Fear and the Artist

Fear. It’s an emotion everyone has experienced at some point. Defined as physical and emotional responses to threat, fear is what has enabled human beings to survive. It is the power that drives our fight or flight response. It alerts our brain to the need to recognize and respond to a threat. Fear is vital to our existence.

Fear is nothing new to the artist. Many of us look at our apprehension as an opportunity to create. We tackle challenging subject matter and attempt to elicit a fear response in our readers. As an author of psychological thrillers, among others, this is nothing new for me. I craft my plot so that I may bring forth a particular response from my readers. I want them to be somewhat unnerved by my words. As the artist, I control this reaction to some degree.

But being able to craft art that mimic’s a fear response isn’t the same as understanding the full nature of fear and how it impacts your life.

Take a minute and think about the last time you are afraid? Terrified?

How did you respond?

Did your heart beat faster? Did your palms sweat and your back tighten? Perhaps your breathing became rapid and shallow. These are all typical physical responses to fear. Our brain recognizes what they are and labels them correctly.

However, fear is not always so apparent.

Sometimes it masquerades as something entirely different. Instead of a rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing, we may respond to fear by making excuses for why we can’t continue with a specific artistic project. We may claim we are tired, or sick, or too replete with obligations. Perhaps we merely avoid our computers and journals altogether. We may even convince ourselves that we no longer want to pursue our artistic goals.

Never once do we question the underlying drive behind these actions. We allow ourselves to become entirely blocked without recognizing the cause of the blockage...


Our brain never acknowledges these symptoms or labels them correctly. We progress through life with a growing sense of unease, utterly unaware of the depth of our terror.

As these emotions get shoved down into the basement of our subconscious, along with the truth of what we are feeling, we slowly create what psychologists refer to as the shadow-self.

This aspect of the self carries all of our suppressed hopes and dreams, and emotions we’ve deemed shameful or dysfunctional. The shadow-self is also the home of our most significant fears.

Shadows live in our subconscious, quiet and invisible for years. But eventually, as this aspect of the self grows more substantial, it begs to be acknowledged and heard. Nightmares creep into our sleep. We begin to react with fear to the mundane aspects of our life. Our brain tells us that there is no threat,  nothing to cause such fear-based emotions. Yet, we can’t shake off an inner sense of doom. We feel stalked by a risk we don’t understand.

If we are lucky, we can continue to create. Many times, this will not be true. The shadow-self we have built will invade our conscious mind, triggering our fear centers and forcing us to live in a perpetual state of fight or flight. Our stress spirals out of control, along with our well-being.

Think about the last time you avoided your craft. What triggered the avoidance? Was it a bad review? Lack of inspiration? Was frustration with the business side of art the cause?

All of these excuses may be an indication of fear.

Understanding how fear represents itself in your life is also a journey toward understanding the shadow-self. I believe that artists are deeply tied to their shadow, often using their art as a way to process repressed feelings that exist within the subconscious. You can see it in the art that is created—the way the painter contrasts the light with the shadow and the way writer uses the antagonist and subcontext. It is the inner dance between our intensities and our shadow that elicits the anxiety and depression often associated with the “madness” of creative expression. In most people, the stress and fear are avoided, ignored. But artists can use these emotions as a catalyst to create.

Think about the ways fear presents itself in your own life and how you respond to that fear. Do you push through it without acknowledging its presence, thereby creating more shadow? Do you greet it as a friend and open yourself up to the gifts contained within the darkness? Or do you become numb and complacent and pretend fear and shadows do not exist within you at all?

The answers to these questions, I believe, will enable you to discover the role of fear for you as an artist, and how to prevent your own shadows from becoming a barrier to the accomplishment of your dreams. I know my discovery process has helped me.


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