Are fear and anxiety keeping you from reaching your full potential as a writer? I have received many emails from writers that share a common theme of self-doubt, so I asked my good friend Bobbi Emel–a psychotherapist–to share her insights on how we can identify the source of our angst, as well as some tips on managing the doubt and trepidation that often come as you begin your writing career. It’s a bit of a departure from what I usually do here on YWP, but I believe overcoming your fear is as important a topic when building your platform as marketing, social media or finding your ideal audience.
You’re a writer.
You have great ideas and want to get your stories and your message out into the world.
To create your own platform; to build buzz, capture attention, and increase your reach.
As the writer you are in this moment, finish this sentence: “The prospect of accomplishing any, some, or all of the above is ____________.”
If you’re like many writers, some words that come to mind are daunting, overwhelming, or… terrifying.
(Were any of the words you considered exciting, freeing or empowering?)
Our Inner Voice
We all have an inner voice.
For some people, their inner voice is often critical:
“You should write better than this.”
“You can’t be a writer.”
“You have nothing special to say.”
“You can’t create a writer’s platform. Who would be interested?”
For others, their inner voice is often anxious:
“What if they don’t like it?”
“What if I get writer’s block?”
“What if my work gets rejected?”
“What if I can’t build a community or an audience around my work?”
“What if . . .?”
Many writers have an inner voice that is both critical and anxious.
And although it may seem counter-intuitive, our minds create these thoughts to keep us safe.
The Mind as Protector
We’re all around today because our ancient ancestors stayed safe long enough to procreate, take care of their young, and keep our species going.
How did they manage to accomplish this, confronted with the harsh realities of the Palaeolithic age? Their brains evolved to keep them that way.
When our caveman ancestors were faced with the sudden appearance of a saber-toothed tiger, their brains directed their bodies to fight the tiger, run away from the tiger, or freeze and hope the tiger thought they were dead and would go away.
This “fight, flight, or freeze” mechanism still functions in our brains and influences our bodies’ responses to perceived threats.
Our Minds Today
Even though we don’t worry about saber-toothed tigers today, our minds are still doing their job keeping us safe from real and imagined dangers. It’s the imagined dangers that can become problematic.
We’re grateful for our fight-flight-or-freeze response when the driver of an oncoming car doesn’t see us in the crosswalk and we need to react quickly. But it becomes unhelpful when something that won’t hurt us—like creating a book marketing plan or sending our work to an agent—triggers that same mechanism.
If our minds detect fear, they revert to red-alert mode: “Something’s wrong. Raise the defences!”
For our early ancestors it may have been large-toothed mammals; today, we perceive different kinds of threats. As writers, we may feel threatened by the thought of judgment or rejection from others, or we may feel fearful that we cannot accomplish what we intend or need to do.
We may not need to run, but our minds may create thoughts like these that help us avoid (run away from) the perceived threat:
“I can’t do it; I hate self-promotion.”
“I’ll get started on my platform after my book is published.”
“I’m too shy and introverted to network.”
Our inner criticism and anxiety are our mind’s effort to help keep us safe from the perceived danger.
But we’re not in danger. We might be nervous or anxious, but we’re not in danger.
An Essential Secret of Our Minds
I’m going to let you in on a secret: You don’t have to believe everything you think.
That’s right—you don’t have to believe every thought your mind creates.
We all have the experience of being inside our body, and because our mind orchestrates what our body does, we have evidence that our mind is correct. If our mind directs our hand to pick up the water bottle, our hand reaches for the bottle and picks it up. If our mind says we need to stand up, our muscles contract to get us standing.
Our mind allows us to easily read something like this:
Was your mind really telling you the truth?
Did you read, “A bird in the hand?”
Your well-intentioned mind just led you astray.
It knows the phrase “a bird in the hand,” so it read it as such.
But the words above correctly read, “A bird in the the hand.”
I think you get the idea.
Even though it seems like our minds are accurate and in control, they’re not always.
Getting Some Distance
To recap, when faced with a task that generates anxiety or fear (like learning to set up your author blog, or “getting social” on social media), your mind may kick into high gear to try to keep you safe by bringing up unhelpful thoughts:
“I’m not good with technology.”
“I don’t have the time or the skills to build my platform.”
Now we know that your mind isn’t always accurate, so these thoughts may not be true.
But it’s likely you’ve been thinking them for a long time.
How do we disentangle ourselves from these old, familiar but not useful thoughts?
We look at our thoughts rather than from them.
To do this, we need to get a little distance from them. Here are some ways to do that.
1. Thanking the mind.
Now that we know the mind has a mind of its own (pun intended), we can view it as a separate entity rather than being fused with it.
The next time you notice yourself thinking, “I can’t do this platform stuff,” tell your mind, “Thanks, mind! I know you’re trying to keep me safe, but I can take it from here.”
Add a dash of humor and a pinch of compassion for how your mind is trying to help.
2. Use short phrases.
When you identify a critical thought, respond to your mind with, “Nice one!” or “That was creative!” or any other short phrase or word that allows you to regain some distance from your mind.
3. Just notice.
Sometimes we can get so tangled up in what’s going on in our heads that we make the situation worse. I often think of self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff’s words:
“Don’t beat yourself up about beating yourself up for beating yourself up.”
To keep yourself from getting too snarled in your thoughts, just notice them. Use the phrase, “I notice that I’m having the thought . . .”
For example, if your thought is, “No one is going to read my work,” think to yourself, “I notice that I’m having the thought, ‘No one is going to read my work.’”
Or if your thought is, “What happens if I can’t build a successful writer’s platform?” think to yourself, “I notice that I’m having the thought, ‘What happens if I can’t build a successful writer’s platform?’”
On the surface, this may seem like an action that isn’t going to yield noticeable results, but give it a try. Remember that the purpose is to gain a bit of distance from your mind. Just noticing our thoughts gives us this distance by allowing us to look at our thoughts instead of from them.
Note: the key to this exercise is to just notice your thought and not add anything more to it. We tend to do this: “I notice that I’m having the thought, ‘No one is going to read my work.’ And that’s right; no one is going to read my work because I’m not a good writer. This noticing thing is ridiculous . . .”
Try not to add any judgments or anything else to your thought. You may want to add exercise #4 below to your just noticing practice.
4. Leaves on a stream.
What do we do after we notice a thought? Consider allowing it to just drift away.
Develop a visual image to help you achieve this—perhaps the image of leaves floating gently away on a stream.
Say, “I notice I’m having the thought, ‘What if I can’t build a successful platform?’” and then imagine placing that thought on a leaf and letting it float peacefully downstream.
You can also imagine clouds in the sky, cars passing by, waves on the beach, or anything else that works for you.
5. Silly voices.
A fun way to get some detachment from our thoughts is to repeat the critical or anxious thought in a silly voice, perhaps that of a cartoon character. For example, sometimes I’ll find myself thinking, “Ugh! I really suck.”
When I notice this, I’ll repeat it in my head with my best Sylvester the Cat imitation: “Thufferin’ thucotash! I really thuck!”
It’s pretty hard then to take my mind’s critical thought seriously!
Is This Working For Me?
Remember that the idea is not to get rid of our thoughts; it is to get some distance from them.
Then you can ask yourself the important question: “Is this thought working for me?”
If it’s not, thank your mind for trying to protect you and assure it that you’re okay and that you’re now going to let that thought pass out of your mind.
Do you think one or more of these strategies will help you manage the fearful and critical thoughts you’re experiencing as you move through the early stages of building your platform and career as a writer?
What methods have you tried to ease the anxiety of your prehistoric brain?
Bobbi Emel is a psychotherapist who helps people bounce back from life’s challenges. She writes about resiliency at her blog, Bounce. Download her FREE ebook, Bounce Back! 5 keys to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs.