From FRAB to Fab (part 3): the science of fear and why fighting won’t help
In case you missed the first parts in this series on overcoming artistic blocks, here are the links:
Read them first, and then come back here. 🙂
So as I mentioned last week, we’re going to be avoid getting aggressive with our fears, and instead, we’re going to try a “let’s all play nice” approach. I won’t pretend I came up with this method entirely on my own–it was actually sparked by a few outside sources.
The Science of Fear
The first spark that led to my FRAB-busting method was the book Maximize Your Potential from 99U (I’m unhealthily obsessed with 99U and I highly recommend their books), and in particular, this lines:
“When we think about risks, we think about failure. When we think about failure, we start to get scared. When we start to get scared, our brains send out signals to get the hell out of there.”
-Chapter 4 introduction in Maximize your Potential
I read that line, and it was like a light bulb exploded over my head. The scientist in me couldn’t help but consider all the implications of such a statement. Think about it with me:
As animals, we are hardwired to avoid things that put us in danger. Back in the caveman-day, those dangers were sabertooth tigers or blizzards. Nowadays, they’re more like eating undercooked meat or walking down sketchy alleyways at night.
In other words, you could walk down that empty alleyway by yourself, but is it worth the risk? Probably not, your brain tells you. So you choose a different route home and your survival instinct might’ve just saved your life.
But what if the outcome isn’t physical (like getting food-poisoning from undercooked meat) but rather emotional (like embarrassment in front of others)? Can your brain tell the difference? Or does it just try to protect you either way?
Short answer? Nope. Doesn’t know the difference.
“The primal fear center in the brain, the amygdala, lights up, sending chemicals coursing through our bodies that make us physically uneasy, emotional uncomfortable, and in short order, spent.”
-from the essay “Leaning into Uncertainty” by Jonathan Fields,
in Maximize your Potential
Basically, our brains are just trying to protect us from whatever it is that scares us. A long time ago, it was rational, life-threatening stuff. These days, it gets way more emo.
Yet whatever artistic-related fears you’re grappling with, they are nothing more than your survival instincts at their finest. My fears simply want to keep uncomfortable outcomes at bay–be they Salmonella or embarrassment.
And what “uncomfortable outcomes” am I so afraid of? Here are just a few of the biggest, deepest ones:
- looking stupid in front others
- wasting time I can never get back
Of course, as it turns out, humans expect failure to suck way more than it ever does, so we end of fearing failure way more than we ever need to.
“But science is also revealing that these fears are not only counterproductive, they are overblown. It turns out that humans have a strong tendency to overestimate both the pain of failure and how negatively others perceive our mishaps.”
-from the essay “Demystifying the fear factor in failure”
by Michael Schwalbe, in Maximize your Potential
Ah, so our brains want to keep us safe, but they aren’t very good at gauging the SCALE of a risk. Heck, for many people, the thought of speaking in public is ten thousand times more terrifying than being caught in a tsunami. But only one of those events is likely to kill you…
Logical? No. But we already know fears aren’t logical. Which is why logic almost never works on combatting them–or it doesn’t work for my fears, at least. These guys have been crippling me for decades, so it takes a bit more than mere rationalization to get them on my side.
Making Peace with your Fear
This is where my second invaluable source came into play: the blog Fluent Self, specifically this post, this post, and this book (which I haven’t read, but just reading about it opened my eyes. I imagine, if you can afford the cost, it is very helpful. Havi Brooks is a wise, wise lady).
What I read was this line (from this post):
The only way to get the fear to dissolve is to interact with it. Just like you, it wants to be noticed and cared for.
Your fear needs to know that you are taking steps to keep yourself safe. So give it some reassurance.
Again, a lightbulb burst into a thousand shards over my head. If I talked to my fears–if I explained to them that I wasn’t nearly as exposed to risk as they believed–then maybe I could convince them to step aside for a bit.
Then I read Havi Brooks’ example conversation in this post, and I saw exactly how it was done. You just REASON WITH THEM. Show them the steps you’ve taken to safety-proof yourself, and they back off quietly.
Of course, it was much easier said than done, and I found that I had too many different fears weighing me down. Though they almost always revolved around EPIC FAILURE, they were definitely separate kinds of fear. So I poked some more around Havi Brooks’ website, and I stumbled on her book Monster Manual. Now, as I mentioned above, I haven’t read the book, but just reading the page ABOUT the book was the final link in my FRAB puzzle. (You guys might want to give her book a try; it might have way more helpful insight to offer than I have.)
What I figured out was that I needed to identify each of my fears, and then I needed to name them.
Yeah, I realize it sounds super hippie-woowoo, and trust me: it felt very strange to me too. BUT I swear there’s something incredibly effective about anthropomorphizing your fears. You can even go so far as to give them a face. Yes, my fears do have names and faces–and I’ll share two of them below. That way, you can see how this whole anthropomorphizing a FRAB works, and you can see what MY fears are like (and hopefully see you’re not alone).
Two of my Creative Fears
Meet FRAB #1: Humbert.
Humbert is a nasty little fear who crops up a lot in my creative life–and it always mumbles the same thing:
Everyone else writes better than you. You can never write as well as them, so there’s no point in even trying.
I bet at least one of you reading this post knows that FRAB. It’s a pretty common, I think–especially among creative types.
And before you ask: no, I don’t know why I named the FRAB Humbert (or why he’s male)…or why I imagine him looking and sounding like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. Maybe because Humbert has absurdly high standards, and that darn caterpillar is super pretentious and snobby…?
Which is sort of our how my FRAB is too. Humbert doesn’t want to bring me down–he WANTS to keep me from making a total fool of myself. He looks at everyone else’s success, beauty, power, wealth, and triumphs, and he just doesn’t want me to fall on my ass because I aimed too high.
Now, if you’re not sure whether or not you’re being plagued by a Humbert-like FRAB, then skim these questions below:
- Do you ever say nasty things about other people in your creative field? If yes, how often?
- Do you ever catch yourself feeling jealous of other people in your creative field? If yes, how often?
- Do you ever speculate on the hows or whys of someone else’s success–and then chalk it up to better luck than you have? If yes, how often?
- Do you ever say/think, “If I just had what X-artist had, then I’d be happy”? If yes, how often?
If you answered “yes” to any of the questions–and then went on to say, “pretty often”, then I’d say you’re definitely dealing with a Humbert-like FRAB.
But don’t worry. I’ll show you EXACTLY how I “play nice with Humber” next week. (Sorry to make you wait! I would do it this week, but this post has already gotten mondo enough.) In the meantime, remember: for all Humbert’s expensive tastes and lofty ideals, he isn’t actually judging you. He’s trying protect you.
Now let’s meet FRAB #2: Giles.
Giles is one of those FRABs that is very closely related to Humbert–and that oftentimes pops up alongside Humbert. The difference with Giles is that he’s nastier than Humbert–darker, meaner, and much, much harder to reason with.
In my mind, he looks and sounds like Gollum–maybe because Gollum is sometimes Frodo’s friend (when he has the power to withstand the pull of the Precious) yet is mostly just Frodo’s antagonist. But at the end of the day, isn’t poor Gollum just another victim of the One Ring’s nasty, evil, deep-seeded power?
Well, so is Giles. He’s just succumbing to the weight of embarrassment and shame. He doesn’t want me to feel the pain of failure.
So what is that Giles tells me?
You are not and will not ever be good at writing.
Pretty straight-forward, huh? Yet unlike Humbert, which is very much a comparison-based FRAB and only seems to appear when I’m on social media or glancing at a magazine cover, Giles is a fear that always lurks in the back of my mind. And let me tell you: Giles can be crippling when it comes to my creative flow. There is nothing that will stop a story from pouring out than the certainty that everything I write is crap.
Not sure if you’re suffering from a Giles-like FRAB? Scan these questions–and answer honestly!
- Do you ever think or feel that your creative endeavor is just a giant waste of time? If so, how often do you feel that?
- Do you ever think or feel that if your project isn’t “perfect” it’s not worth doing? If so, how often do you feel that?
- Do you ever feel incredibly enthusiastic for a project, only to then find yourself stalling after (or perhaps before) you begin? How many projects do you have like this?
- Do you daydream about being an authors/illustrators/film-makers/(insert creative field here) but never quite take the first step?
- Do you ever feel like giving up on your dream? If so, how often?
If you answered “yes” to any of the questions–and then went on to say, “pretty often”, then you’re definitely dealing with a Giles-like FRAB. As am I…and as are most creatives, I suspect.
From FRAB to Fab: Homework Assignment 3
1. Read through your mission statements from week 1. Are there any more goals you might have uncovered since you first started this workshop? For example, I have a new mission statement that came up since I wrote the first post in this series.
I don’t want to feel guilty anymore about taking breaks. I want to reach the end of each week, knowing I accomplished as much as I could.
2. List the negative outcomes from which your creative fears are trying to protect you. (Like I did above, starting with “failure”.) Think back to the last time you experienced that negative outcome. Was it as bad as you thought it would be? Or did you actually move on pretty quickly…?
3. Do you think Humbert and Giles are getting in your way? Try looking at your other FRABs (from week 2’s homework) and anthropomorphizing/naming them. And as you do so, remember that they aren’t the enemies. These FRABs actually have your best interest at heart.
Now head over to the final part in FRAB to Fab series. I’ll share how I safety-proofed my life so that, when I find myself having a chat with my FRABs about their over-protectiveness, I can point to all the defensive strategies I have in play. Then I’ll share exactly WHAT I say to Humbert and Giles and all the rest of my well-meaning FRABs.
Also, over on Pub(lishing) Crawl, I have the first in a new series about increasing your creative productivity. It’s a continuation on the FRAB series since there’s nothing like routine and high output to help keep the fears away. 🙂
And as always, feel free to comment below or to email me privately (susan @ susandennard . com).