The 3 Things I Was Afraid to Write About This Week (Or, How to Truly Live)

purpose

Photo Credit: kevinbrine (Bigstock)

This week, I experienced writer’s block for the first time.

I sat down—multiple times—to write my weekly blog post, and I couldn’t bring myself to start typing. I panicked—multiple times—but then I decided to follow my own advice and take a breath or two.

A few breaths in, I realized, I did have words inside of me. Plenty of them. But the words inside of me were simply refusing to exit through my fingertips, as they usually do. There wasn’t an absence of words; there was an abundance of stubborn words.

No, not stubborn words, scared words.

For instance, I wanted to write a blog post about the month of March in our family, in which my son acted in his first community theater play and my wife ran for the school board and I published my first book. I wanted to write about how success is unrelated to ticket sales or book sales or vote counts. Success is about making our true self our lived self, regardless of who shows up to applaud.

But the truth is, my son’s show was sold out, my wife won her election, and my book debuted as a #1 New Release on Amazon, and I feared people would think me arrogant to speak so publicly of my family’s good fortune.

I wanted to write another post about grief and how our anticipation of death—and loss in general—usually takes the form of anxiety. I wanted to write about how we defend against that anxiety by becoming angry and becoming certain we know how to solve the mess of life (please see Facebook). We need to quit resisting our inevitable losses and, instead, grieve our losses ahead of time, so we can get on with truly living.

But I feared no one would want to read something so morbid over their Wednesday morning coffee.

I wanted to write another post about how we’re all making it up as we go. I wanted to write about how we all fear we’re an imposter, but of course we’re all imposters. The problem isn’t being an imposter, it’s believing we’re the only one. Because once we discover that we’re all making it up as we go, we are free to reveal ourselves, be who we truly are, and find authentic connection and belonging.

But I feared the ramifications of a published author and clinical psychologist admitting that he is still trying to figure it all out. (Apparently, this fear never goes away, no matter how many times you overcome it.)

So my words remained trapped inside of me, a huddled mass of fear and hiddenness.

A few breaths in, though, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to embrace my fear, not by writing one of those three blog posts—at least not this week—but by writing about the fear itself.

Because once you’ve embraced that it’s okay to be afraid—once you know that being scared is ordinary and inevitable and there’s no reason to be ashamed of it—fear loses its power to keep you captive. Which is why one of the most powerful things you can do is tell someone that you are afraid.

So, what if today you reached out to someone you trust and said, “I have dreams trapped inside of me. But my dreams are afraid. I have a whole huddled mass of lovely longings and holy desires and purposeful passions hunkered down inside of me, and I’m not sure how to set them free.” What would happen? I think I know what would happen.

They’d start to come loose. Leak out. Sneak through. Run free.

You see, the problem is not that we don’t know what we want to do with our life; the problem is that we don’t know what other people want us to do with our life.

The problem is not that we don’t know which direction to head; the problem is that there are usually many good directions to head, and we can usually think of at least one person who would disapprove of each one.

In Loveable I write,

Several years ago, hospice nurse Bronnie Ware posted online a list of the top regrets of her dying patient. The number one regret was this: ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ The list went viral. Why? Because her patients are fading echoes of the voice of grace—that still, small voice—within each of us, urging us to quit doing the things we think we should do with our life, and to start doing the things we want to do with our life.

A few breaths in, I started listening to the voice of grace again. Want to join me?

Breathe.

Listen.

Live.

Because remember, success is what happens when you make your true self your lived self.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Christopher J Mitchell

    For me the litmus test of a good piece of writing is that it motivates action. I didn’t get halfway through this blog before I was motivated to write about my own fear. Thank you for writing from your blockage. Thank you for sharing. It gave me freedom to share.

    #WillSmith said the best experiences this life has to offer are on other side of Fear.
    Fear is a powerful motivator. Some of our fears have to be overcome over and over again. I fear being ungrateful for everything God has done for me. So I try to live my life in gratitude. I fear not being able to help someone in their time of need. So I prepare myself for, plan for and anticipate unforeseeable catastrophes so that I may act when the time comes. I fear what people say about me even though I say that I don’t care. I do care. I fear being unloved and rejected by those that I love the most. I don’t know that all fear is unhealthy. I just know that they have to be faced, to be gone through, over and over, to be shared with those we trust. Fear is this music in the background of our lives, our soundtrack if you will. As much as we want to we may not be able to shut it off but we can grab someone we trust and dance to it. What’s your fear dance? Is it healthy?

    PS I fear hitting the post button and sharing this with people that don’t even know me like that. Here goes nothing…

    • “Fear is this music in the background of our lives, our soundtrack if you
      will. As much as we want to we may not be able to shut it off but we
      can grab someone we trust and dance to it. What’s your fear dance?”
      Christopher, you sound like a true poet!! Thank you for risking in sharing your wonderful thoughts and what a great image! Fear not! and keep moving forward in your dancing with fear. Thank you again!

      • Christopher, I second everything Jenny said! And I want you to know, you chose one of the safest places on the internet to share your writing. I can’t guarantee someone won’t come in here trolling, but the regular folks around here will appreciate everything you’ve said.

  • Maryann Arsenijevic

    Nailed it today, Kelly. Exactly what I needed to hear. I just spent 3 weeks deciding if I should accept a job offer or not, because I was afraid. Afraid of the unknown, afraid of not being good enough, of being an “imposter”, afraid it was not what my family wanted me to do, etc. I finally listened to the voice inside me, telling me that I should take a risk and dare to follow my heart, I said yes, 1 week ago, and every day I become less afraid and more excited about the new opportunity. I know the job won’t be perfect, and I won’t be perfect at it, but I feel “unafraid” for at least this moment, and it feels good.

    • Maryann, congratulations! Not because everything will now go perfectly, but because you listened to that still, small voice and exercised your courage. I don’t even know you and I’m proud of you!

  • Amy

    Absolutely! I have all sorts of things floating around inside me, aching to get out and stretch their creative legs. I keep them inside for fear of being thought irresponsible (I am, after all, a momma of 4), or wasteful, or reckless, or overcommitted (homeschooling, tutoring, Scout leader, worship singing, small group leader that I am), or even worse, failing to get anything right. Many years ago, I had a major breakthrough when I realized that all the other women in my life struggled with their insecurity (I really did believe it was just me) which freed me to authentic (my kids sometimes wish I were less so), and vulnerable. This can be applied across the board when I recognize that we all have fear, we are all worried about what others see when they observe us, we all care even when we claim we don’t. I think if we would all spend time recognizing how we are alike, we would all be more free to connect instead of pretending we don’t need to.
    Thank you!

    • Amy, I love the way that insight freed you up a little bit and I hope you’ll continue to be intentional and discerning about what you do with your time and how you choose to exercise those “creative legs.”

  • I have gone through this many times in my 10 years of blogging. There will be times I can write so easily that it flows like a river, and then there are times I am hitting the backspace button more I am writing forward. It’s completely normal to go through moments like this – in fact, I look at those moments as a way to go even deeper within to find what is there.

    We normally write what is on the top of our mind – the easy expected version of our writing, as it flows easily outward.. well maybe you need to look at this writers block as a way to go deeper than what is right there. That is what I see those moments for ME when it happens, I see them as opportunities – risks -vulnerability – moments to write about what is “not” right at the top of your mind.

    Also, try and remember, when writing, you can’t always think about what others would want to read, or what others would think, this is about writing from YOUR heart and letting people connect to that – – – because when you stop writing from within YOU and start writing just to please others, it becomes clouded, and no longer about what is really within you and your writing.

    Look at this block you had as a way to really go internal deeper – listen to these moments, pay attention to them, Your fingers will flow- trust me 🙂

    • Thank you for your encouragement, Karen! And you are exactly right about the urge to go deeper. As I’ve sat with the grief post since then, it has morphed into a totally different post and one I don’t think I’ll have any problem writing. Wise advice and a good way to help me understand that process!

  • Shannon Sprague

    You are just a gift to us all! A permission slip, a hand holding friend, a therapist, a vulnerable human being, a joy, love, and everything in between. Lucky us and thank you, once again, for using your own fears and vulnerabilities as a teaching and sharing for us all!

    • Shannon, for some reason, “permission slip” feels like one of the nicest things anyone has ever called me. Thank you! 😊

  • Mike Gates

    Happy Wednesday, Kelly. Sounds like a banner week in the Flanagan house.

    “…and I feared people would think me arrogant to speak so publicly of my family’s good fortune.” You grew up in the midwest, didn’t you? 🙂 The internet is right about one thing: haters gonna hate. You writing or not writing won’t change that.

    Hopefully the post about grief, loss & death can come out at some point. I’d like to read that. ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche is a book I found many years ago that really helped me change how I view my mortality. If you haven’t read it it is dynamite.

    And finally: “…that we’re all making it up as we go,…” is the nugget of reality. A friend and I constantly remind ourselves we’re all a bunch of stooges. Just relaxing into that ego-reducing reality is what makes life enjoyable for me. One of the best rules for living life I’ve ever received goes like this : “Don’t take yourself too damn seriously” So today, I’m going to try and follow that rule.

    • Mike, I had “haters gonna hate” in an early version of the title! And thank you for the referral to Rinpoche’s book. I’m unfamiliar with it, but I’m going to be. 😊 “We’re all a bunch of stooges.” Love it. A friend of mine always says, “There are no grown-ups.” It’s his way of saying, if someone looks like they’ve got it all together, look again.

  • DALE E KLITZKE

    This is one great post! Keep on writing and know you are appreciated!

  • Joyce Slaughter

    I am reminded of the famous Marianne Williamson quote:
    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

    I think any of us that write, either for a living or a hobby, have experienced this.

    Someone told me once, or maybe I read it in a Pressfield book, not to write for my audience, rather write for me and the audience will come. I have always found this to be true, though I also always struggle with what I write.

    • One of my favorite quotes, Joyce, thank you for bringing it to mind! And that very well may be a Pressfield. Sometimes it’s so hard to clear the room though, isn’t it? 😊

  • Judy Lawrance

    I just wish it wouldn’t be easier to say and desire to “be true to oneself” than it is to actually DO it…especially at 74 years old! I shall “breathe and listen”….
    I appreciate all you share with us!

  • gloriareading

    What a timely post for me.

    Yesterday, I decided to do something totally crazy and sort of irresponsible. I decided to take my entire family — all 9 of them, 11 total – on a dream Christmas vacation to a faraway place. I scheduled it. Paid for the hotel … then had a panic attack … literally. Everything was more expensive than I thought. Had I lost my mind? I didn’t sleep until 2AM. I was fulfilling a serious dream of many years – taking my entire family on a dream vacation – and that scared me more than NOT taking my family on a dream vacation. What if we don’t have fun? What if we get there and everything goes wrong? What if … what if … what if.

    I’m a widow, six years now. I’m a Hospice volunteer. I have experienced the brevity of life and the paralyzing fear of stepping out and trying to live again. I’ve done harder things that were painful. Why not do something hard that’s fun, albeit a little crazy, simply because I’m still alive and can.

    Then this morning I read your post.

    I’ve consciously chosen to embrace my fear and try to hide that I’m still “making it up as I go along.” But then, to tell the truth, “making it up as I go along” is the story of my life. And I’ve endured and endure my share of critics for such a life plan. 🙂

    After reading your post, I was re-connected me to my core beliefs, I began to breathe … listen … and push my lifetime imposter syndrome back into the shadows. I determined to enjoy these months of preparing for a wonderful trip with my wonderful family — with peace and joy in my heart.

    Keep writing, Kelly. You’re an inspiration.

    Gloria Reading Wall

    • Gloria, I’m so glad this post came at a time that could affirm your decision to create a wonderful memory with your family. Come January, I’m looking forward to a full report!

  • kate bean

    kelly,
    this hit a nerve with me.
    we all struggle with this of course: what significant others think we shd be doing. MY guilt says I shd be demionstrating and getting involved politically at this time. but its NOT what i have longed to do since i was young..

    I personally have so many interests & diverse aptitudes that i had to choose the most all-encompassing desire and make a radical move, to seek my joy in a setting i find more healthy than the breakneck pace of urban life. There are days i feel overwhelmed at starting over again, alone, in late middle age, and am overwhelmed at times by my own expectations and fantasies of what i want to accomplish.
    Easy Does IT as they say. One Day at a Time.
    Dreams and happiness get built with determination and devotion to a deeply felt belief.
    Speaking of dreams, since my early 20’s i’ve had 2 recurring dreams…one of being lost in a huge urban jungle, anxiously trying to get back to some thing i’m supposed to be doing, or people i have obligations to, or a boat thats leaving without me……….the other: a joyous anticipation of what lies around the next bend in a mountain trail i’ve never been on…….now that is a little simplistic but the choice is clear, isn’t it??? What’s taken me so long was trying to please other people along the way so they wd love me!!.

    Stumbling, crawling, and asking for Divine guidance are all acceptable in this endeavor to live our own truth. Recommended: increased tolerance for 1) extreme feelings, 2) confusion with a multitude of opportunities to be sorted out, 3) learning to wait instead of jumping on something to end the agony of indecision. A sense of humor and good friends who dont mince their words also are a huge assets in this lifesaving undertaking.
    “Happiness is the result of inner maturity”—Matthieu Ricard

    • Kate, there is SO much wisdom in your story and in your courage. As a guy who moved his family to a small, rural town less than two years ago, I can certainly relate. When the open air calls you, even in your dreams, it is best to respond to the call. Thank you so much for sharing all of this!

  • David K

    Ah…humanity. Thanks, Kelly. Sometimes we humans who have evolved these complex cognitive and neural systems live at a price that leaves us to having to navigate a web of emotions and all this thinking, thinking, thinking. Some days I’d rather be that elk I just saw cut across the meadow above my house…or maybe just singing away like that meadowlark. Sweet simplicity.

    • Boy, you are getting at something really profound, David. The great blessing of the human mind, and what seems to be the curse of the human mind. One of my favorite spiritual mentors, Henri Nouwen, often said, paraphrasing, “What we long for we already possess.” I wonder if somewhere within you you already possess the sweet simplicity of the meadowlark, and the practice of life is quieting the mind long enough to hear it.

  • Dori Anne Abbott

    How does this concept play out (living one’s true self) when that choice hurts others? For instance, my first husband, and the father of my three children is now living his “authentic self” as a gay man living with a 23 year old partner. How do I live my authentic self in the face of overwhelming grief and pain? It’s been 17 years, and another marriage, but I still find myself “gun-shy” about living my life. What if I caused that kind of pain that he did? Uggh. Deep concepts. I’m circling all around, but I’m not on it yet.

    • JC

      Don’t keep your soap in the box my friend. (Read this article to understand what I mean: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2017/04/the-just-shall-live-by-faith?lang=eng)
      Please don’t assume that living your true self involves reckless abandon and carelessness about others around you. If someone hurts other people pursuing their own “happiness”, they’ve done it wrong. I would venture to say they are not truly happy and they’ve missed some key principles of universal truth. Your core is good. The best thing about your good core is you can utilize that to seek out and find the best in everyone else. If you identify the best in everyone else with that ever so accurate internal compass of light within you, you cannot hurt anyone. The concept of love is founded on enlightenment. Love makes you and the one you love better, not worse. Love forgives, forgets and raises up. Love doesn’t get hurt, it heals hurt. Search for the love inside of you, share it with someone fearlessly (as one who is living their true self) and you will find strength, and you will gain more love to share with more people and on and on.

    • Dori, I’m so sorry to hear what you’ve been through. This question gets at the only point in Loveable where I encourage readers to seek professional counseling if they have questions. Because the intricacies of each story are so complicated, it can take many hours of careful discernment and wise counsel to understand the healthiest ways to live our true self. I hope you’ll do so as you make decisions going forward.

      • Dori Anne Abbott

        Thanks. I do love the book. Reading it for a second time. Once would not do!

  • Patricia

    Wow! For someone with writer’s block, this blog certainly doesn’t reflect your inability to feel you could write this week. I love that you took the time to not only accept your struggle but to share it with us. It inspired me to start moving with the next phase of my life. Thanks for being you!

  • Linda Granholm Myers

    Lovely. Thank you!

  • Another wonderful post, Kelly! Thank you! I am not in that space at this time in my life, but I have been there and it is a good reminder of what to do the next time I find myself in that same space again.

    • Great to hear from you, Jenny, I hope you’re well! It sounds like you might be. 😊

  • JC

    “…success is what happens…” I fear my measuring stick for success is broken. The worst part is that my measuring stick for success is not a singular measure to base all parts and pieces of every metaphorical or metaphysical aspiration. It changes dimensions and the scope of what I’m measuring every time I look to pinpoint how I might measure success. I fear my dreams have little basis in reality and people, who I love, who count on me, would not understand how to accept any effort on my part to live those dreams. I’m not sure of myself and I fear taking steps to live my true self, wondering if what I think is my true self is “true”. But, I know all that stuff in my head that scares me is not “reality”. Reality is me; now; breathing, listening, and loving.

    • Oh yes, JC, the success measuring stick usually looks a bit like a dangling carrot, always moving just out of reach. I hope you will be blessed with people who can help you discern the best steps in living out your true self!

  • Dillon Culbreth

    “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Ernest Hemingway
    … and you told stories .. life in bits and pieces .. and the theme of Wild Goose 2016 .. stories … thanks for all you do!

    • One of my favorite quotes ever, Dillon. Thank you for that affirmation.

  • Grace

    Morning coffee disappeared long ago as did this afternoon cup. All that’s left is dregs. Yet, thankfully, I hadn’t yet read your morning post. So my coffee-less break is timely! The truth is, my novel pages are spread out before me, my outline over all that’s written and is yet to be written alludes me, and my new beginning consists of a few worn out lines of erased words. I feel (as I often do) like an imposter and my writing terrifies me (as it often does). Countless times I’ve attempted to shoo those very words away from my writing corner. How’s that for a bizarre clashing of worlds? Your blog is an intuitive therapy session…how marvelous indeed! Thank you Kelly! “Ready, ready break!” is perhaps the next intuitive phrase to which I will listen and leap back into the possibility of some wonderful words waiting for release. 🙂

  • Adrianne

    Thank you. I’d always thought being afraid of expressing my desires and creativity was about myself, not about anyone else. I will need to reread this blog a few times to let the meaning sink in.

  • Caryn Candia

    I sat down—multiple times—to write you a comment, and I couldn’t bring myself to start typing. I panicked—multiple times—but then I decided to follow your advice and take a breath or two. 🙂

    I read other comments first, and feared mine wouldn’t be nearly as well-crafted, or as beautifully creative as Shannon calling you a permission slip. All I could think of was, AWESOME! Surely someone who calls herself a writer should be able to come up with something better than the good ol’ generic “awesome” to describe your post.

    So I thought I should spend a few more moments to come up with something much more articulate to communicate how much I appreciate all your posts – this one in particular. But then I feared that if I gave you too much heart-felt applause, your wife might read this and think I was hitting on you, which would be terrible because I absolutely adore my husband, and though I’ve never met your wife, from how you described her in Loveable, I think she’s absolutely amazing and consider her to be the friend I haven’t met yet.

    So, I’ll leave it at this: Thanks so much for encouraging this fearful imposter to be okay with being afraid. I have a feeling I will experience a lot less writer’s block and “life block” from now on. And of course, three cheers (each) for a sold out show, a school board election, and a #1 new release that was “awesome”!

  • As always, your post is enchanting Kelly.
    Your family’s abundance is our abundance and there is plenty to go around. I celebrate yours with all of you!
    Grieving our losses allows us to eventually celebrate them. In “living” through these times we can then help others move through grief and loss…. an inescapable journey.
    I love making it up as I go! How boring life would be if we had to follow a script! We just need to be creative with our story.
    And then there is fear…..I think success is who we become on our journey, how we embrace our fears and how we become more in spite of them. We become much more as we look fear in the eye and see where it’s taking take us.

  • gloriareading

    I just noticed the cover of your new book, Loving, and it prompted me to wonder if you are familiar with the book Love, by the late educator Leo Buscaglia. He had a profound effect on me.

  • Tina Andrews

    What if you have been your “lived self” for so long you don’t even know who your true self is? where do you start?

  • Sheila McGarey

    Oh I SO HOPE you’ll write that post on “grieving our losses ahead of time”, Kelly! I recently requested a conversation with 2 of my sisters

  • Congratulations Dr. Flanagan on your families successes. I am glad you told us because I like to hear about the good things too. my frequent comment “you gotta take the good with the bad.”