By Kel Weinhold, Productivity Coach at The Professor Is In
Let’s talk about fear.
About being in a state of alarm.
I feel that way about writing this post.
Fear that by seeming to go back to “business as usual” after two weeks of posts centering Black academics’ lives, I will send a message that the fight for a racial justice is somehow over, or not central to my or The Professor is In’s mission.
Fear that by saying, “let’s talk about how to unwire fear,” I will send a message to Black readers that I think their fear of being killed, which is based on repeated REAL evidence, can be simply unwired by a change in perspective.
Fear that by saying, “let’s talk about productivity,” that readers will think that I am saying it is reasonable to expect to be productive in the midst of a global pandemic and a revolution for Black lives.
Fear that I will miss something in my advice that reinforces white supremacy, that contributes to anti-Blackness, that creates harm rather than offering respite from the thoughts that keep us from our potential.
Following my own advice, I have been conversing with my fear and asking it to sit to the side for a minute. Reminding myself that I can’t control outcomes, I can only control my actions. And what I have to offer this community is guidance on how to come to your academic work as your whole selves and how to do it with as little damage as you can control. Fully understanding that harm will be visited upon you, but that you don’t have to join in.
We are in the middle of a seemingly abandoned global pandemic. We are in the middle of what appears to be a slow motion economic train headed for a brick wall. We are devoid of leadership in the White House. Black women and men are still being killed by police and Breonna Taylor’s killers have still not been held accountable.
We have a lot to be afraid of.
Still, no small number of you are determined to be productive. And in the process, could be walking right into another source of fear. Your writing.
The difference is that this one is not an actual threat to your well being. It is all imagined.
Let me explain.
In other posts and webinars, I have talked about how our reptilian, lizard brain freaks out in the face of a perceived attack. How the amygdala is designed to do one of three things: fight, flee or freeze. (I am sure you have experienced each of those responses in the past 3 ½ months.) I have also written about the neuroscience of “the way your brain fires is the way it’s wired.”
So, let’s say at some point you sat down to write and something went wrong and you felt really insecure about it. You wrote but you left with a certain level of anxiety. Then you came back again and you had a little surge of anxiety about what might happen this time. Maybe you tried to write and it got a little mucked up, like most writing always does, and another little spurt of anxiety popped in. Cut to the next time you come back to writing and there’s an even bigger fear. And again. And again. And again. Interaction by interaction the fear gets wired in. At some point, it’s not actually the writing at all that’s causing you anxiety, it’s just considering thinking about writing.
Again, I am going to remind you that this is manufactured fear. There is no actual threat to your personhood, no risk of immediate death. You are imagining a bad outcome. The drag is that our brains don’t know the difference between the real threat (COVID, racism, job loss) and imagined threat (our fear of fucking up an article). It gets wired in as a threat just the same.
It may sound like I am belittling the fear that gets wired in. I am not. I am saying that for our bodies and brains, the fear is real because we have wired it in as real. AND, we have the same power to remove the threat as we had to install it. It just takes awareness, effort and time. (Just like anti-racism work.)
To overlay all those times you sat down and thought “OH. NO. WHAT AM I DOING?!” you need to have repeated moments of sitting down and having a not frightening, not terrifying experience.
To do that we need to first notice that alarm, observe it. See it for what it is: Your imagination. Not real. Outside the actual experience. And then bring the feeling you want to have and tie THAT to your writing.
Here’s a practice to try.
When you are ready to write (for this experiment, it helps to have a little bit of a plan or a rough outline but nothing too serious), sit down in front of your computer, and close your eyes for a second. Take a really deep slow breath all the way down into your belly, like what meditation folks call “soft belly breathing,” all the way down where we keep those nerves clenched and all that tension. Just do that for a few breaths, allowing your breath to fill all the way down, relaxing the nervous system that’s freaking out. It might feel a little weird, all that stress loosening up. It’s ok. Right in the moment, you are fine.
You have your eyes closed; you’re breathing really deeply. Now let your mind wander about and let the ideas flow for a second. What is it that you want to write about? Let your mind wander a little bit more. No matter where you are in your work, no matter where you think you should be, just let it go. What does your mind wander to about your work.
You are simply allowing ease and curiosity — the thing that got you started on the PhD in the first place — to come to the surface.
Then type a few sentences. Doesn’t matter what. Whatever’s in your head. All you are doing here is starting to lay down new wiring: Ease = writing. Writing = ease..
As you keep writing, if you’re starting to feel the fear wind up, close your eyes and go back to deep breathing. Again, let your mind wander around what it is you’re trying to say — not chasing anything, not trying to get to an answer — but instead just letting the thoughts go.
And write another sentence.
If you manage to write one fearless sentence a day in the midst of a global pandemic and revolution, you are doing great!
And if you can’t, don’t let yourself or anyone else tell you that you are failing. You are human. And freezing is a completely reasonable response to threat.