Not Fearing Fear


“Man was born free and is now everywhere in chains.”—Jean Jacques Rousseau


“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”—Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. President, on the Great Depression of the 1930’s


“Fear is the mind-killer.”—Frank Herbert, Dune



Fear is certainly ‘the mind-killer” for creativity (Lawrence Block).  What do we fear, how does our fear impede us, and what can we do to free ourselves  of our mental chains?


What do we fear?


David D. Edwards, How to be More Creative (1979 )has this list (brackets my inclusion):


Fear of


  1. Being stupid
  2. Making a mistake
  3. Failing
  4. Exposing your ignorance [or yourself in general]. (p. 20)


These are the fears to which overachievers are likely prey.  The repeated A’s, the encomia, and the awards become intoxicating.  If an essay paper done the old way, with a certain structure and type of proof, has always received the expected rewards, why try anything different in a class?  If your caricatures please, why try serious art?

To be creative, we have to allow for safe risk taking.  Psychologist Robert Sternberg (2002) says the most important part of creativity is making “the decision to be creative.”  It is up to us to make that decision first, then encourage our student to make it.


How does our fear impede us?


What may interfere in our efforts is negative self-talk.  Kurt Hanks and Jay A. Parry, Wake Up your Creative Genius (1983), list some examples:


  1. “I may fail this time.”
  2. “It’s been quite awhile since I had a good creative idea.  I’ve probably lost my touch.”
  3. “I’m too shy to really be able to move ahead.”
  4. “I may lose all my money.”
  5. “I may ruin my reputation.”
  6. “I’m afraid of what others may say or think.”
  7. “It probably won’t work anyway.”
  8. “It may all turn out to be a mistake.” (p. 86)


We can show this list to our writing  group, friends, or students and ask them to discuss the ones that seem familiar. “I may fail this time” will hit a nerve, whether we are students performing for a grade or Francis Ford Coppola mortgaging his home and risking his reputation to make the epic film Apocalypse Now (1979).  As shown in the movie Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), Coppola faced down every one of these fears except shyness, which seems never to have been his problem.  After the worldwide smash success of The Godfather, which gave him the funds to risk on this new venture, he had a major reputation to lose, especially when the filming ran over time and over budget and a trade newspaper jeered, “Apocalypose WHEN?”  Near the end of the project, when he discovered he didn’t have an ending, he feared the whole project had been a colossal mistake.  Instead it won the Palm D’or at Cannes even before it was edited.

Kurt Hanks and Jay A. Parry comment in Wake Up your Creative Genius (1983):


The person who becomes afraid of things that don’t yet exist and probably never will) is showing the power of his imagination.  His mind is obviously strongly creative!  The only problem is that the person’s creative abilities are turned in the wrong direction— into worries instead of solutions.  He needs to turn the negative images into positive ones.  He needs to rechannel his thoughts in another direction, into worries instead of solutions (p. 86).


Another problem may be that we have experienced pain from negative reactions.  If we identify too closely with our creative work, we will feel pain at writing that garners a rejection slip or art that doesn’t sell.  Because we are naturally programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain, we associate showing or marketing our work with the pain we feel at its rejection.  We think, I don’t want to feel that way again!  So we stop creating or we stop circulating our art. We internalize the rejection and think, There must be something wrong with me!  We have created our Inner Critic.


What can we do to move forward, free of the mental chains that bind us?


Of all the many voices inside us, the Critic is one of the most debilitating, the internalization of all the negative messages we have received about our creativity. It actually forms what Jung called a complex—an an energy constellation that behaves like a real person inside us. So, when we begin to exercise our creativity, here are some things it might whisper to us. (I tell my students, “Pick your favorite!”)

  1. “Whoever told you that you could write (or paint)?”
  2. ‘You’re too dumb to do this.”
  3. “You did a bad job last time. What makes you think you can do better this time?”
  4. “Ha, write away: what difference does it make? You’ll never get published.”
  5. “No one will like what you do.”
  6. “You will reveal yourself too much if you write/paint. Everyone will see who you are.”

How do we deal with this voice?  One way to write a two-page dialogue, with the Critic’s nasty remark on the left and our countering responses on the right.

“You’re too dumb.”                         “I’m smart enough to be creative!”
“You’re too dumb.”                         “Was van Gogh worried about his IQ?”
“You’re too dumb.”                         “What’s Dan Brown’s IQ?”

Eventually the voice will change.

“Well, okay, but you’re no Shakespeare.”           “And who else is?”
“You’ll never write a best-seller.”                        “So what?”
“You’re not creative.”                                           “Everyone is.”
“REALLY?” “Yes.”

Then you may find yourself writing that some people are dumb or uncreative in HTML; some can’t sew, paint, or cook; some can’t garden or sing or write–but EVERYONE is creative in some way, and IQ has nothing to do with creativity.

This technique is used by gestalt psychologists.

Another way to silence the Inner Critic is to use positive affirmations. No, I don’t mean incredible affirmations such as “I am a best-selling author” when you can’t get published. I mean affirmations your subconscious can believe, such as, “I now attract an audience that will appreciate my work.”

Affirmations should be believable (such as the one above).
They should also have the following characteristics:

1.  be in the present tense (“I now attract”) not the future
(some day I will. . .”) The subconscious acts on present realities.

2.  be in the positive (“I am making good food choices now”) not the negative (“I am not fat”). In the latter instance, the subconscious mind hears “fat.”

Many people don’t believe affirmations work. The reason is usually that the affirmations are unbelievable or negative: in a word, ill-constructed. Also, since affirmations are designed to change your view, you need to give them time to work. Changes of consciousness don’t usually occur immediately!

Larry Block, mystery writer and creativity expert, says that all of us have a secret negative affirmation that blocks our creativity.  This negative affirmation is a thought (perhaps close to being unconscious).  In his creativity workshop Write for your Life, held during the 1980’s, he had people rewrite this affirmation to become a positive.


“I’m afraid of what others will say or think.”

“There is an audience that will appreciate my work.”

“I am proud to be unique.  I will draw those who appreciate what I have to offer.”

In his workshops Larry had the attendees whisper the positive affirmation into a partner’s ear.  But it can be enough simply to hold the affirmation in consciousness.  After eighteen years, the two above finally worked for me!

Finally, a pragmatic way to deal with the fear of rejection is to depersonalize it, to see it as a tactical problem rather than a personal deficiency.  So it is hard to find a publisher who will pay for my manuscript?  Why not put it online or self-publish it?  So my handcrafted jewelry is rejected by boutiques?  Fine, I’ll offer it at fairs or open-air markets.   So my paintings are not commercial?  All right, I’ll paint for my own pleasure and post photographs of my art on my Facebook page.

Students who are gifted and creative will have enough voices, both internal and external, telling them to conform or avoid risks.  Let us be the ones to tell them, in the words of U.S. President Obama, “Yes we can!”




Block, L.  (1986.) Workshop on creativity, Houston, Texas.  Also  Write for your life: The book about the  seminar.  USA: privately printed.

Edwards, D. (1979.)  How to be more creative. Los Gatos, CA: Occasional Press.

Hanks, K., and Parry, J.A. (1983.)  Wake up your creative genius.  Los Altos, CA: William


Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. (1991). Dir. Eleanor Coppola.

Sternberg, R.  Creativity as a decision. (2002, May).   American Psychologist 57.5,  376.





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