This week a couple of events landed on my calendar at fairly short notice. They launched me into extreme preparation mode – I locked myself in my room, I withdrew from friends and family, and I retreated from my usual creative practice. I took the time to write keynotes and to rehearse, but mostly – this is the real kicker – I used the time to “focus.” A lot of the time I spent wasn’t actually spent preparing but just trying not to upset this delicate balance I convinced myself I’d found that would enable me to be on top of my game.
I understand that for elite athletes and world-class chess players, every decimal of focus counts when you’re singularly concentrating on training for one minutes-long display of your expertise. But my stress response got me thinking about a phenomenon I read about recently. Here’s an excerpt about it, straight from Forbes:
“In times of uncertainty—such as an economic downturn or outright recession—fear usually dominates. Danger often provokes an asymmetrical, escalated response. In 1933, it was a run on the banks. In 2021, it was a run on toilet paper.”
That phenomenon certainly feels relatable, and in my experience, often leads to some behaviors that in retrospect are easy to see were rather unhelpful, much as we might try to convince ourselves they were. I don’t know about you, but uncertainty is such an unavoidable scourge that I’d be better off spending a reasonable amount of time mitigating it and continuing to live life as usual than I would be at chasing this asymptotic goal of risk elimination that is often impossible to attain.
Putting aside my recent response to those last-minute events, the asymmetrical fear response comes up in a myriad of ways for poets in their own writing. When a poet fears being perceived as too florid, too sentimental or cryptic, they’ll often overcompensate by writing in a manner that’s unnaturally terse, dispassionate or direct. This response both betrays the poet’s true voice and prevents them from learning how to make room to engage with that fear or insecurity without allowing it to take up their entire brain.
When we fear a negative performance review, or being perceived unfavorably by our peers, or encountering failure as entrepreneurs, we’re liable to going to extreme lengths to avoid any vulnerable confrontation with those fears. In those moments, naming the fear can open the door us to negotiate a less all-encompassing space for it. Naming the outsized reaction we’re eliciting to that fear can open the door for us to find more moderated ways of fulfilling the need for comfort, reassurance, or security that response is trying to address.
Striving for change within the crafts we pursue is inevitably going to cause fear to surface every once in a while.
The goal isn’t to eliminate all fear indefinitely.
But more often than not, if you can name it, you can tame it.