Creativity and the Fear of "Putting Yourself Out There"

Seven ways to overcome fear and be more creative

Posted Jul 05, 2011

When I was researching my upcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I met a scientist performing groundbreaking work on the neurobiology of social anxiety. An articulate and seemingly confident man, he confided that his interest in the subject came from his own struggles with shyness. When I asked if I could tell his story in my book, he hesitated. “I don’t think so,” he told me. “Not everyone is as comfortable as you are exposing their true feelings.”

To that, I could only say: “Ha!”

Because I am not a natural self-exposer at all. In fact, it took me thirty years to realize my childhood dream of becoming a writer, mostly because I was afraid to write about personal things — yet these were the subjects I was drawn to.

But eventually my drive to write grew stronger than my fear, and here I am with my first book coming out next year. I do envy friends who write about impersonal subjects, like science or politics. They can announce their book topics at dinner parties without having everyone wheel around to ask, “Are you an introvert?”

But you know what? I’m getting used to the self-exposure.

I tell you all this because I hear often from readers who want to flex their own creative muscles, but are held back by the fear of “putting themselves out there.”

Maybe you fear others judging you, and your work. Or you’re uncomfortable with self-promotion. Or perhaps you’re afraid of failure, or of success.

So many fears, so much creative drive. What to do? Here are seven ideas to help you power through these disabling emotions.

1. Know that you’re in good company: Creative people have always had to put themselves out there. There’s a lot of hand-wringing these days about how the greats of the olden days, people like Harper Lee and Emily Dickinson, didn’t have to self-promote the way we do today. This is true. But they had to go public with their deepest feelings and beliefs, too, and this has always been scary. Darwin waited THIRTY-FOUR years to publish his theory that humans evolved from monkeys. Scholars call this “Darwin’s Delay,” and many believe it was due to his fear of how others would judge his heretical idea.

2. When it comes to social media, think self-expression, not self-promotion. Here’s a comment I get a lot: “For a quiet person, you sure do a lot of blogging and tweeting.” I think this is a great misunderstanding of social media. Blogging and tweeting, if practiced properly, feel more like a creative project than an exercise in “brand-building,” even though of course they are both. They also don’t require the all-hands, in-person social multi-tasking that many people, especially introverts, find so exhausting. In fact, an online poll on Mashable, the social media news site, found that only 12% of its readers were extroverts. (See also this blogpost on “Why Introverts Love Social Media,” from Mack Collier, a prodigious blogger and social media consultant whose Facebook page reads “Online extrovert, offline introvert. It’s complicated.”)

None of this exempts creators from old-fashioned, in-person appearances, of course. But online social media helps to ease the path toward live interactions. You can break the ice with strangers online, and feel as if you already know them when you meet “IRL.”

3. Coffee is magic. It gets you up and excited about new ideas, and helps you ignore the chorus of judgers inside your head. I’ve found it to be so potent that I allow myself to drink it only when I’m working, so as to preserve its magical powers. Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way about caffeine: there’s a saying among the number-crunching crowd that “a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” Johann Sebastian Bach loved caffeine so much that he wrote a Coffee Cantata. Balzac, Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire all swore by their cups of Joe.

4. Train yourself, a la Pavlov, to associate creative work with pleasure. In addition to my daily latte, I usually work in a sunny café window and indulge in a nice warm slice of banana-chocolate bread. I would probably be five pounds lighter without this habit, but it’s worth it. By now I so associate writing with pleasure, that I love it even when when I don’t have a picture window or slice of cake handy.

5. Work alone (or “alone together” – for example, sitting by yourself in a coffee shop or library). There’s a lot of nonsense floating around these days about how creativity is a fundamentally social act. Ignore this. Yes, creativity is social in the sense that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us; and, yes, collaboration is a powerful and beautiful thing (think Lennon and McCartney, or any mother-and-child pair bond.)

But for many people, the hard, sleeves-rolled-up creative thinking process is a solo act. As William Whyte put it in his 1956 classic, The Organization Man, “The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group as a creative vehicle… People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises. But they do not think; they do not create.”

6. Work at night when your cortisol levels are lower. When I was a kid in summer camp, I noticed a strange pattern. I was horribly homesick first thing in the morning – I would lie in my bed waiting for the bugle to blow signaling the start of the camp day, and would be wracked with longing for my mother’s kitchen table. As the day wore on, the homesickness faded. By nighttime, I was having a grand time and could think of the family kitchen without a pang.

I was sure I’d wake up the next morning feeling just as strong. But the homesickness always came back.

Back then I couldn’t explain this pattern, but I can now. Cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and it peaks in the morning and steadily dissipates throughout the day.

So while you probably think most clearly first thing in the morning, you may be at your least inhibited at night. I’ve noticed that interesting turns of phrase and associative leaps come much more easily in the evening hours. And indeed creativity researchers believe that a relaxed brain, a brain that is not in the grip of anxiety or blocked by other psychological barriers, is a more creative brain.

7. Strengthen your backbone, and therefore your confidence, in small steps. Get in the habit of asking yourself where you stand on various questions. When you have firm opinions or a strong sense right or wrong on a given question, savor the feeling. It doesn’t matter what kind of question – it can be how to organize the silverware drawer, or who should run for City Council.

The point is to get used to the feeling of having a center, and operating from it. Then, produce your creative work from this same place. You’ll still have doubts about your execution, of course – is this any good? Does it make sense? Will people like it? That’s normal. But you need to have confidence about the underlying purpose of your undertaking.

(*Long-time readers of this blog may recognize some of these ideas. Occasionally I'll re-post older articles that original readers might like to review and newer readers would enjoy seeing for the first time.)

Do these ideas resonate for you? What are your tips for stoking creativity? Please share; your fellow readers will benefit.

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