Dismantling Writing Blocks: Sitting with Discomfort and Going to Battle with Fear

I’m going to start out by getting a little personal with you here.

Yesterday, I suffered the first anxiety attack—full blown at my worst—since I can remember. I know I’ve had one at some point this year, but I literally can’t remember when it was.

The warning signs that it was coming were there. But I ignored them. I felt like I had made a lot of progress and that I didn’t need to heed my warning signs. I was beyond my anxiety attacks. Ha!

Upon reflection, I realized that I did have the power to stop myself from getting as bad as it did. I do want to note that this is for me, that I personally felt that I had this ability. I’m by no means saying anyone else works this way or suggesting the people have the power to handle their anxiety in this way. Everyone is different.

However, when I saw the warning signs, I ignored them. Why did I ignore them? The ridiculous answer was because of fear.

I know my anxious self. I’m familiar with her. I know what she thinks and what she does, and for me, anxious Nicola has a strange freedom to feel things wildly and take no responsibility for what happens when I do feel wildly because it’s out of my control. It’s familiar.

But the work I’ve been doing has been teaching me to take control over myself, as well as take responsibility for my reactions. There is a point of no return for me, when I can’t control what happens, not yet anyway, but I can control if and how I get to that point. Yesterday I let fear take the reins, and relinquished control.

But I learned a lot from that experience. And one of the main things I learned is what I want to share with you:

Sitting with Discomfort and Fear is the Greatest Teacher You Can Have

Fear

There are all these really catching coaching acronyms for what FEAR stands for, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about what fear is to me, and my understanding of it. Knowing this has helped me through hurtles in my writing, in managing my anxiety, in having difficult conversations, and in starting my business.

To understand fear is to understand the ego. When I’m talking about this, I’m talking about metaphysical teachings. I don’t know enough about psychology to say what the professionals are stating about this. However, this is the information I glean from minds such as Eckhart Tolle.

The Ego

The ego is that which preserves as sense of self. It is “I.” When we make a statement which is followed by the verb form “am,” then we are making a statement about the self, which is the ego. Examples:

  • I am a writer
  • I am successful
  • I am a woman
  • I am introverted
  • I am a gardener
  • etc.

So on and so forth. These are all how we are identifying ourselves. Each time we use “am” statements, we’re affirming our form to the ego. The ego’s job is to preserve that form, and often time it can do so in damaging ways.

For example, I know a guy whose whole identity revolves around how big and tough he is. Thus, whenever he describes anyone other than himself, he’ll do so using negative descriptions, such as “the tubby guy,” or “that little fella,” or “the spotty guy.” By using these negative descriptions, he’s making him look better in comparison.

Likewise, the ego can work against you. You are the one who has created the description of yourself. And whatever that description is, the ego is going to help you to protect. If you don’t think highly of yourself, and your “am” statements are along the lines of being useless, pathetic, selfish—pick your poison, then your ego is going to work to protect that.

And to do so, the ego uses fear.

Fear

Fear is a very handy tool. It’s what we use to protect ourselves. Fear alerts us to threats and tells us that we need to act on it, whether it’s the flight or flight or freeze response. Fear tells us that we are under threat.

Because the ego wants to preserve itself, it will deploy fear when there is something that threatens to change the definition of Self.

A common fear that writers have is to identify themselves as a writer. That’s why I often tell people that they need to spend time looking in the mirror and telling themselves that they are a writer. The next step is to tell other people that they are a writer. Not that they want to be a writer, or that they’re an aspiring writer, but that they are a writer. Fear of ridicule will often deter people from doing this, but once a writer fully embraces that writing is who they are, not what they want to be, then the ridicule doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if they make money writing or not. What matters is that they put pen to paper and conjure their ideas and words. That’s what makes them a writer. Not what other people think.

So, how do we understand and deal with fear? I’ll get to that. First, I’d like to share a story I read.

The Warrior and the Monster

After I had my anxiety attack, I picked up a book that I’d been reading on and off over the last couple of weeks. And lo and behold, I read exactly what I needed to read. Funny how that works out!

The book is When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. In the 6th chapter, she writes about the concept of Refrain, which I’ll get to in a little bit. Toward the end of the chapter, she shares a wonderful story about a warrior and a monster.

A warrior must go up against a monster. She’s terrified. She’s quaking in her boots. She doesn’t even know what the damn thing looks like (Okay, I might be adding some extra detail here), but she knows that she must face it.

When she finds the monster, it turns and she’s started to see that the monster is in face Fear.

She asks, “Fear, may we engage in battle?”

Fear responds, “Thank you for respecting me enough to ask. Yes, we may engage in battle.”

The warrior feels a little more comfortable now at the nicety. She goes on to ask, “How can I defeat you?”

Fear, feeling more relaxed in knowing that the warrior respects it, responds with, “Well, I’ll tell you my tactic. I speak very loudly and very fast. I get close in your face as I do so. This will rattle you and unnerve you, which will make you to succumb to anything I ask of you. However, that is where my power is. If you do not do as I ask, then I have no power at all. If you can resist me, if you can refrain from doing what I tell you, then I have no power.”

Sitting with Discomfort

Fear is rarely true terror. Fear generally manifests itself as discomfort. Sitting with discomfort is one of the best learning tools you have at your disposal. This is also a practice that I only learned since the most recent Black Lives Matter movement.

One of the things many BIPOC folx were asking white folx to do was to notice their discomfort when it comes to topics of race, and to sit with it. Don’t react to it, don’t do anything other than sit with it. It’s alright to be uncomfortable. There is nothing that’s going to get you from being uncomfortable. When you sit with it, you learn from it and you grow from it.

My very weak example of sitting with my discomfort comes from wanting to publicly support BLM. As my business is very new, I was afraid of upsetting people by involving my political views. My views are very strictly, Black Lives Matter. Indigenous Lives Matter. Brown Lives Matter. Trans Lives Matter.

When I sat with the discomfort, I realized that the people who were likely to ostracize me for these views weren’t my audience. So why was I wanting to impress them? Why was I wanting to try and retain their attention? With this realization, I was able to come out and try to be more vocal and supportive of these matters. Whether or not I went about it in the right way is an entirely different issue, but the point is that this was how I overcame this discomfort.

To learn more about sitting with discomfort in the scope of racial discussions, I highly suggest that you check out Ar-Tic.Org as a starting place.

The Warrior’s Discomfort

Consider the warrior’s discomfort that she had to sit with in order to get the information from her opponent on how to win the battle. First, she had to get through the fear of even staying with Fear enough to talk to it. She had to ramp up the courage to even have respect for Fear in the first place.

She had to be willing to stay still and sit with Fear enough to have a discussion with it to see what it would teach her. Pema Chödrön calls this Refrain.

Refrain

The act of refraining is to notice when the ego is feeling threatened, thus acknowledging the fear, and from there refraining to react to the fear, or do what the fear is demanding of you. Except, Chödrön doesn’t specifically call it fear at first. She talks about discomfort.

Discomfort

What is discomfort? It’s when you’re in a process of transition. It’s the precursor to fear. I’m not talking about physical discomfort, but emotional and mental discomfort. This is when you hear an idea and you don’t know why but it makes you uncomfortable. It can take many different forms from depression to annoyed to general moodiness.

For me, my anxiety attack came essentially from the discomfort of boredom. That was what set it off in a very vague, generalized way.

What happened was I sat down to work yesterday morning with my pint of water, promising myself I would have two of those before I was allowed my next cup of coffee. Then, of course, I knocked the water over, all over my laptop. It soaked it.

I wasn’t really worried because a) it’s a really cheap laptop and I wouldn’t mind the excuse to buy a better one, and b) because it’s a cheap laptop there isn’t enough memory to hold any of my files, so they’re all on an external hard drive (which I recently upgrade to a water-resistant one). However, it meant that I couldn’t work. Not until I let my computer dry out. While I didn’t mind the idea of getting a new one (and secretly hoped I needed to), I couldn’t justify getting a new one if I didn’t actually need to.

So, my only job was to wait out my computer.

Likewise, my partner had a day off. He was busy researching on his own computer (it doesn’t have a working keyboard, he types everything by clicking the on-screen keyboard with his mouse. I cannot write a novel like that, so using that was out of the question). So I sat, the nice day going on outside the house, my partner completely involved in his research, and me just scrolling through Instagram.

I was bored, and through this virus we had been really good about not going out unnecessarily. I had reached my limit.

I started thinking about how both my partner and I had a day off together for once, and we should be using it, and how if I wasn’t then I was just wasting my life away. And oh my god, I’m nearly 34 and I’m not doing anything with my days off. In fact, I’m not married, I’m not settling down and having a kid, and I’m nowhere near owning a home and maybe I should move back to the States and be closer to my parents because they’re getting older and really I should be spending as much time with my one remaining grandparent as I can and—so on and so forth.

I was uncomfortable because I was bored. So my fear kicked in and I became anxious.

Full disclosure: I’m in a time of transition right now. We are moving from our home in North Yorkshire. We were supposed to have left in April, but because of the virus, we weren’t able to. Because we’re moving to another country and we have dogs and thus we’re driving, we’ve been having to wait for borders throughout Europe to open so we can get to our destination. We’ve essentially been in limbo for the past four months. I’ve been fine for the most part because I’ve been avoiding the discomfort and fear through working my ghost writing jobs, coaching, and doing my own inner work.

I have been bypassing my discomfort.

As a result, when I didn’t have anything to do, rather than sitting with my discomfort, I let anxiety take hold.

Had I sat with my discomfort, I would have realized that my issue is that we’re in limbo. We’re neither where we need to be nor are we where we’re supposed to be going. We are in between. And I’m literally not doing anything about it. We could be getting the house ready to move, we could be getting the dogs’ passports ready, I could have been setting up blog posts and newsletters to publish while we move so I don’t have to worry about it, but I haven’t been doing any of it.

My discomfort was guilt at my boredom. If I had sat with my discomfort instead of finding a way not to deal with it, I would have heard that guilt and done something about it. Getting ready to move is a massive change, and it threatens the ego. It’s moving into the unknown. Like I said, we’re moving to a different country. We can research it all we want (which is my partner’s way of dealing with the transition), but we don’t really know what it’s like until we get there. What’s more, this whole year has been one big un-known adventure.

And the unknown threatens the ego. Thus, there is fear.

Refrain and Respecting The Fear

Discomfort is trying to tell you something. Fear is trying to scare you back into the norm. When we refrain from reacting to the discomfort, when we refrain from trying to avoid the discomfort, then there is something that is being taught. We can learn and grow through it.

I have heard advice from gurus and coaches (I’m wanting to say I specifically heard this on Danielle LaPorte’s podcast, though I could be wrong) to treat your different voices as people. Bring them all to the table and listen to them. This means bringing your discomfort to the table as a voice, letting your fear have a seat and have a voice, letting your excitement have a voice, let your analytical self have a voice, and so on. Invite all of these voices to the table and give them attention and respect they deserve as if they were people in a meeting.

In doing so, you’re giving each voice a space to talk and express its opinion. You listen as an outside observer. They do not have the end say in what you decide on. You do. However, you can listen to all the voices, hear the discussion and show respect in order to hear them out. They might all have a valuable opinion. And they all might have advice for how you can grow.

It wasn’t until I began to try to sit with my discomfort that I saw the merit in this advice.

What does this have to do with your writing? That part is in your Home Work.

Your Homework

The next time you find yourself feeling resistance to write, sit with it. Feel it out. Don’t do anything while you sit with it other than make yourself comfortable, and let yourself feel it. Is it a physical sensation? Does it make you feel jittery? What do you do when you’re uncomfortable? Do you pull at your fingers or ears? Do you message your hands? Tap your foot?

Once you notice what you do when you’re uncomfortable, spend some time journaling about the experience. Write about what you feel and do. Then spend some time thinking about what you are learning about yourself and discomfort. I don’t mean what your discomfort is telling you, but rather what you’re learning about the way you react to the discomfort.

The next time you feel discomfort, try to refrain from doing these things you do to avoid feeling it. Try not to message  your hands or tap your feet. It will likely feel restrained, but try to breathe out the frustration. Letting out a full breath until there is nothing left in your lungs is a really good way of getting out that urge to move.

From there, sit with your discomfort. Ask it where it’s coming from. Ask what’s being threatened.

Take out your journal again, and try to interact with the discomfort, like it is a friend who is trying to tell you a secret but doesn’t know how. You can create a dialogue, you can just write out what comes, you can record yourself talking if you’d like. But see what you can learn from just sitting with your discomfort.

Finally, the next time you feel the discomfort, you will hopefully know where it’s coming from, and you can address it, which hopefully will allow you to sit down and write. If not, repeat the exercises until you can fully understand and respect your discomfort and fear enough to sooth it.

Happy writing.

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