“Hitler wanted to be an artist…Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: It was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank canvas.”
– Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Fear is a very strange emotion. It’s so deeply a part of our instincts, and so completely tied to our survival, that we don’t even realize how afraid we are half the time. We’re so used to the fear that we think it’s a given.
I’m not here to demonize fear—it isn’t all bad, and it’s not inherently wrong. It isn’t something to be vanquished or conquered or overcome. It’s something to be understood, felt, acknowledged, and worked with.
Some fear is a warning—”DO NOT EVEN. NOPE, NOPE, NOPE.”
Just like this guy.
Other fear is a guidepost—”Yes, you need to do this. It’s scary, but it’s right.”
Our task is to learn to identify the nuances of each kind of fear within ourselves, and act accordingly (even if no one else agrees).
But how the heck do we even begin understanding the differences between those kinds of fears?
At first, it’ll take a bit of work. After a while, though, it’ll become second nature, and you’ll do it automatically.
Warning Fear comes in two different varieties. There’s the sudden grip of fear; what you feel when a loud sound scares you, or someone sneaks up on you and you get really startled by their presence. This is the “IMMEDIATE DANGER” warning system, and it’s pretty easily recognized. It’s also pretty easy to know what to do: Either move away from the threat, or laugh at how something non-threatening scared you so bad.
Then there’s that nagging, constant fear you feel when you’re being threatened more subtly. You feel this when you meet someone and they make you uneasy, or you notice something off about a situation (though you often can’t place it). You feel this when someone you’re close to is angry with you, and you know it before they say anything.
As you get more practiced at recognizing these, you’ll find that this second variety of warning fear apps being so…well…scary. It becomes recognizable, friendly, even helpful. You’ll learn to use it widely, rather than let it drive you into anger or anxiety.
Dealing with this one can be a bigger challenge, since it often incomes extracting yourself from situations, or removing certain people from your life. As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, people are pretty resistant to change. So now you have to first convince yourself to change the situation, then you possibly have to deal with everyone else’s confusion and resistance to your decision. But if your gut is showing to you, then ending that relationship, disassociating from those friends, switching your academic focus, changing what you’ve been doing for years…they might make sense, if you’re feeling this kind of fear and resistance toward them.
The third kind of fear, the “GO DO THIS THING” fear, is also pretty easily identified once you know what you’re looking for; it’s the “I want this so bad it hurts” feeling. It’s how you feel when you start applying to your dream colleges, or you want to ask someone you really like out. It’s how you feel when you get accepted for a job you’re really excited to do. It’s actually excitement, but it tangled up with your self-preservation instinct and wild imagination to produce a collection of possible disaster scenarios, and that creates fear, rather than joy.
The trick with this one is to pay attention. This fear and the “subtle warning fear” are easily confused, so sometimes you think you’re excited-scared, but really you were warning-scared. Other times, you might think there’s a threat, but really there’s an opportunity. The skill you’ll need here is to learn to get out of your own way. It sounds weirder than it is, but it’s essentially just learning to figure out what you’re FEELING, as opposed to what you’re THINKING. Remember, your mind will invent all kinds of crazy scenarios, so you might be reacting to one of your imagined disasters, rather than what’s actually happening.
What I want to focus on here is the third kind of fear—often called Resistance.
Resistance is straight-up evil. It’ll pretend it’s your friend, that it’s looking out for your best interests, but in reality, it’s there to destroy everything you could be before that part of you even has the chance to be born.
If left unchecked, Resistance will stop you from doing the things you most want to do, and in fact need to do. In Steven Pressfield’s words, “Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill.”
The worst thing is that all the reasons Resistance gives for you not to do something sound so damn legitimate. They’re not stupid reasons, like, “Well…I would, but the lights on the Christmas tree are out and I have to go get new ones.” They’re real, like, “I need to finish this work/school/job first,” or “I’m not ready for ____ yet, first I need to learn a skill/practice more/move to a new state,” or “I don’t have the time/money/skills/resources/connections to do it.”
It sounds so legitimate—I mean, you really are swamped right now, right? You did just move/start a difficult class/go through a rough breakup—you really are super busy with school and work and you already don’t sleep enough…
So it makes these little statements about why you can’t and why this isn’t the “right time”, and they all sound very realistic and responsible.
And you know what Resistance tacks on the end of each of these statements? “Yet.”
That’s a dangerous word right there. I have lost years of creating and dream-making to the word “yet.”
It’s dangerous because it promises that, while you can’t have this thing now, you will have it someday!
DON’T BELIEVE THIS. “Someday” isn’t a thing! I wish I knew who said this, but whoever it was, they were absolutely right:
“There are seven days in the week and ‘someday’ isn’t one of them.”
There will never be a “right time” for anything. Not really. You can be more or less prepared, but there is no such thing as a time when life isn’t busy, stressful, hectic, and “too busy” for your dreams.
You will never do the things you say you’ll do “later”. You have to do them now. You have to do it despite all the obstacles and road blocks and unfortunate circumstances—the only time you have is now, so use it.
It’s OK if you don’t believe me—you can believe JK Rowling, who wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on the subway, at the café, and in whatever little snatches of time she could find between working full time, being a single mother to an infant, and mourning the very recent death of her beloved mother.
Or Chris Gardener, author of The Pursuit of Happyness, who managed to be a top performer at his company while struggling with homelessness and caring for his toddler son…also as a single parent.
Want a less uplifting example? Ask almost anyone you know. Ask them what their dream was, and if they followed it. If the answer is “No,” ask them why.
It all boils down to fear. Resistance. Self-imposed limitations. And you have to know how to talk to it–to make it shut up.
Basically like this.
I’m not saying you need to accomplish your biggest dream RIGHT NOW, but devoting even the tiniest bit of time to your goals every day is going to be so much better, and feel so much better, than ignoring that desire, letting it fester and die inside you.
One final note: Don’t feel guilty about being afraid. You’re not stupid or weak or anything bad just because you’re scared. Of course you’re scared—this thing called life? It’s pretty scary. Going out into the world, figuring out who and what you want to be, what you want to do, where you want to go, and how any of this is going to get done. It’s scary. I’m scared. Everyone’s scared. We’re all scared together—it’s OK. It’s human.
Just recognize that fear does hold you back, and probably already has in one way or another, and it will keep doing that until you stop it.
The bad news: Fear will never fully go away, and the battle against Resistance will be a life-long one. This is the state of the human condition.
The good news is, seeing as it never ends, it’s also never too late to start. And there are a lot of tactics to get you through. And once you get the hang of it, it becomes so much easier to maintain.
You can’t live your life by skirting around your fears—if they’re standing between you and who you want to be, then you have to face them. Your life won’t be full otherwise.
The second set of good news is that, if I can overcome my fears, literally anyone else can. More on that later. For now, just remember: Fear is strong, but you are stronger.