Episode 1. Fears, phobias and saying the scariest word in a creative's life...NO!
Updated: Aug 1
I wanted to start this series with fears and phobias as they seemed to have ruled my life for a long time before I finally took control and said: 'no more'! And I'm not just talking about fears that affected my career but fears and phobias that involved all parts of my life, from sometimes even doing the simplest of tasks to big life decisions.
When I was young, before a career and long-term relationships, decisions to move interstate/countries, quit a job or travel for weeks were no brainers. Just do it! Tomorrow will look after itself! Then, my career started, and the reality of life kicked in, adjusting to the unfairness, the sometimes painful and hard things that happen to us as working adults. The way you alter your life and even your overall happiness to seek approval from other people or just for their perception of you. You make decisions based on fear of losing your job, not having enough money to pay the mortgage or the bills, or fear of being judged and found wanting.
Before we get into that, let's talk about real phobias and how dealing with them (and overcoming them) can change your perception of yourself and your abilities.
As a creative, our imaginative brain is our best friend, but it can also be our worst enemy if we let it control us, having us imagine all sorts of negative scenarios, outcomes and ideas that are not necessarily true. Some might even develop into phobias.
As a true traveller and explorer, I love experiencing different places and cultures. It is my life's joy. I've seen a lot of the world, and I'm always planning to visit more. About 16 years ago, when my mum died suddenly, I went on a trip around the world to assuage my grief with the balm of travel. On that trip, I had a couple of hairy flights. A violent New York storm followed us across the Atlantic, which had the plane bucking the entire way. A flight was cancelled due to terrorists being caught on the one beforehand. A landing in Bangkok that was seriously rough and had us skidding sideways for a short way. Plus a few more minor incidences. By the time I got home, I had developed a fear of flying.
Over the next few years, it got worse, to the point of not being able to get on a flight without the help of sedatives. A very shitty situation for someone who needed to fly for work regularly and who also considers travelling and seeing new places just like breathing, essential for life!
To accommodate my fear of flying, I had many strategies. I'd research the hell out of airlines and would only go on those with exemplary safety records (thanks, Qantas!). If I could get there by train, ferry, or car, that's the way I'd go, even if it took much longer. If I had to fly to another city for business, I'd always go the night before to have a sedative for the flight and then sleep it off. I also knew every landing approach and take-off in all Australian and many Asian cities and what the multiple noises and instructions meant on every flight. Plus, I had a horde of rituals and requirements; if I didn't do or have them, I would be sent into a phobic spiral. It affected my life in so many unexpected ways that even watching someone get on a plane in a movie would set my heart racing. I hated it! I hated that something like a 'phobia' controlled so much of my life, so eventually, I did something about it.
First, I found a therapist to help me and got me to understand my fight or flight reactions which were both psychological and physiological. My heart would race, I started to sweat, and my breathing would become rapid, which, in turn, would make my heart race…I also realised my 'strategies' for accommodating my fear were feeding it, avoiding it and giving in to it. Deep, diaphragm breathing was one of the main ways I started overcoming my fear. Second, I read many books and took something from nearly all of them (Allen Carr's book The Easy Way to Enjoy Flying and Debbie Seaman's The Fearless Fliers Handbook were both helpful) but there are many out there!
Over a few years, lots of therapy, lots of deep breathing and relaxation techniques and by accidentally packing my sedatives in my check-in luggage on a long trip to India, then realising I could fly without them, I overcame my phobia. To the point that now, when I get on a flight, it's not unknown for me to fall asleep before we've even taken off. I've gone the opposite way. I'm ridiculously relaxed.
Boatman on Lake Pichola, Udaipur, Rajastan. Taken by me after my first sedative free flight in over seven years.
The empowerment that this achievement gifted me was immense. I truly began to understand the power of the brain – what you can control and what your brain can do if you let it get away with it! In very simple terms, it's up to you. Conquering my fear of flying made me look at my other fears – and I've been taking them on one by one. My smaller phobias (injections and the dentist) are now a thing of the past, and I've also faced my roller coaster fear by going on the tallest roller coaster in the world. Kingda Ka in New Jersey (also the fastest roller coaster in North America) shoots 45 stories straight up into the sky. Not to say I wasn't terrified getting on the ride, but the adrenaline surge and sense of achievement afterwards were the absolute best.
The superpower of saying NO
The biggest superpower I've developed though, is learning how to say no, probably a worse phobia than my fear of flying. As the oldest girl of 5 siblings, being female with my formative years in the 80s and 90s and being a freelancer for decades, my roles as a peacemaker, people pleaser and tireless achiever were well and truly entrenched. I realised that my mind tells me stories that aren't necessarily true. Saying no and putting myself first will not result in never being hired again, letting people down, my world imploding or missing out on something great. And you know what? Even if one of those were true, putting your health and happiness first is always the right decision.
We all do jobs that we don't 100% love. They are bread and butter, to get your foot in the door, you like the agency/client, it has something specific which you want to learn about or gain experience in and many other reasons, I'm sure. Saying no is for red flag projects. It's the third or fourth time the agency has told you, "There's no money in it.”. The client or agency were nightmares last time you worked with them. You know it's done the rounds or it's against your morals or beliefs, and the big one, you are swamped already.
If you are always saying yes because your deceitful brain told you a bunch of lies, it's time to change. In many ways, being a 'yes' creative can be negative for your career. If you always say yes, you'll most likely be given jobs no one else wants or jobs that are a poison chalice from the start and set you up to fail. Also, if you take on everything and anything, you'll confuse people with what kind of creative you are.
You can do the right thing for your clients/agency and still say no, to do the right thing for yourself. It's just about taking control of your anxious brain and telling it to shut up. Being circumspect with the jobs you take on will help you hone your craft in the areas you want to excel in and draw boundaries for you that other people will respect. The creative you want to be will become clearer for those around you (and yourself) and help drive your career in the direction you want to go.
"Just say no" is not just an inept 80's anti-drugs campaign, it's brilliant career advice for creatives, and you don’t have to go on the world’s tallest rollercoaster to learn how to say it.
If you want to say NO to a project, do it in a way that is gracious and supportive. If possible, suggest someone else for the job, or, depending on the reason for turning it down, offer a solution if you were to take it on (if it could move several weeks, for instance?). It doesn't cost anything to be courteous and kindness, like rudeness, is always remembered.
Ethan Hawke with a quick 10-minute TED talk on creativity “To express yourself, you need to know yourself…” a couple of gems in this short video HERE
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