Writing With Anxiety Series: Look To The Future

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Today, I want to talk about this tendency a lot of anxious people have when it is time to write: look to the future and feed their existing anxiety by creating scenarios that serve the anxiety rather than themselves.

Between self-sabotage and lack of self-esteem, when comes the time to write, our anxiety draws from our insecurities to do what it does both so well and so badly: protect us. There are two facets to this tendency to look to the future: the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario, both great at sabotaging the present. But what is their purpose?

The Worst-Case Scenario

You’re at your desk, already anxious about writing, and you can’t manage to write a line, or at least you can’t manage to write much. The dark thoughts are running through your head: you are not capable of this, the few words you have managed to write aren’t worth anything, others probably don’t need that much effort to write more than this… You are already riddled with guilt when it comes to everything that you don’t do well, and you haven’t even given yourself the necessary time and space to do anything. Hello, self-sabotage.

Then, to make things worse, your thoughts drift to the future. But instead of giving you comfort, they rub it in: if you can’t manage to even write a few lines, do you seriously think you are capable of writing a novel? Will you even one day have a finished product, something to show to others? Are you going to become that person who talks her whole life about writing a story but never does it? These dark thoughts become more and more real and suffocate your reality. Defeated, you tell yourself that it’s better to let it go for today. You leave your desk and dismiss this desire to write.

What’s the point of that mental process? At first glance, there is none. You feel even worse than before, so it seems the anxiety has only made things more difficult for you. But it has actually accomplished exactly what it wanted: you didn’t write.

The Best-Case Scenario

Let’s look at the other facet, the opposite of the worst-case scenario. This one is reassuring, cozy, warm. Sometimes it comes on its own, sometimes right after having thought about the worse-case scenario. You allow yourself to imagine your future self, successful, holding the novel in your hands. The press is talking about it, the cover is wonderful, you are invited to talk in conferences (Whoops! No, this is also an anxiety-prone situation, let’s forget about that one!) You knew you were capable of this and your hard work has paid off: you did it.

When I write and allow myself to dive into this scenario to fight my anxiety, it has a pernicious effect: I am suddenly more indulgent towards myself; of course I am capable, as long as I work steadily and trust myself! But I am also so exhausted by the efforts I had to make to prove my anxiety wrong. I don’t have any energy left to write. My brain is empty, my body exhausted by the breathing exercises and my attempts to regain control. Tomorrow, I promise myself. Tomorrow, I will start working on this seriously. Except that tomorrow, this light euphoria will be gone, and I will have to start again from scratch.

You’ll note that this leads to the same result: you didn’t write.

Your Anxiety means well

Hard to believe, right? After all, it throws a wrench in the gears any time it finds an opportunity to do so. So how can your anxiety mean well?

Anxiety, in writing as in any other situation, has only one goal: to protect you. At any cost. As weird as it may sound, it is your friend. A friend who’s way too intense, but whose intentions are honorable. And, by preventing you from writing, it prevents you from suffering from the scenarios it itself fed you. When I tell you it is way too intense…

Why prevent you from writing, since, in the end, you aren’t happier in that situation? Because that situation is familiar. Because your anxiety knows it and knows that you survive it. Your anxiety doesn’t think about long-term damage, about failures, about the burden of mental exhaustion over the years. All that it knows is that, right now, in the short term, it saved you: it prevented you from being disappointed by what you wrote, it prevented you from stepping out of your comfort zone, from putting yourself in any unknown situation that could be dangerous or out of control.

Ignore It Or Accept It?

We’ll all agree: there’s a worst-case scenario that is worse than the ones the anxiety created: that of a story that will never be written, your story. So, what should you do? Ignoring your anxiety is certainly not what I’d recommend, because it never works for long. Instead, I’d recommend recognizing that your anxiety exists, and understanding it. It’s a long road ahead, but I promise, it is worth it.

As a first step, listen to your anxiety, without trying to reason with it. Ask it why it needs to protect you so bad. Make it some tea. I am serious. Make tea for it and for yourself, offer it a seat while you write, and if you are lucky, it is going to start calming down. Very softly. Very slowly. Don’t lose patience. The first steps are more important than anything else.

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