue to move ahead. Practice self-inquiry. Go within and make space for what you know. Feel your feelings and write them down to honor your resistance while you discover the next step.

Quarter 4 is Cultivation.

This the domain of the Body, Sensation and the Product. This is the hard work of bringing your idea into physical form and refining it. And it can be exhausting. 

  • Will I be judged?
  • What will happen if I succeed?
  • Can I handle becoming known and visible?
  • Do I even want to compete?
  • Can I do the work?
  • What if I don’t do the work?
  • What if I work my butt off and don’t get the results?
  • What will happen when I share my work?
  • I hate marketing! I hate sales!
  • What if my client is disappointed?
  • What if what I do has no impact?

The fears here focus must be overcome to go the distance and put your work out into the world. In order to overcome them, you need to GROUND YOUR ACTIONS in reality.

The Q4 antidote is ACTION. Physiologically, fear and excitement are two sides of a coin. You can flip that coin with action, which engages a different part of your brain. Start small with baby steps and do one scary thing a day to channel your energy into things that are real rather than merely imagined.

One Step at a Time

By doing the work you’re called to do consistently, over time, you can transform your fears into results, one phase of the creative process at a time:

  1. Free your Mindset with Play. Lower the stakes.
  2. Ignite your Imagination with Clarity. Get the facts.
  3. Channel your Emotions with Self-Awareness. Go within.
  4. Ground your Actions in reality through Action. Take baby steps.

Jumpstart your journey.

Spend a few minutes now reflecting on and journaling about these questions:

  • What time in your life do you remember when you were unafraid?
  • What were you doing and how did you feel?
  • What Fears have you relied on to feel safe?
  • What have they cost you?
  • What might be possible for you if you found a way through them?

Alone in This Together.

No doubt about it. When you’re feeling it, fear feels very personal. And there are countless unique experiences of it. But not one of these fears is not a shared (universal) experience. And just knowing that, your fear will lose its power.

That’s something I witness week after week in the Big Vision Project Incubator community, as one member expressed it, “where the unique becomes universal.”

The Big Vision Project Incubator is an intimate and diverse community of creative people – from 35 to 82 – with individual projects they are moving forward. More than just a typical project-based group, there is deep support for navigating the highs and the lows of the process. 

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