As someone that struggles with anxiety on a daily basis, and not just in a creative sense, these waves of worry that wash over me feel like they have the ability to take me under completely. It feels like emotionally and spiritually drowning, with enough physical symptoms to make you seriously question whether or not you will make it through.
Enter Elizabeth Gilbert's brilliant suggestion--which again, I am stealing. That's what artists do, right?
In various interviews and in her latest book Big Magic (which if you haven't read, run to your local bookstore now and grab a copy), she talks about the power of granting yourself a permission slip to be creative and to live your life as YOU. Liz, as I like to call her, describes the feeling that I have had so often--feeling a desire to write a play, teach a class, cut my hair, wear red lipstick, anything new and appealing---and yet feeling like I'm waiting for someone to tell me I can do any and all of these things. She says that we seek a permission slip from an "adult" granting us the opportunity to take these leaps.
But who are we waiting for? We are not 1st graders anymore, waiting for our mom to write us a note to be excused from school for a doctor's appointment. We are big people with big dreams and big fears and we have the right and I would argue, the responsibility, to turn these things into action and be the you that you are meant to be, living the life you want to lead. Lead. That's the key word here. We don't have to follow someone else's prescription for our life---it's time to stop waiting for permission. It's time to stop trying to outrun the dread and the worry and face the fear.
How does one do this, you ask? Well, Liz goes on to argue that we must give ourselves permission to not only take action steps, but to be still and accept the tidal wave of big emotions that we are feeling right at this moment. And perhaps, somewhere in this surrender, we will find a teeny tiny slice of peace that will allow us to move forward despite the fear.
The exercise she suggests is simple and powerful. Take a few post-it notes and write "I give myself permission..." on each one. Then fill in the blanks with whatever you are feeling.
Writing your feelings on paper really do help to break the hold they have on you. It's also vital to realize that there is no such thing as a "wrong" feeling. In fact, the more we deny the feeling, the stronger it usually gets. Emotions need to be felt to be processed and only after allowing feelings to be felt can we move through and forward.
My permission slips are above. I tried to include both "dark" and "light" feelings because I often find that as hard as it is to accept fear, it's also incredibly difficult for me to accept that I feel joy about something. It's almost as if I feel guilt about being excited when I'm also nervous. As if blocking joy would make the fear go away. Instead, what happens if we try to allow it all?
Believe me, I have tried to outrun my emotions and find that whenever I am running from something, whatever it is, that something is going to keep chasing me. It has never-ending stamina and will not get bored with the pursuit. But when I let myself stop sprinting and turn around to face whatever I'm fearing, it can't chase me anymore. You can't be chased if you're not running. This exercise allows you to stop running and to name what you feel. This is the first step in gaining some ground and being your own permission slip writer.
I'm starting to teach a college theatre course next month and am feeling all the big feelings. Doing this exercise for this new chapter has already helped me to articulate what I am feeling (and fearing) and work on accepting that these feelings are part of me and I don't have to make them go away or fear them. And something about welcoming these feelings helps them to be less bothersome and more just one part of the whole picture.
In this way, I can recognize and accept that anxiety and excitement can co-exist and I don't have to eradicate one in order to feel the other. In fact, if we as artists and humans are waiting to all to be well before we resume living and creating, we might just be waiting forever.
My creative challenge to you is to write yourself a permission slip (or two or five), take a photo, and post it on social media with the hashtag #creativepermissionslip. I would love to see what you come up with!
Looking for more resources on not fighting anxiety and fear? Check out the Anxiety Coaches Podcast's recent episode "Floating With Anxiety" that discusses how to stop thrashing and fighting your feelings and float instead.