COMPLETE BLOG POST. This to-do stood out among the others. Its silent recrimination ringing loudly—Why haven’t you gotten to me yet?
The answer boiled down to one word: Fear.
Fear and I go way back. Her presence inexplicably comforts me even though she can wreak havoc on my life, reminding me of a self more imagined than real.
Fear is best at derailing my writing. Her whispers—you’re not good enough, you have nothing important to say, you’re more lucky than skilled—made writing excruciating. Every. Single. Moment.
It is excruciating still. Sometimes. And the distance between always and sometimes is a huge win.
The journey to this point has not been easy. Fear is a worthy adversary, even for a psychologist trained in ways to cope with emotions. And I’m not alone. Many writers struggle with Fear in what appears to be a losing battle. And that’s not okay. Because Fear is vulnerable, wins are possible.
It’s worth repeating: wins are possible. Here are a few ways I use science to help me (and my clients) triumph over Fear.
Pull Fear from Darkness to Light
I thought I could hide from Fear. Crouched in shadows, I held my breath and waited for her to recede. But the dark is no place to face Fear. Avoidance feeds fear, helps her seem larger than life, uncontrollable.
Pulling Fear into the light makes her more tangible. The more visible Fear is—her contours and angles—the easier to deal with her.
So I named her and her goal. This is Fear, a.k.a. Imposter Syndrome and Anxiety. She tries hard to keep me from writing.
This small step makes Fear easier to recognize. Hello, Fear. I see you’re back.
Acknowledging Fear before she does damage opens the space to bring her—and myself—out of the shadows. In the light, I’ve discovered that…
Fear has preferences
Fear loves to, prefers to, show up when I’m writing something new (like this blog post) or writing in a new(ish) voice (e.g., autobiographic) or writing with others I admire. It sucks when all these things intersect, which is happening more and more.
Fear has stamina problems
Fear is strongest early in the writing process. She knows if she keeps me from starting or stops me from finding my rhythm, she wins. Her strength, though, wanes over time. Knowing she can be beat means it’s vital I write through Fear.
Fear has selective memory
Fear is amazing at recalling harsh critiques. Gentle critiques? No worries, Fear can sharpen them until their points penetrate any armor.
Positive feedback? In those rare moments of recall, Fear is adept at distorting the message or messenger. She only said she liked it; it must be crap if she didn’t love it. He’s too nice to tell me the truth.
Recognizing that Fear’s whispers aren’t my full truth is an ongoing struggle; Fear’s voice sounds deceptively like mine. But I’ve found effective interventions. One is creating a gentle counter-narrative that challenges Fear’s penchant for the negative. My writing is good enough. I chant this mantra each time Fear starts her whispers. I initially repeat it without conviction knowing that writing as if I believe still works.
Compiling positive feedback into an easily accessible document is another way I challenge Fear’s whispers. Savoring the positive emotions that come up while reading the feedback dials down Fear’s volume, which makes hearing my counter-narrative easier.
Shame is Fear’s superpower
Fear thrives on shame, a feeling of unworthiness. The result: a pull to hide Fear, to perform (or fake!) a competence and ease in writing that I don’t truly feel. This inauthenticity only amplifies my shame which in turn amplifies my desire to perform.
Vulnerability is Fear’s kryptonite
Breaking out of the shame-performance cycle requires vulnerability. By vulnerability, I mean taking the risk to speak my writing truth to other writers, repeatedly. Why? Sharing Fear with empathic others makes her burden easier to bear. Equally important, it reminds me I’m not alone...and neither are you. Fear is a part of our lives, even those academics who make writing look easy.
Caveat: For women of color, hiding Fear can be an adaptive way to cope with daily indignities and systemic oppression. So be gentle with yourself if enacting vulnerability takes time. A trusting network of confidantes is something that must be nurtured to grow. Organizing a writing sister circle whose expressed goal is to provide compassionate accountability is one place to start.
Shout out to my sister circle: Joycelyn, Nichole, Griselda, Karen, and Jackie (my biological sister who is also an academic). I am grateful beyond measure that you welcome and encourage my authentic self, enabling me to face Fear, practice self-compassion, and get back on the writing path when I diverge. As I did with this post.
In peace and solidarity,
Expressions of gratitude elevate mood, decrease stress, and improve health; great things to manifest in the coming year. So instead of starting 2018 by declaring New Year's resolutions that won't make it into February, choose to express your gratitude to the old year.
You can do this by writing 10 things you are grateful for from 2017. To make this writing count, avoid generalities such as, “I’m grateful for my job.” Be specific and personal. “I’m grateful my boss recognized my hard work and nominated me for the Employee of the Month award in March.”
Caveat: I know what I’m asking is hard given all the pain and angst the last 365 days have brought many of us. But if we don’t pause to acknowledge the positives 2017 had to offer (even if they seem small), the only things that will stand out are the negative moments. That is just how our brain works.
I wrote my 10 thankful happenings on the first pages of my 2018 gratitude journal. That way every time I open the journal, I am reminded what went well this year.
Consider gifting yourself with a regular gratitude practice in 2018 that starts with this 2017 gratitude reflection.
In peace and solidarity,
By Roxanne Donovan
In these last days until Christmas, many who celebrate are running around trying to find the perfect gift. Before you head to the mall one more time, take a moment to think about what you are giving. Not all gifts are created equal. Delete off that list the clothes, electronics, and toys you planned to buy, because…
MORE STUFF DOES NOT MAKE US HAPPIER
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little for effect. There are some caveats. First, this applies only to those who are financially secure, not to the financially vulnerable—like those who regularly experience food or housing insecurity. Second, we do experience a short blip in happiness when we get stuff we want. BUT it is temporary, and we quickly get back to baseline.
So if you really want to find a gift that is remembered and savored for more than a blink of the eye, research suggests giving experiences not things.
Not sure what would make a memorable experience gift. Here are five suggestions to get you started.
1. Weekend trip.
This is well-suited for couples, friends, and families—think a camping trip to a nearby park, a two-day hotel reservation in a close city, an all-inclusive spa getaway, whatever. You are only limited by your imagination (and budget).
2. Annual membership to a museum or science center.
Pick a place you know the recipient will be excited about. Consider a family membership for those with kids.
3. Tickets to a play, concert, or sporting event.
Just make sure the type of event suites the recipient’s taste, that you gift more than one ticket (no one wants to do this stuff alone), and the date will likely work for all involved.
4. Classes to learn a new skill or refine an existing one.
The categories here are endless—wine tasting, painting, photography, Tai-Chi, dancing, pottery-making, yoga, singing, piano, swimming…I could go on. Just make sure you gift more than one set so the person can bring a friend or two, which ups the joy and memorability factors.
5. Season passes to a nearby amusement park.
This is particularly great for families. What kid doesn’t like to splash around, eat junk food, and ride roller coasters.
In peace and solidarity,
I am writing this post outdoors on a wooden bench next to a small lake. Natural sounds and sights surround me: trees, grass, birds, and insects…lots of insects. As those who know me can attest, I am generally not an outdoorsy person, particularly when the temperature is above 85 degrees as it is right now. But I do experiment with possibilities. For example, is it possible writing outdoors will lead to increased focus and fluidity?
Moreover, my experimental writing location is part of a larger intention to shift how, why, and when I work so I can be more present in my work and my play.
This is not the first time I have felt the need to change how I engage with the world. I feel pulled to reinvention every four to six years usually after I have achieved a life goal or felt forced to alter one. Some reinventions have been seismic, like leaving the business world to pursue psychology. Some have been subtle, like broadening the focus of my writing through blogging.
The commonality among my reinventions is purposefulness—(re)making the choice to bravely explore what my spirit seeks whether that is a profession that aligns more closely with my sense of purpose or a more public platform for improving the well-being of others.
My reinvention process usually starts with feelings of restlessness. Through practice and support I have learned ways to increase my courage, comfort, and patience with this process. Instead of running from these feelings as I did in my youth, I now engage them. I acknowledge them (sometimes grudgingly) as a sign I am ready to risk embarking on change.
If you have recently experienced an event that has left you unmoored—career promotion, health crisis, personal loss, household move, marriage or divorce, LBGT coming out, birth or adoption of a child, retirement—I invite you to open yourself to the possibility that a reinvention, a change, is in order.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there are multiple paths toward self-reinvention. Below is one set of practices that might make finding your path easier.
When “negative” emotions like restlessness or anxiety come up, it is natural to avoid them whether through artificial busyness, distraction, or disconnection—think scheduling every second of your time, overeating, excessive alcohol/drug use, or zoning out in front of the TV/tablet/phone. Instead of squelching your feelings, choose to engage them by creating time and space for silence and non-judgmental reflection. Sit (or squirm) with what surfaces.
Underneath the feelings are messages about what you need that is presently absent from your life. Journaling, meditation, and nature walks are helpful ways to bring these messages forward. Listen to these messages to determine what need they are pointing toward. If you identify more than one need, consider which one feels most pressing.
Explore what is possible if you courageously choose to walk toward fulfilling this need—a hard exercise for many even in fantasy. If you want help imagining, respond to the questions below. Caveat: give yourself permission to embrace honestly, without censure, your initial responses.
The distance between wanting to change and actually doing so can be wide. Hold close that every journey begins with a first step. That step need not be long; it just needs to be. What can you do now to take one step toward exploring your need? Once done, what can you do now? And now? And now?
P.S. Sometimes we need guidance with one or more of these practices. That guidance may be a coach, therapist, group, practice, or location. For my most recent transformation, my guidance came in the form of an amazing writing retreat where I was showered with support from Michelle Boyd, retreat organizer extraordinaire and friend and a group of other amazing women retreatants. Together they helped me slowly exhale into imagining and responding.
In peace and solidarity
In August, I presented at the American Psychological Association Convention. It's a huge four-day affair held in a different city annually; this year it was in DC.
As always, the event was housed in a ginormous convention center with spillover programming in three nearby hotels. There were over 11,000 psychologists and graduate students in attendance.
You read that right - 11,000!!!!
My time in DC reminded me how draining and stressful navigating conferences can be. It's hard to travel, traverse a new city/venue, present, talk to strangers, and "be on" for days on end. Those last two - interacting with strangers and being "on" - are the most stressful for me. I can usually tap into the extroverted part of my personality for 24 hours...30 tops. Then it's all downhill. At the bottom of this slide is deep exhaustion and the overwhelming desire to hide in my hotel room under the covers.
Fortunately, I've learned a thing or two in my almost two decades (gulp) of conference travel. These strategies consistently keep my stress low and my energy and engagement high, even on the last day of a four-day convention. Here are my favorites.
1. Arrive at least one day before the conference starts, if funds permit. Don't spend the day buried in your PowerPoint presentation. Instead, use the time to acclimate to the space and relax. This gives you a reserve of energy you can tap once the conference starts.
2. Take regular breaks between sessions to keep focused and alert. Sitting in cold rooms listening to speaker after speaker can be mind-numbing, no matter the topic.
3. Talking about breaks, walk around the block. Walking increases focus, energy, and creativity. If the weather isn't cooperating, try deep breathing in your hotel room or sipping tea by a window. These activities are sure to get you back to center.
4. Reach out to other attendees you know PRIOR to the conference. Invite them for a meal or coffee. Social engagement has lots of stress-reducing properties. But do keep some meals free in case you need alone time or want to connect with new people.
5. Avoid the temptation to skimp on sleep. Make sure you get at least 8 hours nightly. Naps that are 20 minutes or less can also be refreshing.
Because I consistently used these strategies at APA, I was able to enjoy and engage fully in the best parts of the conference - interacting with old friends, meeting colleagues from around the world, and, best of all, learning about new research, practices, and policies.
I invite you to experiment with one or more of these strategies during your next convention. If you have other strategies that work, feel free to share them in the comments section.
In peace and solidarity,