Lesson 1 - The Anxiety of Creating and Not Creating
MASTERING CREATIVE ANXIETY
In these 16 lessons I intend to describe many of the sources of anxiety in a creative person’s life and provide you with an anxiety mastery menu of strategies and techniques to manage that anxiety. The more you understand these sources of anxiety and build your anxiety management skills, the better you’ll be able to deal with the rigors of the creative process and the realities of the creative life.
The Anxiety of Creating and Not Creating
Anxiety is a feature of the human condition. It is a much larger feature than most people realize. A great deal of what we do in life we do in order to reduce our experience of anxiety or in order to avoid anxiety altogether. Our very human defensiveness is one of the primary ways that we try to avoid experiencing anxiety. If something is about to make us anxious we deny that it is happening, make ourselves sick so that we can concentrate on our sickness, get angry at our mate so as to have something else to focus on, and so on. We are very tricky creatures in this regard.
We are also very wonderful creatures who have it in us to create. “Creativity” is the word we use for our desire to make use of our inner resources, employ our imagination, knit together our thoughts and our feelings into beautiful things like songs, quilts, or novels, and feel like the hero of our own story. It is the way that we make manifest our potential, make use of our intelligence, and embrace what we love. When we create, we feel whole, useful, and devoted. Unfortunately, we often also feel anxious as we create or contemplate creating. There are many reasons for this—the subject of our 16 lessons. We get anxious because we fear we may fail, because we fear we may disappoint ourselves, because the work can be extremely hard, because the marketplace may criticize us and reject us, and so on. We want to create, because that is a wonderful thing, but we also don’t want to create, so as to spare ourselves all this anxiety. That is the simple, profound dilemma that millions of people find themselves in.
The solution is very simple to say although much harder to put into practice. In order to create and to deal with all the anxiety that comes with creating, you must acknowledge and accept that anxiety is part of the process, demand of yourself that you will learn—and really practice!--anxiety management skills so that you are equal to mastering the anxiety that arises, and get on with your creating and your anxiety management. It is too big a shame not to create if creating is what you long to do and there is no reason for you not to create if “all” that is standing in the way is your quite human, very ordinary experience of anxiety. The thing to do is to become an anxiety expert and get on with your creating!
Since both creating and not creating produce anxiety in a person who wants to create, you might as well embrace the fact that anxiety will accompany you on your journey as a creative person—whether or not you are getting on with your work. Just embracing that reality will release a lot of the ambient anxiety that you feel. Since anxiety accompanies both states—both creating and not creating—why not choose creating?
Pick your next creative project or return to your current creative project with a new willingness to accept the reality of anxiety. To help reduce your experience of anxiety, remember to breathe deeply, speak positively to yourself, and affirm that your creative life matters to you. If some anxiety remains, create anyway!
Begin using the Anxiety Mastery Menu at the end of this lesson. That is work that will reward your efforts! Making a real effort to deal with your anxiety will allow you to get on with your creating and create deeply and regularly.
I will create, even if that provokes anxiety in me; and when it does provoke anxiety, I will manage it through the use of the anxiety management skills and techniques I am learning and practicing.
The following teaching tale features Ari, a fictional creativity coach who lives and works in an unnamed desert location. Modeled on the Sufi teaching tale, this tale employs naturalistic and fantastic elements and presents a lesson or a moral in fictional form. A teaching tale of this sort may or may not be your cup of tea. If it isn’t, please proceed to your work of learning and using your anxiety management tools. If it is, please enjoy!
THE GHOST WITH CONSCIOUSNESS AND POTENTIAL
One day a ghost paid Ari a visit. She had long blond hair and wore a banana-colored satin nightgown. Even though she had the power to interrupt and to come and go as she pleased, she arrived between sessions as a gesture of respect and good will.
"I never got to use my talents!" the ghost wailed. She floated about the room, agitated and unable to alight. "Now I'm dead and buried!"
"You can't create where you find yourself these days?" Ari asked the miserable ghost.
"No! I just wander the universe, pointlessly and aimlessly!"
"But you sound like you still have a brain?"
That seemed to surprise the ghost. She shot out of the air and sat down suddenly.
"That's true," she replied.
"And you can talk to people?"
"Then why not be a muse?"
"A muse," she murmured. For an instant she looked happy. But then a new thought creased her brow. "Since I never manifested my own potential, how can I help others?"
"Just by telling the truth. Are ghosts more honest than the next person?"
"Too bad. But that was an honest thing for you to say! So it appears that you can tell the truth. So, if I were you, I would think about why I hadn't been able to create while I was alive, I would learn the painful truth about that, and then I would visit people who are despairing and help them."
The ghost fell silent.
"I'm drawing a blank," she finally said.
"About why I avoided creating my whole life long. Not that it was such a long life!" she interjected suddenly. "I died at thirty-nine."
Ari nodded. "But if it had been sixty-nine or eighty-nine-"
"No, you're right. I was not on the path to creating. I could have lived another fifty years and I wouldn't have accomplished anything."
She flew off the chair and circled the room ten or fifteen times. Ari, watching her, began to get dizzy.
"Come down here!" he cried. "Settle down for a moment!"
The ghost dove to her seat and sat there hunched and moody.
"For a lifetime you couldn't create," Ari said. "Why should you be able to figure out the reasons for that in a split second? Don't you think it's going to take a little time?"
This cheered her. "Well, all right. But how will I learn?"
"Picture the thing you always wanted. What was it?"
She had the answer on the tip of her tongue. "To spin stories like Scheherazade," the ghost said with real passion. "To hold audiences captive. I knew Scheherazade. She had something I didn't have. Some spunk. Some fire. A gleam in her eye. Something!"
"No!" Ari disagreed. "She manifested something that you didn't manifest. There's a difference. Don't you have a fire burning in you? Of course you do!"
"She was also beautiful," the ghost continued.
"That's no way to think!" Ari leaned forward. "Your mind is brooding about the accomplishments of others. You're thinking about Scheherazade, not about you. You're making yourself into a failure by thinking about her successes. Your despair flows from your envy."
"Thank you!" the ghost said bitterly.
"Plus, you didn't hear me."
"What did you say that I was supposed to memorize?" she said, the irony in her voice perfected in the coldest reaches of the universe. "What was so damned important?"
"That you have potential," Ari replied. "You have all the genetic material you need. Just not the mental health."
"Mental health!" the ghost exclaimed. "I've been insane for hundreds of years!"
The ghost flew up out of her seat and began circling the room at breakneck speed. She seemed out of control and bent on crashing into walls and objects. But, strange to say, she had no accidents whatsoever.
"You came here because you wanted to change," Ari said softly, so softly that the ghost could not have been expected to hear him. Yet she did.
"Maybe," she said, still buzzing about.
"You do want to change. I know that."
"Change! How can a ghost change!"
"You keep running from the obvious. You can still think. But you won't. You have retained consciousness but you are not willing to grow in awareness."
Tears trickled down the ghost's pink cheeks. They fell from the air and dotted the small table between Ari's chair and the chair reserved for clients.
"Even a ghost can heal," Ari said. "If she can love again."
"Love?" the ghost whispered. "Have we been talking about love?" She stopped in midair. "You mean--?”
"Love yourself. If you can accomplish that, then you will begin to love others. The desire to help will well up out of that self-love and that other-love. One day, without noticing what a tremendous trip you have taken, you will have become a muse."
A new fluttering filled the room. Then silence descended. The ghost had vanished, her disappearance accompanied by the tinkling of bells. For a moment Ari wondered if a ghost had really visited. He sat quietly, feeling for shifts in the universe. In a while it came to him that a little more love was present in the universe, which he took to be proof of the ghost's visit and of its successful outcome.
MORAL: You can make yourself anxious in all sorts of ways. The answer is to love yourself and, out of that love and devotion, demand that you do whatever work is necessary.
YOUR ANXIETY MASTERY MENU
Let me end this lesson with the reminder with which I will end each of these 16 lessons: you must learn and practice anxiety management techniques if you are to master your anxiety!
Anxiety mastery requires that you actually do the work of managing and reducing your anxiety. It is not enough to have a refined sense of when you are anxious and why you are anxious: you then must do something.
Most people who know that they are anxious do not make a sufficient effort to change their situation, opting instead to “white knuckle” life, medicate themselves with anti-anxiety medication (which can be useful in some circumstances) or make do with alternative medicine approaches (likes teas or homeopathic remedies).
Core work requires more than this: it requires a diligent, systematic effort to find techniques that work for you, especially cognitive ones that retrain your neurons to think differently, and to then actually employ those techniques.
Experiment with the following 14 anxiety reduction strategies, learn which ones work for you, and begin to use the ones that work best. Make sure to actually use the ones that you discover work best for you! “Knowing about them” is not enough—you must practice them and use them. In subsequent lessons we’ll look at each of these techniques in turn and examine them more closely.
1. Deep breathing
The simplest—and quite powerful—anxiety management technique is deep breathing. By stopping to deeply breathe (5 seconds on the inhale, 5 seconds on the exhale) you stop your racing mind and alert your body to the fact that you wish to be calmer. Begin to incorporate deep breaths into your daily routine, especially when you think about your creative work and when you approach your creative work.
2. Cognitive self-help
Changing the way you think is the most useful and powerful anti-anxiety strategy. You can do this straightforwardly by 1) noticing what you are saying to yourself; 2) disputing the self-talk that makes you anxious or does not serve you; and 3) substituting more affirmative, positive or useful self-talk. This three-step process really works if you will practice it and commit to it.
A variation on strategies one and two is to use them together and to “drop” a useful cognition into a deep breath, thinking “half” the thought on the inhale and “half” the thought on the exhale. Incantations that might serve to reduce your experience of anxiety might are “I am perfectly calm” or “I trust my resources.” Experiment with some short phrases and find one or two that, when dropped into a deep breath, help you quell your anxious feelings.
4. Physical relaxation techniques
Physical relaxation techniques include such simple procedures as rubbing your shoulder and such elaborate procedures as “progressive relaxation techniques” where you slowly relax each part of your body in turn. Doing something physically soothing probably does not amount to a full anxiety management practice but can prove really useful in the moment to help you calm yourself and when used in combination with your cognitive practice.
5. Mindfulness practices
Meditation and other mindfulness practices that help you take charge of your thoughts and get a grip on your mind can prove very useful as part of your anxiety management program. It is not so important to become a practice “sitter” or to spend long periods of time meditating but rather to truly grasp the idea that the contents of your mind make suffering and anxiety and that the better a job you do of releasing those thoughts and replacing them with more affirmative ones, the less you will experience anxiety.
6. Affirmations and Prayers
Affirmations (and prayers) are simply short cognitions that point your mind in the direction you want it (and you) to go. If you are feeling hatred, which breeds conflict and anxiety, you affirm your desire to love, the availability of love, or some other formulation that turns you in the direction that you want to go and that, by turning you in that direction, reduces your experience of anxiety. By affirming your talent, your ability to trust yourself, your willingness to show up and do the work of creating, and so on, you “talk yourself” into a better frame of mind and as a result feel less anxious.
7. Guided imagery
Guided imagery is a technique where you guide yourself to calmness by mentally picturing a calming image or a series of images. You might picture yourself on a blanket by the beach, walking by a lake, or swinging on a porch swing. You can use single snapshot images or combine images to such an extent that you end up with the equivalent of a short relaxation film that you play for yourself. The first step is to determine what images actually calm you by trying out various images and then, once you’ve landed on images that have the right calming effect, actually bring them to mind when you are feeling anxious.
8. Stress Reduction techniques
Many formal and informal techniques have been developed to reduce stress. An example of a formal technique is biofeedback, where you learn how to relax through the use of an informational feedback loop system. Examples of informal stress reduction techniques include pep talks, stretching, and self-massage. There are literally hundreds of stress reduction techniques available to you, from formal ones like assertiveness skills training to informal ones like listing your stressors—and burning the list. Add one useful stress reduction technique to your arsenal of anxiety management tools.
9. Disidentification techniques
One of the best ways to reduce your experience of anxiety is by learning to bring a calm, detached perspective to life and by turning yourself into someone whose default approach to life is to create calm rather than drama and stress. You do this by remembering that while you can exert influence in life you can’t control outcomes and by affirming that you are different from and larger than any component part of your life: any feeling, any thought, any ruined project, any rejection, anything. By taking a more philosophical, phlegmatic and detached approach to life (without giving up your desires, dreams or goals) you meet life more calmly.
10. Ceremonies and rituals
Creating and using a ceremony or ritual is a simple but powerful way to reduce your experience of anxiety. For many people lowering the lights, lighting candles, putting on soothing music and in other ways ceremonially creating a calming environment helps significantly. One particularly useful ceremony is one that you create to mark the movement from “ordinary life” to “creating time.” You might use an incantation like “I am completely stopping” in a ritual or ceremonial way to help you move from the rush of everyday life to the quiet of your creative work, repeating it a few times so that you actually do stop, grow quiet, and move calmly and effortlessly into the trance of working.
11. Reorienting techniques
If your mind starts to focus on some anxiety-producing thought or situation or if you feel yourself becoming too wary, watchful and vigilant, all of which are anxiety states, one thing you can do is to consciously turn your attention in another direction and reorient yourself away from your anxious thoughts and toward a more neutral stimulus. For example, instead of focusing on the audience entering the concert hall, which you know increases your anxiety, you might reorient yourself toward the notices on the bulletin board in the green room and casually glance at them, paying them just enough attention to take your mind off the sounds of the audience arriving but not so much attention that you lose your sense of the music you are about to play.
12. Symptom confrontation techniques
A rarely used technique, employed mostly in some form of therapy and by some teachers in the performing arts, symptom confrontation is the idea that by “demanding” that your anxiety symptoms get worse and worse—that your querulous singing voice or jumpy violin bowing wrist get even more shaky—and by actively trying to increase your experience of anxiety, you reach a point where you break through into laughter and a sense of the absurdity of your worries. This is a powerful technique that however probably works best in the context of coaching or therapy.
13. Discharge techniques
Anxiety and stress build up in the body and techniques that vent that stress can prove very useful. One discharge technique that actors sometimes learn to employ to reduce their experience of anxiety before a performance is to “silently scream”—to make the facial gestures and whole body intentions that go with uttering a good cleansing scream without actually uttering any sound (which would be inappropriate in most settings). Jumping jacks, pushups and strong physical gestures of all sorts can be used to help release the “venom” of stress and anxiety and pass it out of your system.
14. Preparation techniques
Many of the situations that creative people face, like auditioning, meeting with an editor, hosting an open studio weekend, and so on, provoke intense anxiety; and a key to reducing that anxiety is to get in the habit of preparing well for each such situation. You want to be prepared and to feel prepared so that you enter a calm, detached, ready state and can concentrate on the auditors’ instructions or the editor’s feedback. You prepare by really learning your material, preparing responses to questions that you are likely to be asked, visualizing the situation in your mind’s eye, and getting accustomed to what it will feel like to be there in reality.
Explore this list and learn for yourself what works for you—and truly make use of the techniques that work. Start to really own at least one or two anxiety management strategies, practice them, and make real and regular use of them.
If you would like to do some supplemental thinking about the issues raised in this lesson, you may want to listen to the following short podcast episodes from my show The Joy of Living Creatively appearing on the Personal Life Media Network.