How to overcome the fear of 'putting yourself out there'

Susan Cain
Bryan Bedder | Getty Images

The long-overdue conversation about adversity and resilience launched by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's book, Option B, has caused many of us to think about life's toughest issues: mortality, bereavement, chronic illness, and so on.

Yet it's also gotten me thinking about smaller scale forms of adversity, and how we best face them. Today, I want to write about just one of these. It is a challenge I know to be faced by so many people: of being driven to create, but afraid to share those creations with the world.

This was once my own challenge, too. I dreamed of being a writer since I was four years old. When I was a child, I wrote fiction. (My mother still keeps a copy of "Peggy Meets Eggy" in her bedroom closet.)

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But as a teen, I started recording all my thoughts and sorrows, joys and fears into a series of diaries that I carried with me in a locked backpack as I moved from dorm room to dorm room to starter apartment. I never showed those diaries to another soul. That was the whole point — to write down what I really thought and felt, without having to (in today's parlance) "put myself out there."

But as I grew older, I realized that I had ideas I wanted to share with the world. Unfortunately for me, those ideas are usually about pretty personal subjects — that's just what I'm drawn to writing about. I feel driven to tell the truth about what it's like to be alive – the beauty of it, but also the painful and embarrassing parts.

The book I'm working on now — also about loss and love — is even more personal than QUIET was. But I don't feel I have much choice. So I just try to write as if no one's looking. Then I'll decide which parts to publish. I predict that I'll keep some bits private, but most of it will see the light of day. Otherwise, there would be no point.

I tell you all this because I hear so often from people who burst with creative impulses, but fear sharing them because they dislike the spotlight. Maybe you fear others judging you and your work. Or you're uncomfortable with self-promotion. Or perhaps you're afraid of failure, or of success.

Think how great it would feel if you could find the resilience that would help you dismantle these internal censors!

Yet resilience, as Sheryl and Adam say, is not a magical quality that some possess and others lack; it is instead a skill that all of us can cultivate.

In that spirit, here are seven ideas to help you find the courage to share your creative output far and wide:

1. Know that you're in good company

People have always had to put themselves out there. We tend to think that in the good old days, no one had to self-promote the way we do today. True — but if they wanted to share, or lead, or create, they had to go public with their thoughts too. And this has always been scary. Darwin waited 34 years to publish his idea that humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor. Scholars call this "Darwin's Delay," and many believe it was due to his fear that others would judge his heretical for the times theory.

2. When it comes to social media, think self-expression, not self-promotion

If practiced properly, your online activities can feel more like a creative project than an exercise in self-disclosure even though, of course, they are both.

3. Coffee will deliver you from self-doubt

It gets you excited about new ideas and helps you ignore the chorus of judgers inside your head. It propels your thinking and helps you make connections between seemingly unrelated things. Hence the saying that "a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems." A playwright friend of mine talks about the "coffee mirage" — after he's had a few sips, everything he's written seems brilliant. So you'll have to go back and do some editing later, but overconfidence is much better than self-censorship when it comes to first drafts.

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4. Train yourself to associate idea generation with pleasure

I usually work at a cozy café table, with a latte and something sweet on hand. I would probably be ten pounds lighter without this habit, but I don't care. By now, I so associate writing and idea generation with pleasure that I love it even when I don't have a café table handy.

5. Work alone (or "alone together"—for example, sitting by yourself in a coffee shop or library)

There's a lot of nonsense floating around these days about how creativity is a fundamentally social act. Ignore this. Yes, creativity is social in the sense that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us; that we share and advance our ideas and stories (that's the whole point of this article); and yes, collaboration is a powerful and beautiful thing (think Lennon and McCartney).

But for many people, the creative thinking process is a solo act. One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from William Whyte's The Organization Man:

The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group as a creative vehicle… People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises. But they do not think; they do not create.

6. If you're an anxious type, work at night when your cortisol levels are lower

When I was a child at summer camp, I noticed a strange pattern. I was horribly homesick first thing in the morning, often waking up with a stomach ache. But as the day wore on, the homesickness faded. By nighttime, I was carefree and having a grand time.

Each night, I was sure I'd wake up the next morning feeling just as strong as I felt in the evening. But the homesickness always came back.

Back then, I couldn't explain this pattern, but I can now: cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and it peaks in the morning and steadily dissipates throughout the day. For some of us, these peaks and valleys are especially pronounced.

So while you probably think most clearly first thing in the morning, you may be at your least inhibited at night. I've noticed that interesting turns of phrase and associative leaps come to me much more easily in the evening hours. Indeed, creativity researchers believe that a relaxed brain, a brain that is not in the grip of anxiety or blocked by other psychological barriers, is a more creative brain.

7. Strengthen your backbone and, therefore, your confidence in small steps

Get in the habit of asking yourself where you stand on various questions. When you have firm opinions or a strong sense of right or wrong on a given question, savor the feeling. It doesn't matter what kind of question — it can be how to organize the dishwasher.

The point is to get used to the feeling of having a center and operating from it. Then, produce more consequential ideas from this same place. You'll still have doubts, of course: "Does it make sense? Will people agree?" That's normal. But you need to have confidence about the underlying purpose of your undertaking.

Susan Cain is the Co-founder and Chief Revolutionary at Quiet Revolution.

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