The fear factor


Elizabeth Gilbert

Fear is a deeply ancient instinct, but it ain't especially smart.

Fear is a deeply ancient instinct, but it ain't especially smart. Photo: Stocksy

Please understand that the only reason I can speak so authoritatively about fear is that I know it so intimately. I know every inch of fear, from head to toe. 
I've been a frightened person my entire life. I was born terrified. I'm not exaggerating; you can ask anyone in my family, and they'll confirm that, yes, I was an exceptionally freaked-out child. 

Growing up, I was afraid not only of all the commonly recognised and legitimate childhood dangers (the dark, strangers, the deep end of the swimming pool), but I was also afraid of completely benign things (snow, perfectly nice babysitters, cars, playgrounds, stairs, Sesame Street, the telephone, board games, the grocery store, sharp blades of grass, any new situation, anything that dared to move, etc, etc, etc). 

I was an easily traumatised creature who would fall into fits of weeping at any disturbance in her force field. 

My father, exasperated, used to call me Pitiful Pearl. 


We went to the beach one summer when I was eight, and the ocean upset me so much that I tried to get my parents to stop people on the beach from going into the surf. (I would have felt a lot more comfortable if everyone had stayed on their towels, quietly reading; was that too much to ask?) 

If I'd had my way, I would have spent that entire vacation – indeed, my entire childhood – indoors, snuggled on my mother's lap, in low light, preferably with a cool washcloth on my forehead. 

This is a horrible thing to say, but here goes anyway: I probably would have loved having one of those awful Munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy mothers who could have colluded with me in pretending that I was eternally sick, weak, and dying. 

I would have totally co-operated with that kind of mother in creating a completely helpless child, given half the chance. But I didn't get that kind of mother. Not even close. Instead, I got a mother who wasn't having a minute of my drama, which is probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. 

My mom grew up on a farm in Minnesota, the proud product of tough Scandinavian immigrants, and she was not about to raise a little candy-ass. 

My mother had a plan for turning around my fear that was almost comic in its straightforwardness: at every turn, she made me do exactly what I dreaded most. Scared of the ocean? Get in that ocean! Afraid of the snow? Time to go shovel snow! Can't answer the telephone? You are now officially in charge of answering the telephone in this house! 

Hers was not a sophisticated strategy, but it was consistent. Trust me, I resisted her. I cried and sulked and deliberately failed. I refused to thrive. I lagged behind, limping and trembling. I would do almost anything to prove that I was emotionally and physically totally enfeebled. To which my mom was, like, "No, you aren't." 

I spent years pushing back against my mother's unshakable faith in my strength and abilities. Then one day, somewhere in adolescence, I finally realised that this was a really weird battle for me to be fighting. Defending my weakness? 

That's seriously the hill I wanted to die on? As the saying goes, "Argue for your limitations and you get to keep them." Why would I want to keep my limitations? I didn't, as it turned out, and I don't want you keeping yours, either. 

Over the years, I've often wondered what finally made me stop playing the role of Pitiful Pearl, almost overnight. Surely there were many factors involved in that evolution (the tough-mom factor, the growing-up factor), but mostly I think it was just this: I finally realised that my fear was boring. Mind you, my fear had always been boring to everybody else, but it wasn't until mid-adolescence that it became, at last, boring even to me. 

Around the age of 15, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture. I noticed that my fear never changed, never delighted, never offered a surprise twist or an unexpected ending. My fear was a song with only one note – only one word – and that word was "STOP!" I also realised that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else's fear. I figured out that everyone's song of fear has exactly that same tedious lyric: "STOP, STOP, STOP!" 

The volume may vary from person to person, but the song itself never changes, because all of us humans were equipped with the same basic fear package when we were being knitted in our mothers' wombs. 

And not just humans. If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown. 

Well, so do I. So do we all. But there's nothing particularly compelling about that. Do you see what I mean? You don't get any special credit, is what I'm saying, for knowing how to be afraid of the unknown. Fear is a deeply ancient instinct, in other words, and an evolutionarily vital one, but it ain't especially smart. 

Evolution did well to install a fear reflex within you, because if you didn't have any fear, you would lead a short, crazy, stupid life. You would walk into traffic. You would jump into giant waves off the coast of Hawaii, despite being a poor swimmer. You would marry a guy who said on the first date, "I don't necessarily believe people were designed to be monogamous." 

So, yes, you absolutely do need your fear, in order to protect you from actual dangers. But you do not need your fear in the realm of creative expression. Seriously, you don't. Just because you don't need your fear when it comes to creativity, that doesn't mean fear won't show up. Trust me, your fear will always show up, especially when you're trying to be inventive or innovative. 

Your fear will be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome. 
Your fear – programmed by evolution to be hyper vigilant and insanely overprotective – will always assume that any uncertain outcome is destined to end in a bloody, horrible death. 

This is all totally natural and human. It's absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something that very much needs to be dealt with. 

I made a decision a long time ago that if I want creativity in my life – and I do – then I will have to make space for fear, too. Plenty of space. I allow my fear to live and breathe and stretch out its legs comfortably. It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too. In fact, I invite fear to come along with me everywhere I go.

I even have a welcoming speech prepared for fear, which I deliver before embarking upon any big new adventure. It goes like this: "Dearest Fear, Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you'll be joining us, because you always do. Apparently your job is to induce panic whenever I'm about to do anything interesting – and, may I say, you are superb at your job. But understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognise and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but your suggestions will never be followed. You're allowed to have a seat, and you're allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You're not allowed to touch the road maps or suggest detours; you're not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you're not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, you are absolutely forbidden to drive." 

If you can't learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you'll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting. And that would be a pity because life is short and you want to do and make interesting things while you're here. I know that's what you want for yourself, because it's what we all want. And you have treasures hidden within you, and so do I, and so does everyone around us. 

Bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time any more to think so small. 

Edited extract from Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (Bloomsbury, $30, out now).