I was paralyzed.
It was the early 90s and the organization I worked for, Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) of Bonnyville had received a grant from the Office for the Prevention of Family Violence to create a puppet show, to be taken to area schools, addressing healthy ways to express anger. I’d been asked to write the script.
I was young, and, although I’d done plenty of writing, this puppet show was going to be a big deal. I was afraid. Afraid that my writing wouldn’t be good enough. Afraid that it would be criticized and ripped apart. Afraid that I would look foolish and that they’d regret having asked me.
So, I spent my time alternating between staring at the blank piece of paper and finding other things – like organizing the pantry or scrubbing the grout in the shower – that suddenly required my complete attention. Thank God for the last minute, because the deadline for submission forced me to sit down and make it happen, writing until the wee hours of the morning.
Opposite Ends of the Brain
What I didn’t know at that time about how the brain works is that fear, which puts the individual into survival mode, lives in the part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is way down at the base of your skull and is the most primal part of the brain. It has one function – to keep us alive. It asks one question: Am I safe?
Creativity, on the other hand, lives way up at the front of your brain, in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is known as the executive function. It is responsible for reasoning, problem-solving, comprehension, perseverance, and yes, creativity. Fear and creativity are basically not in the same postal code. The issue is that every thought, every perception, and every bit of information we receive must first pass through the amygdala and then travel up to the prefrontal cortex. Sometimes, things get stuck in the amygdala. That happens when I allow myself to entertain those fear thoughts. I make them big by focusing on them. I give them power. This essentially keeps me locked in a place of fear and does not allow me to operate from my prefrontal cortex, where I can access creativity and all those other fun things I mentioned.
Who Moved My Cheese?
This month, I am rereading the fun little book called Who Moved My Cheese. It’s a book about adapting to change, particularly as it relates to professional accomplishments and accessing money and building wealth. It’s an allegory and a quick read about moving out of your comfort zone and adapting to change, and there are many thought-provoking little nuggets throughout. At one point, one of the main characters confronts himself with the question, what would you do if you weren’t afraid?
If life were only about being comfortable all the time and never doing anything that represents a risk, I guarantee we’d all still be living in caves. It’s not that we won’t be afraid at times of change and stretch. It’s that we need to check in and assess the validity of the fear. Is it the truth?
I use a process with the acronym NNUR to move myself out of fear and move myself into creativity and problem-solving. Here’s how it works:
Notice: I must first notice that I am having a negative feeling. Fear, anxiety, self-doubt, or what-have-you. I can notice this because my body expresses it, whether through a tightness in my stomach, a surge of anxious adrenalin through my chest, or a tingling feeling in my head. If you start paying attention to your body, you’ll notice that it always signals you when you’re having a feeling.
Name: One I notice that I am having a feeling, I need to name it. Why? Because I can’t address it until I know what it is. Also because I might mistake an anxious feeling in my tummy for hunger.
Unpack: This is where things get challenging. I need to identify the thought that caused me to have the feeling. A feeling is always precipitated by a thought, and a thought is rooted in a belief. Once I can identify the thought, I can ask myself why I thought that. This will require some self-reflection, but, if I am willing to do the work, the root belief that led me to that thought will emerge.
Here’s the thing: if I am having a thought that limits me or punishes me, it is a lie. It is not my friend. It will keep me bound and locked up. So, even if I cannot arrive at the root of where/when I formed the belief or even what exactly the belief actually is, I can definitely assess whether a thought is helpful or harmful. If the thought does not serve me and move me forward, I must reject it (this is hard work, but very worth it!)
Reframe: Once I have unpacked the fear thought and come to understand that it is punishing or limiting, and I reject it, I need to reframe that thought into a thought that serves me and moved me forward.
For example, in my writing story, I had to change the thought from what if they hate it? (which was all about me) to what do the children who see this play need to know? (which was all about the audience I was called to serve). The other helpful thought was I have been duly authorized and appointed to do this work because I have the skills, talent and creativity needed for the job.
What Would You do if You Weren’t Afraid?
I knew that sitting in fear and procrastination was not going to serve me. It was also not going to serve the audience who needed to hear the message of that play. I reframed my thinking and used those helpful thoughts to both bolster my confidence and to get my focus off of myself and onto others. The fear gremlins rumbled, then grumbled, then crumbled. To this day, that puppet show is one of my proudest accomplishments. I am so glad I did not allow fear to block my creativity.
Can you use this process to unparalyze yourself and move yourself in the direction of your goals and dreams? Yes, absolutely. Try it! If you need help unpacking or reframing, let’s connect and work through it together.
Stay on Point!