Mastering Creative Anxiety by Eric Maisel
The Book in Three Sentences
Eric Maisel provides twenty-two categories of anxiety management techniques to combat our tendency to incorrectly appraise situations as more important, more dangerous, or more negative than they in fact are. People waste enormous amounts of time avoiding things that make them anxious, sometimes a lifetime; the first step is to remember that you get to do the appraising. We need to worry less about looking good to ourselves and spend more time honouring our commitments to ourselves, fulfilling our goals, and realizing our dreams.
Notes on the Book
While there are some real gold nuggets in this book, there is also a lot of fluff. Do yourself a favour and skip all the “Teaching Tales”, noted by grey boxes: they’re strange narratives written and a level far below the quality of the rest of the book.
Anxiety is a biological and psychological signal of danger, alerting us to the fact that something might be wrong. However, it in the present day it is often not an accurate signal, as we are not usually in any real danger. We attempt to defend ourselves against the experience of anxiety rather than examining and handling the threat. By doing so we lose our ability to see what’s provoking the anxiety and our ability to rid ourselves of the threat. Rather than prevent yourself from taking the kind of risks that the creative process demands, accept that anxiety is part of your early-warning system and your genetic inheritance rather than avoiding it. Strive to acquire a more detached, philosophical attitude, work to get a grip on your mind so that you create less anxiety and master the anxiety management tools that work best for you.
According to Maisel, the three main reasons why we experience anxiety during creative work are:
(1) Our self-talk tends to let us down rather than support us, providing us with thoughts like ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’.
(2) We doubt the quality of our work as we measure it against the very high standards of the art we love and as we strive to make it excellent.
(3) The very nature of the creative process causes our work to morph before our eyes and comes with no guarantees whatsoever. (pp.108).
“Incorrectly appraising situations as more important, more dangerous, or more negative than they in fact are raises your anxiety level…. The first step is to remember that you get to do the appraising. Life does not come with built-in threat levels… it is exactly as safe or dangerous as you feel it to be” (pp.56).
“Do not let your mind move from some casual thought to the creation of fright without intervening and asking yourself, ‘what is the actual threat level here?’ ...Understand why [that think makes] you anxious and appraise whether your reasons amount to good ones” (pp.56).
Change your mind about the threat level of things! If you are used to alarm bells going off all the time, stop and think about why and dial it back. Learn to assess the situation and teach them to go off only when the threat is real or significant (pp.57).
“...Love rather than plot revenge… meet deadlines step-by-step, not at the last minute... organize your space, your life, your mind. You know what supports calmness and what maintains chaos. Make the choices that support calmness and, logically enough, you will reduce your experience of anxiety.” (pp.78).
“Typically artists are unaware of how much the anxiety of choosing is affecting them and causing them to flee the encounter… when it comes to creating it is all too easy to get away by not showing up at the blank page or the blank canvas.” (pp.80).
“Accept that you have a million choices to make as a creative person, one after another after another, and that all this choosing is bound to provoke a real and significant anxiety. The answer is not to avoid choosing!” (pp.80).
“The activity of choosing provokes real anxiety, and a creative person is by necessity and by definition someone who must make one choice after another. If you are not aware of this dynamic and if you are not careful, you will avoid your work or leave it too soon so as to avoid the anxiety brought on by choosing.” (pp.80).
“Explain to yourself that you are obliged to choose and that while you would love to make the right choice each time, what matters more is that you commit to choosing. The only other choice is to not create!” (pp.80).
People waste enormous amounts of time avoiding things that make them anxious — sometimes a lifetime. “Human beings engage in too many behaviors to name in pursuit of reducing their experience of anxiety.” (pp.87).
“Always consider how you behave to be one of your primary anxiety-management tools. Ultimately you will reduce your anxiety more by showing up, getting creative work done, building a body of work, and learning from your efforts than by drinking, avoiding your work, moving every few months, living chaotically, and so on.” (pp.87).
“Our self-talk, our desire for excellence, and the process itself all make us anxious” (pp.108).
“When you run into difficulties while creating, say ‘I’m trusting the process’. You gain nothing when you get ahead of yourself and predict the worst" (pp.129).
“Banish the word failure from your vocabulary” (pp.141).
Psychosynthesis and Disidentification Techniques
“...You remind yourself that you are larger than and different from all the stray, temporal events that seem so important in the moment”. (pp.156).
When you are having thoughts like, ‘Maybe this body of work isn’t cohesive’ or ‘Maybe people won’t like or accept it’, you are over-investing in the event or situation. Instead, detach yourself and disidentify using a statements like ‘I will keep this exhibition in perspective, I am more than this work, and more is yet to come’. In fact, “one of your best ways to reduce your anxiety is by learning to bring a calm, detached perspective to [your] life…” (pp.157).
Quoting Ann Seagrave in Free from Fears, “Instead of imagining that a catastrophe will befall you, imagine that you will feel comfortable and secure in the situation. Rest assured that you will reach the point of being about to think through or imagine a fear situation without having an anxiety reaction.” (pp.196).
“Worry less about looking good to yourself and more about honouring your commitments to yourself and fulfilling your goals and realizing your dreams. ...See where you need to grow, change, and do more.” (pp.170).
Deep Dive for Self Discovery
“The most useful tool for self-exploration is writing an autobiography from twelve to fifteen pages long. If you do that writing, you are almost certain to learn a great deal about who you are. Focus on going deep and being real, not on beautiful memoir writing. Try to arrive at a sense of what motivates you, what subverts you, and why you react in the idiosyncratic ways you do. If you are brave enough to appraise your personality and arrive at some conclusions about what changes you want to make, you will still be faced with the enormous challenge of changing your personality. To do so, you must take three steps: you must state a clear goal with namable behaviours, you must practice those behaviours in you mind’s eye, and you must adopt those behaviours in real-life situations.” (pp.44).