A Filmmaker's Guide to Overcoming Fear & Anxiety

A Filmmaker's Guide to Overcoming Fear & Anxiety

Fear and anxiety are two of the most powerful, yet destructive drivers of human behavior, particularly in creatives.

Sure, there's a wide range of ways our psychology can sabotage us—things like perfectionism, ego, procrastination, confidence issues, and even depression.

And though each of those might seem like its own unique issue, if you dig deep enough into each one, you'll find that fear is generally one of the root causes of the outward behavior.

So that's why we're going to tackle fear head-on in this episode of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast. Because once you understand how to deal with your fears and your anxieties, you'll be much better prepared to tackle other psychological setbacks as well.

And once you start tackling those other areas of your psychology, you'll free yourself up to make legit progress on your films and in your career.

Here's a sampling of what we'll cover today.

  • Why fear is so prevalent in people who do creative work.
  • What are we most afraid of as filmmakers?
  • How fear is treated in a clinical context using cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • My process for exposing your fear as irrational and useless (which robs it of its power).
  • How to keep your fear at bay over the long term.

This episode features snippets from my conversation with Curt Jaimungal from indiefilmTO, who happens to be quite versed in this stuff.

You can also listen and subscribe through iTunes, Stitcher, PocketCasts, Radio Public, Spotify, and the Google Play Store.

If you enjoy today's show, it would mean the world to me if you'd leave a rating and review on iTunes. That's the best way to support this small indie show and to help new filmmakers find it!


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Practical Takeaways from Today's Episode

Before we get into this, there's an important distinction we need to make.

What exactly are we referring to when we talk about fear? Because depending on who you talk to, that word can mean any number of things.

So when I refer to fear throughout this episode, I don’t necessarily mean that intense physiological sense of fear where you’re sweating and your heart is pounding and your adrenaline is pumping.

It's not the same sense of fear you'd feel if you were being chased by a bear.

What I’m referring to is the general sense of anxiety that comes along with pouring your heart and soul into creative work. It comes whenever you're facing uncertainty about your abilities, your status, and your self-worth.

Sometimes, this version of fear shows up as a subtle, but ever-present voice in the back of our heads, nagging us with uncomfortable thoughts. Other times, usually when we’re getting closer to finishing a project, that voice gets louder and louder and shouts some pretty harsh things that make us question everything we've done up to that point.

The other subset of fear that I want to talk about this episode is social anxiety. As filmmakers, we're often told that we need to grow our networks (which is true). Yet, many of us are creative introvert types to whom networking feels deeply unnatural, and maybe even scary.

That's me in a nutshell. If I don't force myself to go out and socialize and network and meet new people, I won't do it because of my anxiety.

So that's the type of fear we're talking about this episode

What are we afraid of?

In Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic (one of my all time favorite books on living creatively and building a creative career), she does a great job at listing out the things that we’re typically afraid of as creatives. Here’s just a small sampling of that list.

  • You’re afraid you have no talent.
  • You’re afraid you’ll be rejected or criticized or ridiculed or misunderstood or—worst of all—ignored.
  • You’re afraid there’s no market for your creativity, and therefore no point in pursuing it.
  • You’re afraid somebody else already did it better.
  • You’re afraid everybody else already did it better.
  • You’re afraid you won’t be taken seriously.
  • You’re afraid your work isn’t politically, emotionally, or artistically important enough to change anyone’s life.
  • You’re afraid that someday you might look back on your creative endeavors as having been a giant waste of time, effort, and money.
  • You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of workspace, or financial freedom, or empty hours in which to focus on invention or exploration.
  • You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of training or degree.
  • You’re afraid of being exposed as a hack, or a fool, or a dilettante, or a narcissist.
  • You’re afraid of being a one-hit wonder.
  • You’re afraid of being a no-hit wonder.

I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid of all of those things. Hell, I felt most of those things as I put this podcast season together.

What’s even scarier is that Gilbert’s list continues on for another page, and I’m just as scared of those things as well. I’m willing to bet you probably are, too.

Anyhow, let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that all of these things are genuinely scary. And now that we’ve acknowledged that, let’s do something about it and put those fears back in their place.

Strategies for Overcoming Your Fear & Anxiety

Before we get into the tactical stuff, there's one important idea that you need to internalize about your fears.

Our fears will never go away, but that’s ok

I wish there was some secret formula I could give you to completely get rid of your fear. That would be pretty neat, wouldn’t it?

But the truth is no such formula exists because fear is fundamental to our survival as a species. It’s hardwired into our DNA so that we can react appropriately when scary, life-threatening things happen.

And even though most of us won’t ever have to worry about getting eaten by a bear, that part of our brain still finds plenty of things to be afraid of (most of them emotional), and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Fear will continue to show up for the rest of your life, particularly when you’re doing something new, pushing boundaries, or facing uncertainty. Which, if you're a filmmaker, should be pretty much always. That’s just how it is.

Once you understand that, however, you can start devising ways to operate in spite of your fear, or even transform your fear into fuel for your creative work.

How to systematically confront your fears with CBT

In the clinical literature on confronting fears, there's no more effective technique than Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT for short.

Now, there's a lot that goes into CBT, and there are a few different variations on it depending on what you're struggling with. But for the sake of keeping things simple, here's how we'll define it.

CBT helps people confront and rewire faulty thinking, and helps them systematically overcome irrational fears and anxieties.

The example given in this podcast episode came from Curt Jaimungal.

Let's say you're trying to help someone get over their fear of spiders. You wouldn't just push them into a spider web (yuck) and say, "See, that's not so bad!" That would freak them the hell out and likely deepen their fear. Not to mention you'd get some horrible Yelp reviews.

Instead, you'd take baby steps. You'd start by asking them how close they could get to a spider. If they answer 10 feet, you'd ask, "Can we get you to 9 feet?" Then you'd slowly but surely work your way towards the spider, consistently helping them confront their fear and reduce the power it has over them.

So how does this apply to filmmaking and creativity, you might be asking?

Well, this is the best solution out there (at least that I've found) for social anxiety, and for people who are afraid of sharing their work because they don't want to be judged. Anything where you can take small actions consistently to confront the fear will work here.

If you're the type of person who avoids networking like the plague (like me!), this is how you start to overcome those anxieties. You don't throw yourself into networking events with a goal to meet everybody. You start small, challenging yourself to build one new relationship with a filmmaker every week. And then you continue that onward, eventually challenging yourself to meet two filmmakers per week, then go to meetups, then to film festivals, and so on.

Understand that most of our fears are completely irrational and useless

This next method could also be put under the banner of CBT because it's all about helping us expose our fears as irrational.

There are a few simple questions you can ask yourself in order to do this. Here they are:

  1. Is this fear rooted in anything rational? In other words, if the worst case scenario comes true, will reality line up with the scary outcomes you're creating in your head?
  2. Is there any legitimate danger if I keep taking action in spite of my fear?
  3. Is this fear useful? Is it moving you towards your goals, or keeping you from achieving them?

Most of us don’t take the time to engage with our fears on this level. We just think to ourselves, “Oh, I’m feeling anxious and uncertain,” and we leave it at that. Then we take that feeling at face value and let it derail our progress on projects we care about. I’ve done this more times than I care to admit.

However, when we pause for a moment and engage with the fear—asking if it’s rational, asking if it’s legitimate, asking if it’s useful—the answer almost always comes back as a clear and unambiguous no.

This is the main thing that will help you dance with your fear. Once you can re-contextualize it as something fundamentally irrational and useless, it loses much of its power over you. Sure, it’s still obnoxious when it crops up (and it always will), but it won’t prevent you from doing your work. You’ll be able to see fear for what it is, nothing more than a neurological quirk of the human brain that doesn’t serve much of a purpose anymore.

What does this actually look like?

For instance, let’s say you’re terrified that a passion project you care deeply about will fail, and that no one (not even your friends or family) will like it. You might even be worried that failing on this project will cause people to lose respect for you. That might sound kind of silly, but I've heard it before. We tend to wrap up our entire identities in the films we make, especially once they get larger and more ambitious.

Anyhow, if you were to ask yourself if that particular fear is rational, you’d certainly find that it isn’t. You’d find that nothing bad is going to happen to you if your film doesn’t work out.

Sure, you might feel shitty for a little while, but your friends and family will still love you. You'll still have a bright filmmaking future ahead of you. And you might even gain some respect from people for having finished a film and put it out into the world, even if it didn’t live up to your expectations. Remember, most people don’t finish what they start, so it commands respect and admiration when you actually do finish and launch a piece of original work.

Also, once you asked yourself if that fear is useful, you’d see that it accomplishes nothing. In fact, you'd see that it’s actually trying to prevent you from doing something that fulfills you and makes you happy. In other words, your fear is trying to sabotage you.

And that’s not cool. So it’s your job to give stupid irrational fears like this the middle finger and then continue doing your work in spite of them.

It isn’t always comfortable or easy—carrying your fear around with you—but it’s always worth it, because 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 your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. I know that’s what you want for yourself, because that’s what I want for myself, too. It’s what we all want.
— Liz Gilbert

My single best tip for keeping the fear at bay

Now that you’ve re-contextualized your fear and shined a light on how useless it really is (at least within the context of filmmaking), it’s time to take some action. And my single biggest tip for taking action is this:

Show up every day.

Don’t let yourself stagnate when you’re working on a project, or even when you’re between projects. Because if you do, the fear will creep in and just continue to get louder and louder, which will make getting started again more difficult than it ought to be.

Fear loves to crop up when we’re not working on something. Given too much time to think, our brains will start meandering into all sorts of unhelpful places. I don’t know why, but it seems to happen without fail.

However, if you can just do one small piece of work every single day—even when you don’t feel like it, even when you’re not feeling inspired, and even when you’re feeling like a fraud—then you’ll not only make progress towards your ideal body of work and your definition of success, but you’ll be doing something extraordinarily effective for winning the battle against fear. Fear hates it when you make consistent progress because that progress strips fear of the power it has over us.

The real trick here is to make creation part of your routine. Your daily practice doesn’t have to be anything crazy or elaborate. It doesn’t even have to result in anything good. It just has to be consistent, and it has to move you towards your goals.

So start playing with different ways to incorporate small bits of meaningful creative work into your daily routine. Maybe you write something small every morning or shoot one piece of random footage every evening, even if it’s just for 5 minutes. Whatever it is, if you do it consistently, you'll be laying the foundation for bigger and better things.

If you get that piece of the puzzle in place, your creativity will eventually become a habit. And once your creativity becomes a habit, nothing can stop you, not even fear.

Further Reading & Resources

Book: Big Magic - Elizabeth Gilbert

The first section of Big Magic is all about dancing with your fear and cultivating the courage required to live a full-hearted creative life. It’s worth the price just for that section alone, but all the other stuff in this book is just as valuable.

Book: Body of Work - Pamela Slim

Pamela Slim devotes an entire chapter of this book to a concept she calls “surfing the fear,” and it's full of all sorts of practical tips for doing just that.

Book: The War of Art - Steven Pressfield

This book is a classic amongst artists and entrepreneurs for a reason. It’ll help you defeat the forces that prevent you from doing your best creative work once and for all. And fear is definitely one of those forces.

Book: Uncertainty - Jonathan Fields

Why do some people fall apart during uncertain times while others find new levels of success? This phenomenal book attempts to answer that question, and it comes with an immense amount of practical tips that’ll help you turn fear into action.

Book: The Tools - Phil Stutz and Barry Michaels

This is one of those books you'll either love or hate, because it requires a bit of spiritual/higher-power thinking. But each of "the tools" outlined in the book are incredibly useful. And when it comes to fear, you'll want to use "The Reversal of Desire." It's insanely effective for winning those individual fearful moments.

If you enjoyed this podcast episode, you'll love Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. Each week, I share my latest writing, curated stories from around the web, a short film that I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.

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