What I learned from one year of facing my creative fears

A year ago, I sat in front of my laptop, on the verge of starting something that terrified me. When I took the leap, clicked send, went past the point of no return, put myself out there and revealed my creativity, I was dizzy with anxiety, my fingers were literally trembling and I had no idea what I'd done.

Now, a year later, I sit in front of my laptop on the other side of my Fear Year, and my fingers are steady as they tap out sentence after sentence. I know now that the creative adventures I feared and longed for were worth every tremble.

The idea of facing my creative fears during 2016 came out of the realization that I would never create unless I dealt with the reason I wasn't creating: fear.

When I set out on my Fear Year, I didn't have a list of fears and I didn't plan my year. I trusted that fear would show me the way forward, and it did.

2016 was a year of creative adventures

I started this blog, in English, even though I feared sharing anything I'd written, and even more so in my second language.

I designed my own website, even though I knew nothing about design or branding.

I started drawing and painting, even though I was convinced I was inherently bad at anything visually creative.

I reached out as someone who could help others face their creative fears too, even though I was no expert.

I broke the rules and went my own way, even though I feared trusting my judgement.

I finished the second draft of my novel, even though I was terrified of failing at my dream of becoming an author.

I opened an art shop, even though I feared selling or calling what I made art.

I faced my fears, even though they scared the shit out of me.
So how did I do it?

To face my fears, I needed to shift my mindset

Before, when I met a fear, I turned the other way. I saw it, and I thought

Well, that's unfortunate. Is there a way around it? No? Better not do that then.

I saw fear as something static, something to be avoided, something I couldn't do much about. 

As I leaped into 2016, I had no idea how I was supposed to be brave. But I had understood something about fear, and it made me dare.

Fear is drawn to things you secretly long for, to the strong, passionate dreams you're terrified of both making and not making reality.

Fear is trying to protect you from failure, disappointment, vulnerability and pain, but by protecting you from those, it's also keeping you from its counterparts - dreams coming true, gratitude, happiness and connection.

Because without darkness there's no light. Without the risk of failure, there's no chance of success. Without trying, there's no hope.

With that understanding in mind, I decided to find a way to face my fears. It would be worth it. As I jumped, took those first wobbly steps into building a creative life, it was one insight that hit me the hardest.

This is isn't as scary as I thought.

And so I learned the first lesson.

Lesson 1: Fear is a feeling, not a truth.

Fear is a product of your mind, a bundle of your dreams and your insecurities, of fantasies turned into worst-case scenarios. Fear uses your memories of disconnection and failure to stop you from ever trying again.

As the feeling that it is, going into fear won't be comfortable or easy. But it might not be as hard as you thought. Fear's stories are just that - stories - and reality is often kinder. 

One of my big fears was of sharing my creativity, of opening up to not only my own ruthless judgement, but the judgement of others. Now I was suddenly writing and sharing at a pace where I couldn't make it perfect. 

As I kept hitting that publish button every week, I found that it got less and less scary. Just like in phobia training, exposing yourself to the fears make them release their grip of you. We can't keep being scared forever. The feeling passes. Fear moves on to something else, something even bolder.

So in a matter of weeks, I had managed to face one of my most crippling fears, and as I designed my website and learned about branding, I was doing things I'd never done before. Publicly. I realized that I had somehow managed to be brave. 

I'm not a daredevil, a risk-taker or fearless in any way. Still, I managed to be brave. So I learned the second lesson.

Lesson 2: Being brave is a choice, not a personality trait. 

When I set out to face my creative fears, my mindset shifted. Instead of running away, when I saw a fear I thought

Oh interesting! That's probably something I should do then.

Just that shift in how I thought of my own fears made a huge difference. It propelled me out of a state of being frozen by fear, into a state of figuring out how to do that scary thing.

I found ways. I took many small steps that weren't so scary, but together they added up to something daring. Without choosing that brave path, I wouldn't have gotten far.

I firmly believe that we can all do scary things, if we want to. It might not be comfortable, but you can too decide to go down that brave road.

Not every fear can be faced the same way. Sometimes it takes a daring jump, other times support from loved ones, often the knowledge that if it goes bad, we'll survive.

The key is to find your way to face that particular fear, then decide to do it.

To create bravely is to create imperfectly

When 2016 started, I didn't think I was troubled by perfectionism. I didn't consciously strive for it, I didn't believe in it. But at the same time I didn't want to create and share something with flaws I could identify.

I didn't want to show my weak spots. It would make me vulnerable for critique.

That's perfectionism.

When I picked up my camera and roused the memories from an old photography class, and when I learned about web design, I was reminded of my belief that I was inherently bad at visual creativity. Still, I enjoyed the work.

A longing to draw and paint sneaked up on me, something I'd never dreamed of doing before. But my creativity was waking up. I realized that my former disinterest really was another fear.

Determined as I was to face my creative fears, I looked up a few drawing tutorials, tried and experimented a little, and found that hey - I wasn't as bad as I thought!

With a little help and direction, I could do what I didn't think I could do. So I learned the third lesson.

Lesson 3: Talent is overrated, practice is underrated.

How many times have you thought that's not for me? How many times have you heard others say they are just bad at it?

Drawing, singing, writing, anything creative really, is in our culture believed to be skills we're either born with or we're not. There's the creatives and the not-so-creative. And yet so many who create, those actually doing the work, say it's not really about talent.

With talent you might get a head start, but unless you do the work, practice, stick with it when it's hard, figure things out and learn, then you'll fall helplessly behind those who didn't start out with a gift but gave it their all.

When I started to draw and paint, I discovered a more forgiving style than the one I'd grown up with. I was used to trying to mirror reality, where every difference was a mistake, a very perfectionistic view of art. But now I found a more playful way of creating.

I learned that flaws can be beautiful, that the process is messy and that it's supposed to be messy. That there's community and strength in showing our mistakes too, and that having fun along the way is what matters most.

So I learned the fourth lesson.

Lesson 4: The process is more important than the result.

When I wasn't creating, I dreamed of having written a book. I dreamed less of the process of writing a book. The ideas, frustrations, passions, setbacks and endless cups of tea that goes into a creative project were not in my fantasies.

But that's what creativity is. Creativity is not what comes out, it's the process of discovery and exploring, of having a picture in your head and trying to make it reality. It's messy and annoying and wonderful. That's what creativity is about.

When we shift our focus from the result to the process of getting there, we open ourselves up for adventure and joy. That's how you grow.

The big project I took with me into 2016 was the draft of my first novel that I'd struggled much with. I kept struggling with it the first part of the year, feeling blocked and uncomfortable.

I'd dreamed of being an author for so long and I'd added demands to that dream. I wanted to write a good book - my own high standard of good - but I didn't believe in my own capacity to write that well.

I didn't want to lower my demands. But leaning into a process focused mindset made me understand that there's a difference between doing my best and not allowing myself to make mistakes.

So I learned the fifth lesson.

Lesson 5: Perfectionism is not the same thing as a striving for quality.

You can value the quality of your result without crippling yourself with needing everything to be perfect. We can allow the process to be a mess, make thousands of little mistakes and learn from them. We can use trial and error, enjoy the process as much as we can, play, experiment and be silly, and still value the result.

We don't have to make creativity harder than it is.
It can be a joyful, playful ride with a great, bold goal.

My Fear Year changed me

To face my fears has changed the view of myself. Of what I'm capable of. Of who I am.

I feared to pick the identity creative, because I was scared others wouldn't agree. I longed for an invitation, a stamp of approval, a paper that said

Elin Lööw has qualified as a creative.

But there were no such paper. I wanted to be a creative, a writer, an artist. I wanted to be brave. I 2016, I stopped waiting for permission and guess what? Nothing bad happened at all. I just turned into those things I'd dreamed of being.

So I learned the sixth and last lesson.

Lesson 6: You can decide who you're going to be.

There are no official qualifications and thank goodness for that. We have to claim our own identities, scary as that may be. Because nobody else will make you the person you want to be, nobody else will make the life you dream of happen. That's your job.

I started my Fear Year with one reason stronger than any other.

I won't be the person who lets fear stand in the way of my dreams.

Now, when the year is over, I know that I'm not.
I'm the person who fights for my dreams, even when it's scary.