How Your (My) Routines Manage Fear and Shame

It’s the new year, so I’ve been optimistically creating new routines and trying to convert them into long-term habits. 

I’ve been writing daily, either on the blog or on the book I’m writing. I’ve managed to write over 10,000 words so far this year. To be sure, these are the initial words of the shitty first draft, but there they are.  

The book project, in part, explores how our dark emotions like fear and shame often hijack our writing process and throw us completely off course. (It’s also about how to work through the emotional crapola and invoke things like kindness, self-compassion, and joy in writing.) When I first started writing the first few paragraphs, I thought that having a high level of emotional awareness about how my writing process works would insulate me from the gremlins of shame and fear. Plot spoiler: it didn’t. Shame still whispers to me that I’m not a very good writer and fear screams at me to stop writing before someone (me) gets seriously injured.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how fear shows up for me as a writer and as a person. I hadn’t written about fear and shame for a long time because I assumed that I’d explored them fully and didn’t have anything more to say about them. Turns out that I was wrong about that too. I’m nearing the finish line on my chapter about fear and how to manage it to get some writing done. I had some insights this week that changed how I thought about fear and its role in my creative work.

First,  I don’t think its possible to create a fear-free existence (unless maybe you’ve managed to figure out how to live in a bubble). I’m increasingly skeptical of people who claim that we should somehow “live without fear.”  I also don’t think it’s possible to produce creative work without experiencing fear. Creativity and fear are natural companions. We’re doing scary stuff; fear is only natural.

I recommend watching this short video in which writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about going on a road trip with creativity and fear. 

I realized this week that my response to fear in my writing takes two forms: flight and freeze. We all know about the three fear responses: fight, flight, or freeze. (I’d be very interested to know if anyone thinks that they have the ‘fight’ response to writing fear. What might this look like?) I realized that my flight response takes the form of procrastination (GET ME AS FAR AWAY FROM THIS WRITING PROJECT AS POSSIBLE) and freeze (I HAVE THE WORST WRITER’S BLOCK EVER I HAVE NO WORDS TO SAY). 

If your default response to fear is to freeze (writer’s block) or flight (procrastination), you’re operating nearly entirely from the reptilian limbic system part of your brain. You’re not wrong to have a fear response to something perceived as frightening—the fear response is primordial and instant. Your lightning-fast fear response keeps you alive and safe from things like tigers and playing in traffic. Sometimes, though, even when there’s no immediate physical threat, fear continues to sound the alarm. It’s here we need to pull in the thinking part of the brain to assess the fear response and (here’s the important part) how we choose to respond. 

I thought about how I wanted to choose to respond to fear. I wanted to respond in a way that would acknowledge the fear response and yet allow me to get some writing done as well.

Writing daily started to recreate a routine for me. I used to think that writing routines were for Other People who struggled with writing (and of course that wasn’t me except it was). I thought writing routines were confining and a sure way to throw water on creative sparks of ideas. Here’s what I realized this week: routines are amazing tools to deal with shame and fear. Without a routine, I’m just overthinking my writing (should I write no I can’t because I’m too scared so what should I do instead well I don’t know so now nothing is getting done and now I’m in full on panic mode and still nothing is getting written…and on and on.), which creates even more anxiety (fear) and then some shame to top it off because my inaction is clearly related to the fact that I’m just not good enough to be a writer.

Trying to create good writing habits (I’ve written every day this month) has been an amazing antidote to the shame and fear spiral. I literally spend no time at all overthinking, because getting up and getting some writing done is just what I do. My routine has created a sense of predictability and safety, which has freed up my brain to think loftier creative and analytical thoughts. I’m overthinking less and having less flight or freeze response. And the bonus of having less flight or freeze response is that I’ve been writing juuuuuust past that moment where I feel like I’m entirely out of ideas and have nothing else to say when I realize that I’m having one more idea. And its usually a good one.

I’ve bolstered my routine by tracking my writing progress using PaceMaker and a Google spreadsheet that some brilliant person made. Tracking my progress has made me feel more productive and increased my accountability and consistency. After all, a routine hinges on performing an action consistently (which is also why meditation works so well for so many people—it manages shame and fear through regular practice). I don’t have to feel shame about not writing, because, well, I’m writing. It’s felt like a minor miracle.

In an effort to keep creating routine, I’ve been hosting Shut Up and Write sessions on Tuesday mornings (11am EDT) to keep myself writing and to encourage other people to write as well. It’s been a great success so far. If you’re interested in joining, I’ve done two things: I’ve made a public Google calendar where I’ll be scheduling online community writing sessions. I’m also putting together an email list and will be happy to email you about the next upcoming Shut Up and Write session. Sign up here.

 I’m considering putting together a more formal writing group (but not too formal, because this is me) that meets weekly to create yet more routine for people. (I’m still thinking about how this would work. Facebook? Slack? A weekly Google hangout or Zoom meeting?)  If this would help you, shoot me an email or comment below. I’m happy to host if it would help you. 

I also realize that a lot of people don’t write with routines and find the entire “create a routine” idea oppressive. If this is you, you do you. Creating a routine works really well for me, but as always, YMMV.

How are you dealing with shame and fear in your own writing? What would help you move forward?

[Many thanks to Katy Peplin, Jane Jones, and Veronika Cheplygina for their insights about fear, anxiety, and routines.]