“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” says author Neal Donald Walsch in Conversations with God, Book 3. Easy to say. Hard to do—especially when fear kicks in, which it does as you near the edges of your comfort zone. Writers are particularly susceptible. What happens when the thought of speaking in front of an audience fills you with dread? Or what if you’re afraid to fly and you need to travel for a book tour? Or what if your own writing is taking you down some dark alley and you’re sure you’re going to get mugged—or worse?
Last year, while struggling with anxiety, I learned a lot about fear. I learned that fear cannot be trusted. If it doesn’t outright lie, fear distorts the truth. Fear prevents us from being who we are meant to be. It’s a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. A bully. And yet, fear is also an excellent teacher—if you’re willing to learn its lessons.
The first thing fear taught me was acceptance. It taught me the importance of letting myself feel what I feel, even if it’s uncomfortable, especially then. “You’re not here to be comfortable,” my therapist told me. “You’re here to live your life. Move forward. Do what you want and need to do. Comfort is not the goal. Living is.” And for writers, I’d add, comfort is not the goal, getting your book written and into the world is.
Acceptance also means not resisting, fighting, or obsessing about things over which you have no control. I recently saw a cartoon titled “Suffering,” which consisted of a leaf gently falling from a tree. A dialog bubble, expressing the leaf’s sentiments, said, “Why is this happening?”
We don’t suffer because we experience challenges, or have to do things we don’t want to do. We don’t suffer because we are ill or in pain or uncomfortable. We suffer because of the stories we tell ourselves about our circumstances or situation. We suffer when our minds become like a dog with a bone, refusing to let go of limiting, fearful thoughts or ideas. Obsessive thinking, resisting, fighting, and trying to figure everything out is less effective than going with the flow and riding a wave, especially when dealing with things over which we have no control.
Writers have vivid imaginations. The stories we make up reflect our fear and our love of drama. When our work isn’t accepted into a journal, when our books don’t sell, when agents don’t return our calls, when two people show up to a reading, when we have a crappy writing day, or don’t write at all, we may ask, Why am I wasting my time? Or berate ourselves with negative self-talk, like, I have nothing original to say, or, My writing sucks. If you hear messages like this in your head, beware! This is not the real you talking; this is the voice of fear. Tell it, “Thanks for sharing,” ignore its false message, and keep moving forward.
Another thing I’ve learned from fear is that if you embrace it, if you give it some love, it disappears. Years ago I dreamed a snake was coming at me from a crack in my living room wall. At first I was horrified. But then I realized I was dreaming, and as soon as that awareness kicked in, I thought, Oh, it’s a snake. I’m afraid of snakes. Let me try to love this object of my fear. I stared into the snake’s eyes, and repeated the words, “I love you,” feeling warmth in my heart. Within seconds the snake transformed into a radiant, smiling queen who handed me her scepter.
Authors often complain about the many hats they’re expected to wear in today’s publishing climate. If I could just be by myself and do what I love—write—I’d be happy, some think. Many dread, and even resent, the hours waiting to hear back from agents and publishers. Many complain that social media sucks their precious time. Some writers would rather do just about anything else than promote themselves, and their work. But what if all these things are great opportunities to grow as a person, as well as an author? What if all our snakes are longing to be turned into queens? What if we are the sovereign rulers of our work and of our lives? Why not tell ourselves this story? It’s not enough to tell a story or have a thought. What matters is what we believe. Why not believe positive, liberating thoughts such as this one?
In the video, The Energetics of Healing: A Visual Guide to Your Body’s Energy Anatomy, Caroline Myss relates positive and negative thinking to financial investing, urging people to “invest” in positive thoughts, likening the negative ones fear conjures to junk bonds. “What thoughts are you going to invest [believe] in?” she asks, “Are you going to finance that idea?”
Lately, when I remember to do so, I’ve been checking in with my thoughts and beliefs, and trying to consciously choose love over fear. Love is like the water Dorothy throws on the Wicked Witch of the West; fear simply cannot survive when drenched with love.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on fear. What has it taught you? How have you overcome it? What do you know in your heart to be true about fear?