(I wrote this post back in 2013, when we’d just gotten back from time abroad. I don’t even recognize the organizational system I’m describing here. But the way anxiety (or, what Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance”) sprouts in cracks in my mental sidewalk? Very familiar).
The other day, I sat down to write down my list of writing goals for the month. Pieces to write, pitch, refine, or plan. I’ve written a list out longhand for two months now and enjoyed the type-A joy of crossing things off.
The first month, July, I was amazed by my productivity.
August was a bit harder.
We moved, you know? Which I was quite naïve about when I was making the list. I had goals, but the last half of the month was swallowed whole, along with my intentions.
I kept telling myself, you moved. It’s fine. But it was frustrating to look at the list and know I wasn’t meeting my goals, even though the list was just a suggestion. Even though I kept telling myself I’d expected the month to be less productive. Even though I was insanely happy to be moving and settling and preparing for the new home.
I crossed off a few of the items in an attempt to be honest about what was really achievable.
I thought I had dealt with it.
So imagine my surprise when I came to write out my list for September and found a growling voice of anxiety waiting for me.
You’ll never get all these things accomplished, it told me. It’s hopeless. You don’t follow through. Plus, there’s simply not enough time, because you homeschool. There’s never enough time for your dreams.
The voice surprised me for a few reasons.
One, I don’t have much history of making these monthly lists (this is my third one). How can this voice say things like “You always”, or “you never?” based off of a sample size of sixty days?
Two, I can’t believe how quickly I swing from elation to anxiety. Whoa, dizzy.
Three, I am amazed at how hard I am on myself even when I try not to be. It’s actually kind of impressive.
All this is to say that anxiety grows like wily bacteria in our psyche. It multiplies there in the moist darkness of our insecurities. It tries to develop resistance against our kind self-talk, our baby steps, our honesty and diligence. It’s there to suck the air out of any creative endeavor.
I’m trying to learn how to fight this anxiety each time I encounter it. Here are a few things I’m learning:
- Honesty is a must. Anxiety breeds when I ignore reality. If I know that a goal or a behavior or a habit isn’t possible, and I plow forward, I end up frustrated. The frustration turns into anxiety before I can sneeze. In that way, anxiety is helpful: if I’m feeling surly about something, it’s a red flag that I’m not aligning my life with reality.
- Kindness is even more important. When one month is hard, I have to charm myself back into believing that my efforts pay off. When I write out my list, I use pretty paper. I try to keep my goals manageable—super manageable. I take breaks when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I start small: ten minutes tops on hard tasks. I cross things off when I realize they’re not doable, and move on, affirming that goals are not set in stone.
- The voice of anxiety is not reasonable. It’s helpful to laugh at it, because it shrivels down to size. Yes, this month the act of writing out goals was a little harder than I wished because I was battling anxiety, but the first day, when I started working on meeting goals without the move to distract me, I realized the voice had been full of crap. This is helpful for the next time I hear it growling at me.
- Passion is key. I feel blessed when I’m writing. I feel excited about the grand experiment I’m running with my own life, with the people and topics I’m engaged with. This is huge. It keeps me going when the doubtful thoughts creep in. If it’s fun, if I’m excited, I can push past obstacles.
- Anxiety crops up when I’m not flexible. And my perfectionism makes it hard to be flexible. So I try to lower my standards. No, it’s not possible to write one piece a day if I endlessly revise everything, but who says I have to endlessly revise? I also try to be flexible in constantly reevaluating goals, considering saying no to something even if I first said yes, and seizing on spare moments to work (like now, when my children are unexpectedly occupied). If I expand the rules, I’m surprised by what’s possible.
I’m learning not to be surprised by anxiety, by doubt, by Resistance. I’m even starting to see that it has lessons to teach me.
I’m learning that this creativity gig is a dance. Some steps, I execute flawlessly. Some, I stumble over. But the hallmark of a good dancer is making the mistakes part of the dance, part of the improvisation, part of the blissful magic of creation.
Image credit: Lotus Carroll