A small group in front of me appeared slightly interested in what I was saying, but others had left the room entirely, striking up conversations with each other, or checking their phones and laptops.
A man glared right in my eyes and crossed his arms, obviously not pleased with what he was hearing. An incredibly pregnant woman stood up in front of me, her belly almost touching mine.
I couldn’t believe that things were going so badly on the first day of my new Backbone class.
And then I woke up.
Those of you who have known me for awhile may be familiar with my legendary performance anxiety dreams. They occur like clockwork right before I am doing something really new, or personally significant, or slightly scary.
Psychologists among you, feel free to analyze my psyche.
I now laugh out loud when I wake up from such a dream, because I know it means I am really in the flow of a new body of work, or a new level of personal growth.
I am scared because I am leaving familiar ground, and taking a chance to learn something new.
It may succeed, and it may fail.
You might have your own version of my performance anxiety dream when you start to do something new.
What do I mean by trying something new?
- launching a new website
- delivering a presentation for the first time
- starting a new field of study or career
- writing a new book
- working in a new way
- changing an ingrained habit, like overspending, overeating or smoking
- communicating differently with a spouse or child
This new “thing” can make you feel ungainly, like a wobbly colt trying to stand up right after birth.
Your normal swagger is reduced to a meek shuffle, kind of like my weak delivery of my class in my performance anxiety dream.
In order to not lose your nerve in the early stages of trying something new, it is really important to:
A) Realize that you are doing something new and different and so you will feel strange
B) Protect the early stages of your testing so you don’t curl up in the fetal position on the floor or run back to your comfortable, familiar and very boring old world.
Here is what you need to protect:
- Your testing process. When you are doing something new, it will not work perfectly the first time. But in order to work out the bugs, you must execute the first time so you have something to tweak and make better. If you wait in the planning stage until everything is perfect, you will never ship.
- Your ego. If you have been highly competent in your former field or endeavors, you have probably gotten used to smiles and accolades when you perform. Because you are doing something new, this may not happen. Some people might not like your new piece of work. Some people may be annoyed with your registration process, or think your idea is stupid, or resist your new way of communicating. Don’t take it personally because it isn’t about you.
- Your sense of humor. Trying new things is an adventure that can include a lot of anxiety. The quickest way to reduce anxiety is to laugh. Make sure you do not lose your sense of humor when you are starting something new.
Here is how to protect it:
- Communicate openly and frequently about the new work you are doing. Let people know what stage it is in. This time around writing a new book, I am talking about it very early in the creative process. This makes me feel open and relaxed, and allows me to experiment with different ideas without feeling like I am being judged on their saleability, or compared with my first book. By the time I get the ideas hammered out and clear, I will feel much more confident to approach my publisher, and the public at large.
- Practice Radical Acceptance. This is a term I learned about from Amanda Wang in her documentary footage from The Fight Within Us. Amanda has Borderline Personality Disorder, which includes extreme self-doubt as a symptom. Her therapist uses the work of Dr. Marsha Linehan who describes her full approach here. The basic principle is reducing self-judgment, and learning to accept all parts of yourself, even those that you consider unlikeable. The best metaphor I can think of for Radical Acceptance came to me yesterday morning when I was curled around the sleeping body of my 2-year old daughter Angela. My love for her was so complete, and my desire to protect her from harm so fierce, that I finally understood what it was like to love something unconditionally. Do that to yourself.
- Form your “Oh S**t Team.” Your regular friends and partners may not be sensitive enough to counsel you through starting something new, because they do not realize that feelings of anxiety are amplified in this stage of development. Have you ever had the experience of playing a new song you just wrote, or showing a drawing of a dress you designed, or sharing a piece of writing with someone who said “That’s not half as good as your last one!” They are not members of your Oh S**t Team (OST). True OST members are very gentle with new ideas, because they know that in order to grow and change, they need a safe place to stand for awhile.
- Pack a soundtrack. You need music that uplifts and inspires you as you get your art out of your brain and into the world. Choose a rocking one.
If you don’t get comfortable with the early stages of starting something new, you can become like those one-hit wonders in the 1980’s who never were brave enough to break out of their small box of success.
Growth is joy.