What happens when we let fear dictate our art

Praise can be addictive.

Whether it’s Instagram likes, parental approval or compliments on our writing abilities, we get a dopamine rush with each reward. The desire to belong is a basic instinct of human survival. (Plus, it just feels good to be liked.) But we’d all be better off if we gave fewer shits about what people think.

Intellectually we all know that, right? Somewhere inside each of us, there’s a tiny pantless version of ourselves giving People With Opinions the middle finger. And then there’s the other miniature version of us in grown-up clothes hoping to blend in with the cool crowd. Unfortunately, the insecure one often takes over even the most confident of us from time to time.

When I picture myself at 70, I picture a woman with long, gray hair who swears a lot, laughs a lot and says exactly what’s on her mind. When people’s eyes widen in response to her brazen herness, she flashes them a big, red-lipped grin. Except I don’t want to wait until I’m 70 to be the picture of Not Giving a Shit. When it comes to my writing, I simply can’t afford to wait.

Why we need to give fewer shits about what people think.

Most of us are not writing in a vacuum. Most writers want to be published, to find an audience, to be read by more than, like, three people. And who doesn’t dream of becoming a best-selling author? Of course we want to be seen and, hopefully, we will get to relish in some praise and recognition (maybe even money?!) for our efforts.

But there’s a fine line we all must walk when it comes to our motivations. As writers, artists and creatives, if our desire for acceptance outweighs the desire to share truth in all its raw vulnerability, we essentially hand over our power to outside sources. Our work ends up being shaped not by our authentic voices, experiences and beliefs, but by what we think people want to hear. And if we don’t get the approval we seek, it’s a dark, lonely feeling.

When we create art with the intention of being popular, the end result only reinforces ideas people already agree with. At best, you’re just adding to the noise. (If you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of lame-ass content on the internet. Who needs more?) At worst, people will see right through you. Either way, no one really benefits from it.

No good comes from writing watered-down versions of our truth, but it’s especially tragic if our fears and self-doubt prevent us from writing anything at all. If your story is deeply personal, highly controversial or simply way out there, you’re inevitably going to raise some eyebrows. But if you’re trying to avoid pissing people off or making them uncomfortable, you’ve made your job impossible. You can’t worry about the outcome of writing or publishing your story before you’ve even written a first draft.

There are no rules in art or in life. Just the limits we impose upon ourselves.

I turned 26 last week. It’s a weird age—nothing especially special about it. Yet it’s fascinating to me the range of life experiences my peers have had. We live with five roommates, we live with parents, we have kids, we start companies, we buy houses, we travel the world. At 26—or at any age, for that matter—there is no normal.

It can be utterly frustrating when there’s no roadmap for where you “should” be at a certain stage in your life. But it’s also  liberating. It means we can define and redefine our versions of success. And by success, I mean a life of creative fulfillment and happiness, at least a good majority of the time.

So rather than worry about whether we’re going to be judged, ridiculed, laughed at, pointed at, shunned or ignored, let’s make a pact to put integrity before mediocrity. Audacity before fear. We’re never going to please everyone, anyway. Might as well be ourselves.

I don’t give a shit if that sounds hokey. It’s true.

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  1. This post couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s just the pep talk I needed!
    I’m currently working on a collection of essays, and the thought of what people will think crosses my mind way too much. I worry about it while I’m writing, which is very unhelpful and , like you said, counterproductive to the creative process and authenticity.
    Writing takes a surprising amount of courage – I’m still working on that. But not giving a shit about what other people think is the only way to live a life of being true to yourself. Thanks for the reminder Cassie!

    • Cassie Paton says:

      So happy to hear this resonated with you, Miriam! You’re so right. Writing takes more courage than most writers realize – even when they’re in the middle of the hardest, bravest thing they’ve ever written! It’s awesome that you’re putting together a collection of essays. Good luck in the process – I’m rooting for you. 🙂

  2. I don’t know if you intended to, but that paragraph about when you’re old reminded me so much of the poem that starts “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.” Work it girl!

    • Cassie Paton says:

      Totally not intentional, but what an awesome comparison! I just read that poem for the first time in a long time, and yup. That’s exactly what I have in mind. 🙂

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately…even when I feel like I’m being incredibly honest in my writing, I still feel like I’m holding back, and I’m not sure why. For me, I don’t think it’s as much about judgment as it is about not wanting to offend other people (which, okay, I guess is a kind of judgment) – I swear a lot more in real life than I do on my blog, which is just how I like to express myself, damn it, and I have a lot of really intense feelings and opinions that I can imagine my mom emailing me about and saying things like, “I wish you wouldn’t write things like that, your grandma reads your blog” (it’s happened before). I guess I’m afraid that my truth isn’t what other people want to hear. But my favorite writing right now is about the exact same things I’m thinking, so there must be other people out there who WOULD actually want to hear it, right? Obviously I have lots of thoughts on this topic. =]

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