Avoidance is a type of tantrum that is debilitating to creatives. It stops businesses from growing. It stops projects from being finished. It causes problems of overwhelm, frustration, and dissatisfaction. The question is: How do you get over it?
The notion of a creative’s tantrum is one that I first encountered in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. At this juncture I don’t recall precisely whereabouts in the book it first appeared, but my feeling is that it has something to do with creative u-turns. A creative u-turn is when you jump into a new project, get all excited, maybe even announce it to the world, and then… something happens that stops it from happening or being completed. It is, in effect, a method of you blocking yourself. That block can look like car breakdowns, failing to email people, not meeting deadlines, “life getting in the way”. Its character is one of avoidance.
Avoidance versus procrastination
Avoidance is different from procrastination, though it is similar. Procrastination putting something off until a future time, to delay or defer something. I’ll do that later, is a procrastinatory thought. Avoidance, in contrast, is ‘an action of emptying‘.
The ‘action of emptying’ is a powerful way to remember what avoidance really is, because it is akin to emptying your cup so that you can drink something else. It is not merely putting the task off until tomorrow. It is getting rid of that task. Abandoning it. Casting it out, away! This is why it is a creative tantrum.
If you’ve ever watched a very young child throw a tantrum, it often looks like this:
- more whining
- whining becomes anger
- anger becomes rage
- rage becomes throwing things away
- throwing things becomes biting self or objects
- biting self or objects becomes tears
- tears becomes external soothing
- external soothing becomes comfort.
For a creative, an avoidance tantrum looks similar:
- whining that you’re too busy/don’t have time
- more whining, or refusal to look at the situation
- frustration and possibly anger (especially if it makes you feel judged; this is fear-based)
- actively not engaging in the activity
- wallowing in the self-inflicted sadness of not doing it
- seeking external soothing (food, stimulants, exercise, sex, streaming TV, social media…)
- external soothing becomes comfort.
The problem is that tantrums compound pain
The key difference is that if you’re a creative exhibiting a tantrum, then by emptying yourself of that task you are merely compounding pain. If the task is not for someone else (such as a service, job, or deliverable you promised), then it’s for you. The pain of not doing someone else’s task is often financial, in terms of refunds or compensation. But the pain of not doing your own task is often a deep inner dissatisfaction. You can try to squash that inner dissatisfaction in many ways, from workaholism to alcoholism. You can even get to the point where you can pretend that it’s gone away. But it hasn’t gone away and at some point it will resurface, often in a different form.
Julia Cameron’s view of the different forms that dissatisfaction can take is one that resonated with me, so I’ll share it. It’s that it comes out in frustration with other people. If you are not honouring your inner artist, then your inner artist feels slighted, frustrated, annoyed, disrespected, and un-cared-for. This then emerges in feelings that you ‘feel’ in response to other people and external situations: Frustration, irritation, annoyance. In my experience, keeping my inner artist happy results in a dearth of those emotions and a heightened sense of calm in my outer life. Other people are suddenly not the trespassers I imagined them to be, but welcomed companions. This is entirely because I am calm within myself, and know that my creativity is is being used, honoured, and explored.
In a young child’s tantrum, the pain often becomes physical pain. And quickly. They’ll often hurt themselves. This inspires someone else to go and comfort them somehow, to stop the ‘alarming’ behaviour.
In a creative adult’s tantrum, the pain is often hidden and difficult to identify. It may become physical pain eventually. But it is more likely to become pain within relationships: You not honouring that creative relationship with yourself is reflected in your external relationships with others.
The longer that your tantrum continues, the greater the pain will be.
Allow me to give you an example, from one of my mentees. Her tantrum has been in avoiding the administration side of her business. This becomes a painful problem of many layers. Firstly, it affects her own sense of ‘busyness’, which I prefer to term overwhelm because it’s a sense of feeling completely submerged (emotional pain). Secondly, it affects her clients, who start to feel neglected, unsure, and unloved (emotional pain). Thirdly, the pain becomes a time-sink (physical pain of exhaustion) because catching up takes hours and hours and hours and hours. This then becomes a secondary time-sink because the catching up affects the doing. The loop then continues.
This is what I mean by ‘tantrums compound pain’.
How to get over it: Take Action
The phrase ‘take action’ always reminds me of Tony Robbins, whose enthusiastic take massive action has resonated in my mind for about 20 years. Whether or not you consider your action ‘massive’ is not the point. The point is that you do something about it.
This means that you have to keep the task in your bucket. You cannot cast it away. You cannot fill your bucket with something else (like Instagram or Netflix). You must turn your mind to the thing that you are avoiding, face it like a grown-up, and do something about it.
Any action, however small, will get you moving. It will help. It won’t feel like it, if you’ve been avoiding emptying your inbox and your inbox currently has 2000 emails in it. But it will unstick your feet and move your energy in the right direction. That, too, is a Robbins-ism: Energy flows where attention goes.
Taking action is taking responsibility
As a creative person you probably have a bit of an internal shudder at the idea of responsibility. Creatives are free-flowing spirits, right? Uh uh. Functional creatives–that is, those who don’t exhibit negative behaviours and attitudes, to either alcohol or poverty–are deeply responsible. They know that the Muse must find them working. They know that if they write even 100 words a day then in 10 days they’ll have 1000 words written. They know that if they handle their emails they’ll have the mental space needed to ponder the shape of a new project.
Responsibility means being answerable to yourself for your actions. If you’ve got a vision of yourself as trustworthy, reliable, and amazing… but you bail out on your projects or tasks… then how can you possibly be the person you want to be? Be the person you need to be to achieve your dreams. Be responsible, and take some action.
Taking action means feeling the horrible feelings
It’s true that facing whatever you’ve been avoiding can feel awful. It’s also true that nobody wants to feel gross. However, part of the task is feeling those feelings in their fullness, so that you can eliminate them. Avoiding your feelings will take you back to the beginning of the loop!
In a great many situations, the worst thing that you imagine happening isn’t as bad in reality as in your imagination. This is why envisioning the worst possible outcome is such a useful tool, and is evangelised by everyone from Tim Ferris to Vinh Giang: It allows you to come face-to-face with that result, understand that it actually might not be that bad, and then create a pathway around it.
The benefit of feeling the horrible feelings is that once you’ve consciously allowed yourself to wallow in them, they seem to disappear. I liken this to an awareness meditation: As soon as you pay attention to one thing, your attention shifts. It’s like water. Listening, breathing, feeling, thinking, listening, listening, thinking…
Do you need help getting avoidance out of your life?
Consistently and continuously facing what’s in front of you (as opposed to what you imagine) is sometimes tricky to do without ‘outside eyes’. The good news about that is that this is something I can help you with.
There are three ways I can help you:
- Writer therapy.
Coaching allows you to learn from me; mentoring allows you to learn from yourself; and writer therapy is an appointment-based service that helps you get through whatever is blocking you right now.
To discover more about any of these services, please email me: