“Maisel is a meticulous guide who knows the psychological landscape that artists inhabit.”
— The Writer magazine
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In his decades as a psychotherapist and creativity coach, Eric Maisel has found a common thread behind what often gets labeled “writer’s block,” “procrastination,” or “stage fright.” It’s the particular anxiety that, paradoxically, keeps creators from doing, completing, or sharing the work they are driven toward. This “creative anxiety” can take the form of avoiding the work, declaring it not good enough, or failing to market it — and it can cripple creators for decades, even lifetimes. But Maisel has learned what sets successful creators apart. He shares these strategies here, including artist-specific stress management; how to work despite bruised egos, day jobs, and other inevitable frustrations; and what not to do to deal with anxiety. Implementing these 24 lessons replaces the pain of not creating with the profound rewards of free artistic self-expression.
THE ANXIETY OF CREATING AND NOT CREATING
Anxiety is part of the human condition. And it is a much larger part than most people realize. A great deal of what we do in life we do to reduce our experience of anxiety or to avoid anxiety altogether. Our very human defensiveness is one of the primary ways that we 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 feelings into beautiful things such as 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 twenty-four lessons. We get anxious because we fear failing, because we fear disappointing ourselves, because the work can be extremely hard, because the marketplace may criticize us and reject us. We want to create, 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 sounds very simple but is much harder to put into practice. 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 can master the anxiety that arises, and get on with your creating and your anxiety management. It is too tragic 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. It is time to become an anxiety expert and get on with your creating!
Since both creating and not creating produce anxiety in anyone 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 — creating and not creating — why not choose creating?
Pick your next creative project or return to your current one 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!
Use the anxiety mastery menu at the end of this lesson. This work will richly reward you. Making a real effort to deal with your anxiety will allow you to get on with your creating and to create deeply and regularly.
I will create, even if doing so provokes anxiety; and when it does, I will manage it through the use of the anxiety-management skills and techniques I am learning and practicing.
Your Anxiety Mastery Menu
Twenty-two Techniques for Mastering Anexiety
Let me end this lesson with the reminder with which I will end each of our 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 why and when you become anxious: you must then do something.
Most people who know they are anxious do not make enough effort to change their situation, opting instead to "white-knuckle" life, medicate themselves with antianxiety 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 fire differently, and to then actually employ those techniques.
Experiment with the following twenty-two anxiety-reduction strategies, learn which ones work for you, and begin to use those that work best. Please be sure to actually use the ones that 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. Existential decisiveness. Indecisiveness about what matters, about whether you personally matter, about whether meaning resides over here or whether it resides over there, and about what constitutes the right life for you breeds anxiety. When you tackle these issues directly and become existentially decisive, you become less anxious. The first step in becoming existentially decisive is returning the control of meaning to you by asserting — and really believing — that you are in charge of the meaning in your life.
2. Attitude choice. You can choose to be made anxious by every new opinion you hear, or you can choose to keep your own counsel. You can choose to be overvigilant of all the changes in your environment and overconcerned about small problems, or you can shrug away such changes and problems. You can choose to involve yourself in every controversy, or you can choose to pick your battles and maintain a serene distance from most of life's commotion. You can choose to approach life anxiously, or you can choose to approach it calmly. It is a matter of flipping an internal switch — one that you control.
3. Personality upgrading. The prospect of getting some bad news makes you anxious. All wound up, you lash out at your mate, eat a ton of potato chips, shut down emotionally, or drive dangerously fast. This is your personality at work. You know that most of the people around you could use a bit of a personality upgrade — well, probably the same is true for you. The more aware and the less reactive you become, the less anxious you will feel. A key anxiety-management strategy is identifying the changes you would like to make to your personality, and then making them.
4. Improved appraising. Incorrectly appraising situations as more important, more dangerous, or more negative than they really are raises your anxiety level. If you consider the weight of paper you use when printing out your manuscripts important, you are making yourself anxious. If you hold it as dangerous to send out your fiction without copyrighting it because you're afraid that someone will steal it, you are making yourself anxious. If you consider form rejection letters genuine indictments of your work, every form rejection letter will make you anxious. You can significantly reduce your experience of anxiety by refusing to appraise situations as more important, more dangerous, or more negative than they in fact are.
5. Anxiety analysis. Most people become anxious when they think about anxiety! This dynamic prevents them from analyzing their situations and understanding what triggers their anxiety and what anxiety-management tools to employ. Once you begin to think calmly about the role anxiety plays in your life, you can arrive at real solutions. You engage in this analysis straightforwardly by wondering what provokes your anxiety and where it manifests the most, by identifying how your thoughts and behaviors increase your anxiety, and by deciding which anxiety-management tools you are going to commit to practicing and learning.
6. Lifestyle support. Your lifestyle either supports calmness, or it doesn't. When you rush less, create fewer unnecessary pressures and stressors, get sufficient rest and exercise, eat a healthful diet, take time to relax, include love and friendship, and live in balance, you reduce your experience of anxiety. If your style is to always arrive late, to wait until the last minute to meet deadlines, and to be disorganized, you are manufacturing anxiety. How much harder will it be to deal with the creative anxiety in your life if your very lifestyle is producing its own magnum of anxiety?
7. Behavioral changes. What you actually do when you feel anxious makes a big difference. Playing games or watching television for hours quells anxiety but wastes vast amounts of time. Smoking cigarettes or drinking Scotch chemically quells anxiety but increases your health risks. If a ten-minute shower or a twenty-minute walk will do just as good a job of reducing your anxiety as watching another hour of golf or smoking another several cigarettes, isn't it the behavior to choose? There are many time-wasting, unhealthy, and dispiriting ways to manage anxiety — and many efficient, healthy, and uplifting ways too. The specific tactics you use to manage anxiety matter, since some support your life purposes and others undermine them.
8. Deep breathing. The simplest — and a very powerful — anxiety-management technique is deep breathing. By breathing deeply (five seconds on the inhale, five 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 and approach your creative work.
9. Cognitive work. Changing the way you think is probably the most useful and most powerful antianxiety 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 commit to it.
10. Incanting. A variation on strategies eight and nine 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 reduce your experience of anxiety 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.
11. Physical relaxation techniques. Physical relaxation techniques include such simple procedures as rubbing your shoulders and such elaborate ones as slowly relaxing 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 and when used in combination with your cognitive practice.
12. Mindfulness techniques. Meditation and other mindfulness practices that help you take charge of your thoughts and get a grip on your mind can prove a very useful part of your anxiety-management program. It is not as important to become a practice "sitter" or to spend long periods of time meditating as it is to truly grasp the idea that the contents of your mind create suffering and anxiety and that the more you release those thoughts and replace them with more affirmative ones, the less you will experience anxiety.
13. Guided imagery. Guided imagery is a technique in which 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 so that you end up with the equivalent of a short relaxation film that you can play for yourself. The first step is to determine what images actually calm you by trying out various ones. Once you've landed on images that have the right calming effect, you can bring them to mind whenever you feel anxious.
14. Disidentification techniques and detachment training. Disidentification is the core idea of the branch of psychotherapy known as psychosynthesis. Rather than attaching too much significance to a passing thought, feeling, worry, or doubt, you remind yourself that you are larger than and different from all the stray, temporal events that seem so important in the moment. You do this disidentifying primarily by watching your language. For example, you stop saying, "I'm anxious" (or worse, "I'm an anxious person") and begin to say, "I'm having a passing feeling of anxiety." When your novel goes out of print, instead of saying "I'm ruined" or "I'm finished," you say, "I'm having a passing feeling of pain and disappointment." By making these linguistic changes you fundamentally reduce your experience of anxiety.
One of the best ways to reduce your anxiety is to learn to bring a calm, detached perspective to life and to turn yourself into someone whose default approach to life is to create calmness rather than drama and stress. You do this by remembering that while you can exert influence you can't control outcomes and by affirming that you are different from and larger than any component 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.
15. 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 will reduce 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.
16. Ceremonies and rituals. Creating and using a ceremony or ritual is a simple but powerful way to reduce 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" 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.
17. Reorienting techniques. If your mind starts to focus on some anxiety-producing thought or situation, or if you feel yourself becoming too wary, watchful, or vigilant, all of which are anxiety states, you can 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.
18. Preparation techniques. You can reduce your anxiety by being well prepared for anxiety-producing situations. If public speaking makes you anxious and you're about to give talks and interviews in support of your new book, preparing answers beforehand will help with the interviews, and preparing your bookstore chat will help with the book signings. Because a great deal of the anxiety we experience is anticipatory, carefully preparing is the key to reducing this type of anxiety.
19. Symptom confrontation techniques. A rarely used technique, employed mostly in some forms of therapy and by some teachers in the performing arts, symptom confrontation is the idea that by "demanding" that your anxiety symptoms grow worse and worse — that your querulous singing voice or jumpy violin bowing wrist get even shakier — and by actively trying to increase your 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 probably works best, however, in the context of coaching or therapy.
20. Discharge techniques. Anxiety and stress build up in the body, so techniques that vent that stress can prove very useful. One discharge technique that actors sometimes use to reduce their 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, push-ups, 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.
Excerpted from Mastering Creative Anxiety by Eric Maisel. Copyright © 2011 Eric Maisel. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction titles include Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, The Van Gogh Blues, The Creativity Book, Performance Anxiety, Ten Zen Seconds, A Writer’s San Francisco, and A Writer’s Paris. A columnist for Art Calendar magazine, Maisel is a creativity coach and creativity coach trainer who presents keynote addresses and workshops nationally and internationally. Maisel holds undergraduate degrees in philosophy and psychology, master’s degrees in counseling and creative writing, and a doctorate in counseling psychology. He is also a California-licensed marriage and family therapist. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit www.ericmaisel.com to learn more about Dr. Maisel, or drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn about his innovative breathing-and-thinking techniques, visit www.tenzenseconds.com.
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