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Let’s Talk About Anxiety & The Creative Process

photo by FlickrJunkie

“People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.”

This is a quote from a recent episode of Mad Men, that to me, underscores the everyday context that no one talks about publicly.

I work with writers, and find that anxiety is a very real and very constant part of their lives. Why? Just a few reasons:

This is, of course, not exclusive to writers.

But what I find again and again is that we don’t talk about our anxiety. We don’t admit that we have anxiety. We don’t talk about how crippling it feels. That it can bathe one’s days and nights in a foggy cloud of uncertainty and panic. That we make decisions out of fear that stems from anxiety, not because they are the best things for us.

Our anxiety is often hidden, masked behind common expressions, and simplistic answers to the question, “How are you doing?!” And when we express the anxiety to friends or colleagues, it is often explained away with simple solutions to complex problems. You get responses such as “Ah, don’t worry about it,” or “You are doing great, you worry too much!”

Our anxiety is always relative, and truth be told, sometimes other people’s anxiety can seem insignificant on the surface. When someone expresses that they don’t know whether to self-publish or not, or they are nervous about a book reading, you rarely feel the depth of their anxiety. To you, it is a logical decision, and one that likely won’t have crushing ramifications one way or another. But to the person with the question, they can get lost in the internal debate in their head, where all potential success as writer hangs in the balance.

I work from a Starbucks three hours per day, and constantly overhear conversations such as someone confiding in a friend or even a professional advisor. People talk of simple situations between themselves and a colleague at work, or how they can’t decide which car to buy. And even though these issues could seem small on the outside, these people are torn.

It is not a problem that only affects one type of person or another. One early morning at Starbucks, I was one of three people there, the other two was a 50 year old man speaking with his financial advisor. In the space of 45 minutes, I overheard every aspect about his financial life. I was not trying to eavesdrop, but they were speaking loudly, and being the only other person there, I couldn’t NOT hear the conversation.

On the surface, the man portrayed “problems” many of us would love to have:

Wouldn’t we all love to have the option of keeping an extra $1 million dollar home as a backup in case your kid needs to stay there for a night? But the thing is, even though this man has everything, you can tell he is losing sleep over these decisions. Anxiety permeated everything he said.

I remember reading an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio in Rolling Stone [2] where he talked about his anxiety and how it affects him on a daily basis:

“It’s crazy how your mind will become this database to make you worry about things that are so arbitrary. I have a well-organized life, and I’ve put a lot of thought into the things that I do, and then, you know my stomach will be… I’ll just be sitting there, totally anxious about something ridiculous.”

I have heard and witnessed this a lot from those who are successful: success does not solve these problems. Jim Carrey offers this quote:

“I wish everyone could get rich and famous and everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that’s not the answer.”

So what do we do with this? What is the solution? Well, we can’t extinguish anxiety, it is a natural thing. It is actually there to protect us, giving us the wherewithal to consider potential threats. But in the modern world, it can close many people in.

We have to develop skills to help cope with anxiety. You won’t get rid of anxiety by solving one specific problem, you can only find ways of dealing with it that are positive, instead of crushing.

In other words: money is never the answer. A single decision is never the answer.

I run my own company, and every decision about it falls on my shoulders. Likewise, I spend my days working with writers, each the sole decision-maker for their journey as a writer. I do not have all the answers. But what follows are some strategies and tactics that I have found to work in managing anxiety.

Like most things, there are no easy answers. Be wary of those who offer them. Instead, there are processes and habits that help build the skill of building what you dream, without quite as much crushing anxiety:

When you realize others suffer from anxiety as you do, that can be comforting. Too often, we believe the masks that others put on that life is perfect, and feel isolated that only OUR lives are full of fear and uncertainty.

Everyone is uncertain.

Listening to others does not only provide the empathy they may need, it tends to put things in perspective. You realize you are not alone in this uncertainty; that others have similar issues that they work through; that those who are successful are not so because everything is easy for them, but rather, that they have been brave enough to work through the hard stuff.

My favorite website on the internet is Mixergy.com [3]. Period. The site is pretty simple: Andrew Warner does hour-long interviews with successful entrepreneurs about their journey building a company.

What you find again and again in these interviews, and what Andrew is amazing at digging into, is the crippling anxiety that comes with these journeys. The stuff that gets washed away after one finds success because it seems embarrassing or insignificant.

What I hear again and again is that all success is filled with anxiety.

I remember once when Andrew interviewed successful venture capitalist Fred Wilson [4], who is perhaps best known as an investor in Twitter, Tumblr, and Foursquare. Andrew asked him if he worries, and Fred gave an emphatic “yes” response, that he can’t sleep sometimes because he is trying to work through decisions. This is a man who has had wild success, has an incredible family, and is a leader in his field. And he cannot escape anxiety anymore than you or I can.

Oftentimes, being heard is the greatest cure for anxiety. Ze Frank recently posted this video about how crushing it can be to keep anxiety bottled up inside. That essentially, we end up leading a double life: the life we project to others of confidence and contentment, and the internal life of worry and fear. Trying to keep up with both of these identities can be taxing and lead to even greater anxiety. Here is the video:

A great resource to me has been in joining what is called a “mastermind” group. It’s a strange name, I know. Basically, it is just me and two other colleagues meeting twice a month via video chat to discuss our challenges and successes, and provide advice to each other.

It is more personal that a forum or group blog because it is so direct. The three of us are able to be completely honest because nothing is public. You could argue that even venting alone can alleviate anxiety, but feeling as though you have a couple of smart people who are truly “on your team,” does so much to help you work through difficult challenges.

Many writers have this with critique groups and similar systems. It is also why so much of my work has a personal component to it, and not just about providing information. Having colleagues matters. It is about more than just knowing what to do, but actually working through the process of getting it done.

A recent client of mine who published a book also does high end consulting with leaders of mid-sized companies. He explains his work this way: “People pay me to live with their anxiety.” He takes on their problems as his own, and the value of that is living with the uncertainty, and working through it.

A few months back, I discussed this topic in relation to a prominent video blogger being honest about their own fear in a video entitled “I’m Scared.” [5] This is another response to that from Hank Green, where he explores anxiety and the creative process:

Anxiety uses up your creative energy. For many, dealing with anxiety pulls from the same place – you are searching for solutions, and looking for new angles – just as you may when approaching your creative work.

So many writers I speak to are trying to find time to “do it all.” To attend to their writing, their family, their day-jobs, and then connecting with readers. Treat each challenge with the appropriate resource. Don’t use up all of your best resources just dealing with anxiety. There will ALWAYS be things to worry about. If you don’t establish boundaries to protect your writing time, to best utilize your creative energy, then you will always feel a bit behind the curve.

Now, I won’t pretend that any of my reflections here are earth-shattering or based on proper research. They aren’t. They are merely my experience working with hundreds of writers, and considering how to live a creative life that feels good, instead of one that feels a dollar short and a day late.

How do you cope with anxiety as it relates to your creative process?

About Dan Blank [6]

Dan Blank is the founder of WeGrowMedia [7], where he helps writers share their stories and connect with readers. He has helped hundreds of authors via online courses, events, consulting, and workshops, and worked with amazing publishing houses and organizations who support writers such as Random House, Workman Publishing, Abrams Books, Writers House, The Kenyon Review, Writer’s Digest, Library Journal, and many others.