If I had to identify the most frustrating challenge of my life – it would be creative anxiety.
I have spent much of my life trying to overcome creative anxiety in one form or another, and unfortunately, I’m still on the battlefield.
However, I’m much better at dealing with it than I used to be, hence why you’re reading this article right now. I know how frustrating this issue can be for creative people, which is why I want to share my strategies for beating creative anxiety.
What is creative anxiety?
Creative anxiety could be compared to a never ending creative block. Unlike traditional creative block, the reason you struggle to create is not because you have no ideas, but because your own mind tricks you into resisting the work itself.
Here’s an example of creative anxiety at play for me:
I come up with a brilliant idea for a creative project, let’s say an idea for a novel. I’m excited. I spend a week in deep thought and jot down some notes. Then, suddenly, I realise that I have to transform my ideas into some type of structured outline. This is where the first bout of creative anxiety kicks in. The creative process is moving away from the joy of random idea generation, and into the hellish nightmare of physical creation. Normally, I don’t make it much further than this. The creative anxiety beats me.
Sometimes, however, I manage to push past this stage and develop a rough outline. It feels good, but not for long, because it soon dawns on me that I have to write the novel itself. This is where creative anxiety knocks me down for a second time. The thought of actually putting fingers to keyboard and typing the first line fills me with dread. I begin to question the quality of the outline. I question whether I’m really ready to start on the novel. I will grasp onto anything to avoid taking the plunge.
Maybe, just maybe, I manage to gather up the strength to make a start. I sit down and begin to write. It normally starts off painful, but then as I get into the process the pain slowly dissolves, and the writing becomes almost enjoyable. “I’m doing it”, I think, “I’m actually writing”. I finish off that writing session with a smile on my face.
Then, the next morning arrives, and I’m faced with the prospect of returning to the novel again. This is where things take a turn for the worse. The euphoria has worn off; the creative anxiety is back in full force. Sometimes I never return to the novel. Other times I do return, but I hate the writing from the previous day so much that I close the word document, never to reopen it.
Occasionally, I continue working on the novel for a while but it always ends the same. The creative anxiety beats me down time and time again, eventually it becomes too painful and I quit. My brilliant idea will never see the light of day.
The above is just an example of the type of creative anxiety that affects me, but it comes in various forms depending on the type of person you are and the type of creative work you do. You may be struck down by creative anxiety when in the preliminary stages of setting up a new business venture, or when working on a presentation, or perhaps when composing an original piece of music. Everyone is different, but the force standing between an individual and their creative potential is the same.
For someone with creative tendencies, creative anxiety can feel like the universe is playing a sick, twisted, joke on them. The creative person knows what they need to do, but they just can’t seem to do it, and there’s no one else to blame but themselves.
How can you overcome creative anxiety?
This is the big question. How do you overcome creative anxiety? Well, there’s no easy solution, but there are some strategies and mindsets you can adopt to help you start creating. It’s important to remember that even though it might feel like you’re the only person in the world dealing with this problem – you’re not.
In fact, I am prepared to make the assumption that most creative people have struggled with this issue at some point. Many of them still go on to create amazing work, and so can you.
Below are some strategies that will help you on your way.
Be a professional
“When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The muse takes note of our dedication. She approves.”
– Steven Pressfield, The War Of Art
The first piece of advice comes from The War of Art, a book written by Steven Pressfield. This book is pretty much the official manual for beating creative anxiety or ‘resistance’ as the author terms it. If you’re struggling with creative anxiety, your first step should be to buy and read The War of Art. It will change your whole perspective. It’s been very influential for me personally. The book can be found here.
In the War of Art, the solution to creative anxiety (or resistance) is turning pro.
While there are many facets of turning pro, the main distinction we can make between an amateur and a professional is the act of showing up. When you are suffering from creative anxiety, the most important action you can take is to sit down, every day, with a specific time frame in mind, and do the work. It’s as simple as that.
Note, creative anxiety will not suddenly disappear when you sit down and start working. It will still be there. The trick is to remain aware that the resistance you’re feeling is just creative anxiety – it’s normal and inevitable. You need to accept that creative anxiety will be there, and be committed to doing the work anyway.
You’ll probably be miserable, at least to begin with. Every molecule of your being will be screaming at you to walk away and try again tomorrow. Don’t do it. Remember, you’re a professional now; what you’re feeling is just that – a feeling. Stick to your guns, and you will soon find that the allotted time has passed; you have completed your creative work for today. Congratulations. Keep going. Do the same on the next day and the day after that.
This advice, to be a professional, may sound simple, and it is, but don’t be fooled. It’s a powerful method for overcoming creative anxiety. Just make sure you’re prepared for the fight of your life.
Being creative is difficult, and it takes practice. Many creative people, myself included, make the mistake of trying to run before they can walk. They jump into a passion project which is way too ambitious for their current creative ability, and then wonder why it never gets finished. It’s not so much that they don’t possess the required talent. It’s that they haven’t built their creative muscles yet. They have little chance of finishing a big, ambitious, project if they haven’t gained any momentum from completing smaller projects first.
If it’s your dream to write a thousand page novel that changes the world; you should probably start off by completing and publishing a couple of well-crafted short stories, and then maybe move onto a novella, and then a simple novel, and finally the world changing novel that you’ve had your eye on from the very beginning.
The logic behind starting small is not just that it gives you time to master your craft, although this is important, but that you will be building a track record of finishing what you start. Thereby, when it does come time to create your passion project, you will possess the experience necessary to ignore the creative anxiety that rises, and finish the project anyway.
Get in touch with your inner child
There was probably a time in your life when you enjoyed the creative process, most likely when you were a child. Think back to that time. Imagine yourself being creative without having to deal with that critical voice in your head.
To reduce the effects of creative anxiety you need to stop taking yourself so damn seriously, and realise that your creative work isn’t about ‘you’. The work is about the work. You’re creating for the love of creating, just like you did as a child.
Try to think of yourself as an unburdened child every time you sit down to create. This is easier said than done, because most of us are not children anymore, but try your best. Thinking of yourself in this way will not only reduce creative anxiety, but also make the entire process a lot more fun.
Work on yourself
The only way to completely rid yourself of creative anxiety is through personal growth. Remember, that this isn’t an external problem. Creative anxiety is an internal problem. It’s part of who you are, and it’s your responsibility to fix it.
You need to work on: your neurosis, your fear of failure, your fear of judgement, your attachment to the logical mind, and so on.
If you are serious about creativity playing a prominent role in your life’s work, then creative anxiety is an essential problem to overcome.
The way to start working on this problem is by dedicating a portion of your life to self-mastery. I gave you an overview of the process of self-mastery in my previous article, which you can go back and take a look at. Much of my future writing will be beneficial for those looking to overcome creative anxiety because it will revolve around the overall understanding of yourself and the world – both of which directly relate to your ability to be creative.
Why is it important to be creative anyway?
Creativity is responsible for everything that exists.
The words you are reading right now? Creativity.
The device you are reading them on? Creativity.
The planet you are standing on? Creativity.
The Universe itself? Creativity.
If you know that you’re a creative person, it’s your responsibility to create.
If you have a gift to share, then share it.
Don’t let your true purpose be prevented by your self-sabotaging mind; you’ll regret it.
Take a deep breath and dive in. Laugh at the resistance standing in your way, and walk on by.
Be authentic to you who truly are, and you will create.
It’s why we’re here.
Also published on Medium.