Four Reasons Why Fear is a Creative’s Friend

“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Post written by Cath Duncan.

For the creative person, fear is always nearby. But in spite of the close proximity, it’s usually a very strained relationship. Fear is one of those emotions that most of us are trying not to have. Because it doesn’t feel good, it’s been coded as a so-called “negative” emotion. And we’re so keen to avoid this negative emotion that we find ourselves avoiding situations that elicit fear for us, so we code the fear-inducing situations as “negative” as well.

What happens then is we end up being afraid of fear, so we start building meta-levels of fear. And then we’re no longer just scared, but we’re scared of feeling scared. And we can even make ourselves scared of feeling scared of feeling scared… can you see how easy it is to end up with more fear, instead of less fear, when we see feeling fear as a bad thing?

But, fear isn’t bad at all. All emotions have a positive purpose that serves us. Have you ever thought about the positive purpose of your fear?

Fear alerts us to threats

Sometimes our fear can be a really useful gut-response that helps us anticipate and respond more quickly to a genuine threat. If something is unfamiliar, it might be dangerous, so, whenever we’re in unfamiliar territory, fear crops up and alerts us to pay attention. And of course, from a survival point of view, that’s really useful.

Fear is a signal you’re learning

Because we’re designed this way, we tend to respond to ALL unfamiliar experiences with fear – even if they’re not dangerous. So long as you’re taking yourself into new territory, and growing, you’ll always feel some fear along the way. From a creativity point of view, fear is useful because it makes you more alert when you’re learning and growing. And fear is a signal that you’re learning. In fact, if you’re telling yourself you’re learning in a particular area of your life, yet you’re not feeling any fear in that area of your life, you’re probably not learning.

Fear lets you know what’s important to you

A third purpose of fear is that fear let’s us know what’s really important to us. Think about it: when something isn’t important to you, you probably don’t care what happens with it, and you won’t feel fear then. It’s the stuff that’s closest to our hearts, that we really care about, that we feel the most fear about – because it matters to us how things work out. With so many choices available to us these days, alot of creative people find it difficult to figure out what’s really important to them and decide what they want in life. A really counter-intuitive, but easy way to figure whether something is genuinely important to you is to notice how much fear you have about it. The more important it is to you, the bigger your fear will probably be.

Fear holds creative tension

When there’s an unresolved problem or a gap between where we are and where we want to be, a tension develops. The bigger the gap, the greater the tension, and fear we’ll feel. Alot of the time, in order to relieve the tension, we change our vision of where we want to be or stop asking that unresolved question. Successful creatives embrace this tension, knowing that tension is an important part of the creative process. Creative tension motivates our unconscious mind to continue searching for a resolution, even while we go on with our other tasks or go to sleep at night, those epiphanies that you have, where the idea just seems to have popped into your head out of nowhere.

So next time you feel afraid, stop and remind yourself that fear works. And then check which purpose your fear is serving, and ask yourself, “Knowing that this is the purpose of my fear, what would I love to do next?” (hint: if you’re still standing there, the purpose of your fear is probably not nr 1!). Thank your fear for working for you, and honor it by taking the next action you’d love to take.

Cath Duncan helps knowledge workers to master their WHOLE MIND so that they can confidently do what they love and be more productive at it. You can find more of Cath’s self-coaching resources at Mine Your Resources, or follow Cath on Twitter.

Leave a Comment

{ 37 comments… add one }
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  • Zoe March 12, 2010, 9:31 am

    Just found this when surfing links about fear and creativity, which I'm always dealing with. Thanks! I'll link to this post on my blog. Great insight!

  • ProjectCenter May 17, 2009, 3:19 am

    It reminds of how I feel about success overall. My fear of being like my parents drives me.

  • ProjectCenter May 16, 2009, 11:19 pm

    It reminds of how I feel about success overall. My fear of being like my parents drives me.

  • Spencer April 7, 2009, 8:57 pm

    Wow! Timing is everything. Before reading some of my favorite blogs I spent sometime beating myself up in my journal. Why don't I do this or do that? Why do I make plans, set goals, and write affirmation if all I do is ignore them? This cycle is insanity. And what came out of my journaling session was the fact that fear is running my life.

    I like the thought of accepting fear and then suggesting what you would like fear to do next. I request it to leave. Leave my mind. Leave my soul. Be gone fear. You are done here today.

    Thank you for a wonderful article about fear that helps me see it from a different light.

  • Miguel de Luis March 11, 2009, 10:45 am

    I raised an elbow when I read about fears. How true. I did not use to worry about things like characters' voice or point of view until I learned the theory of these issues.

    When I write in Spanish I never worry about spelling, yet I'm always uneasy when I do the same in English.

  • Anelly March 4, 2009, 3:37 am

    It's strange because fear blocks my power of concentration. It is true that fear lets me know what’s important for me, but to get results i must be relaxed. Having fear produces the stress and that's not too good.

  • Ranen Carmel February 27, 2009, 10:44 am

    thanks for your insights, Cath. As a creative director in the advertising industry, I see creatives respond to fear in two ways: some are getting into the loop you have described as “we’re no longer just scared, but we’re scared of feeling scared”. this happens usually as deadline is getting closer… the second way is using this tension as a positive and productive force.

    • CathD March 2, 2009, 8:48 am

      @Alpesh yeah – good point! Everytime we push through a fear, we build our general resourcefulness in all life areas and grow exponentially I'm pushing through a big irrational fear I've had for 10 years, for that very reason:

      @Ibrahim creativity is about generating new ideas/ new ways of thinking/ putting ideas and things together that aren't usually placed together/ seeing things through new perspectives. Questioning is a great way to develop creativity. And another cool resource is Edward De Bono's “six hats” book, where he highlights some great questions to ask to see new perspectives. I think creativity is one of our natural human abilities – we just sometimes get a bit disconnected from our ability to access it (as a result of limited and restrictive school education systems, etc). To develop your creativity, start with challenging that thought “I'm not creative”

      @Ranen yeah, it's an interesting tension: a little bit of fear increases creativity, but too much fear decreases it again.

  • Ibrahim | February 25, 2009, 9:33 pm

    Great stuff. I can tell you are definitely creativity driven. I like that. People tell me I seem very artistic, but I don't feel very creative. Reading Lifedev helps me realize my creativity and passion!

    • Glen Stansberry February 26, 2009, 12:39 am

      Thanks for the kind words Ibrahim. Cath did an *excellent* job!

  • Alpesh Shah February 24, 2009, 6:14 pm

    Great article. I think if we didn't have fear in our life than we wouldn't question as much as we do about what's important to us, as well as feel a sense of victory when we push through that fear and have a feeling that we are invincible. Enjoyed the blog post

    • Glen Stansberry February 24, 2009, 7:23 pm

      Exactly. It's all about pushing through the fear. Great thoughts Alpesh!

  • CathD February 24, 2009, 4:59 am

    @Laura Yes – reframing fear in learning contexts is very powerful. Normally, if we start to feel afraid while we're learning, we get preoccupied with our fear (taking attention away from learning), or we draw the conclusion that the ideas we're learning about must be rubbish because we're feeling bad about it (and then we resist the new ideas), or we start to worry that we must be incompetent and develop a low self esteem about that particular learning context (which obviously also detracts from learning). If you reframe fear and say that it means I'm learning, then if I should start to feel uncomfortable while I'm learning, I would then say to myself, “oh – I've got an uncomfortable feeling, which means I'm forming new neural pathways, so I'm learning.” Then I feel good about myself, I feel like a competent learner, I accept my fear instead of resisting it, and my attention is freed up to continue focusing on what I'm learning, rather than trying to get rid of my fear. The strange and wonderful thing about emotions is that when you resist them they persist and even grow, but when you accept them, they dissolve. So if, as a learner, you believe that fear is a useful part of the learning process and an indicator that you're learning, you'll accept your fear rather than resisting it, and it dissolves. If you think fear is a bad thing, you'll resist it, and put your attention into fear-management rather than the learning experience.

    I've found these principles very effective, especially when I've been facilitating learning about tricky areas like relationships/ teamwork/ personal development, because fear always comes up when you're learning that stuff – especially if you're learning it in a corporate context where trust is often very low.

    Try it out – let me know what you find!

    @Nicholas Great story about fear as part of creative tension. Fear can be a very strong motivation strategy! Notice that just enough fear would motivate, but too much fear can cause a distress response, where our performance drops – the composer obviously derived just the right amount of stress from living check to check!

  • Nicholas Barry February 24, 2009, 2:37 am

    I'm reminded of the story of a particular composer. (I've forgotten which.) He was paid for each piece of music he produced for his particular patron.

    At one point the patron told him, “Look, you're always living check to check. But you always produce good music. Why don't I just pay you at the beginning of each month, and you just keep bringing me music?” With that, he paid the composer.

    A week later, however, the composer returned, bringing with him the amount of money the patron had paid. “I can't accept this,” the composer said. “Without the stress of starvation at my back, I can't motivate myself to compose!”

  • Laura February 23, 2009, 9:43 pm

    I've been thinking a lot about fear, especially as it's related to learning. What my experience has been, as someone whose job has been to introduce people to new technology, is that fear sometimes prevents learning. Perhaps reframing the fear for people to show them that fear can enable learning if they face that fear and try to overcome it rather than avoid the supposed cause.

  • CathD February 23, 2009, 4:36 pm

    @Baker: glad you enjoyed the different perspective

    @Erin I know that feeling when you come across fascinating info – I also share it enthusiastically. I guess that's why we hang out in places like these ;)
    The whole thing with fear is linked to stress. When we're stressed, it's usually because we're afraid of something. The stress response is like a bell curve: when the stress response kicks in, it improves our performance at first (this is called eustress), but over time or with very high levels of stress/ fear, performance (and creativity) drops again (this is called distress). I actually just posted about it on my blog today:

    The main thing that enables you to experience challenging situations as positive eustress instead of negative distress is believing that you can handle the situation and it'll all turn out okay. And when we see fear as being a bad and fearful thing in itself, we add another layer of stress, which makes it more likely we'll go into distress response. On the other hand, when we recognise the value of fear, this has the opposite effect of empowering us, and then we're more likely to have a positive eustress response. Isn't it fascinating!

  • Erin February 23, 2009, 3:38 pm

    I just re-read my comment , and I didn't mean it to sound so harsh … I meant it like, “I found this! It was cool! you should totally check it out” but instead it came off like “you're wrong.” Didn't intend that. I wish sometimes web comments could be verbal. :)

  • Erin at Unclutterer February 23, 2009, 2:54 pm

    Actually, it depends on what is causing the fear as to if the fear increases creativity. A study reported in the 2007 Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that if you're afraid that you're going to lose your job, that your creativity will plummet. Your overall productivity might shoot through the roof, but you will stop taking risks because you won't want to do anything to jeopardize your job. External fear is bad, internal fear is good.

  • Baker February 23, 2009, 2:39 pm

    This is a great post. Never looked at fear that way.