3 Ways to Channel Your Fears into Creativity

Meera Lee Patel
Jan 4, 2018 8:47PM

Portrait of Meera Lee Patel.

After six years of working as a book editor, Meera Lee Patel quit her publishing job to become a freelance illustrator. In the years prior, she taught herself to draw and paint, and developed an affinity for watercolor, drawn to the medium’s spontaneous nature and rich, translucent hues. Patel developed her own style—swirling visions of nature, often peppered with upbeat aphorisms in jaunty capital letters—and hustled to get her work in front of the eyeballs of art directors. Along the way, she faced stress, anxiety, and the insecurities that come with being a self-taught artist—but learned that creating new work, and transcending her fears, could push her to become better.

Now a best-selling author and accomplished illustrator, Patel just released her second book, My Friend Fear: Finding Magic in the Unknown. In it, through her own essays and art, as well as the wise words of famous writers and artists (from James Baldwin to Charlotte Rampling), Patel reflects on her experiences overcoming fear and encourages readers to recognize fear as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle. Here, Patel shares some advice for fellow artists, writers, and other individuals.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House.


1. Lose the imposter syndrome

The imposter syndrome is designed to make us feel like failures, even if we’re doing our very best; and especially when our very best is more than enough. It tells us that no matter how skilled we are, all of our achievements are mistakes—and that any successes were arrived at by an accidental stroke of luck.

Artists who suffer from imposter syndrome find it difficult to continue making work because they carry a perpetual fear of being outed as a fraud. The imposter syndrome can keep you from making your best work, and worse, it can keep you from being who you really are.

Are there parts of your creative life that are currently on hold because of fear? Imagine a different life, one that exists not without fear, but with a different kind of fear: one that encourages you to examine it. The next time you feel like a stranger inside your own body, ask yourself, ‘Do I deserve this opportunity? Have I worked hard for my success? Why do I feel it is unearned?’ Answer these questions honestly. Face your fear of being outed as imposter, and you’ll unleash a slew of creativity that has been waiting for you to find it—not because it came to you accidentally, but because it was always inside you.  

2. Approach your fear with curiosity

When it comes to pushing ourselves creatively, our fear can hold us back from experimenting and taking chances, which means our work never evolves. We’re afraid of trying anything new because the fear of failure is always standing next to us. What if this new project falls flat? What if the hours, days, or months you pour into developing a new aesthetic end up being a waste of time? What if the new style of music you create drives off your audience?

The fear of failure ensures that we are continually standing still—we might be safe here, in this place that we’ve always known and become comfortable with—but we’ll never truly feel satisfied.

The next time you feel cautious about challenging yourself creatively, explore your fear. Ask yourself, ‘What am I afraid of? If no one could see it, what would my work look like? If I knew that I’d be successful, what would I try?’ Pinpoint exactly where you most want your creativity to take you, and then take a step towards that place. Take chances in your work and allow each experience to surprise you. The best part about failure is that although it can be disappointing, it can never take away your ability to try again.  

Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

3. Stop ignoring your fears

Fear has the power to stop us daily. It stops us emotionally, physically, and creatively. But, instead of acknowledging our fears, which feels defeating, we tend to ignore them. We stick to the way things are because so far, it’s served us well—we haven’t been hurt or disappointed in the ways we’re afraid to be. But ask yourself, ‘Do I feel whole? Have I experienced the entire spectrum of human emotion? Has my work reflected everything I’ve experienced? Can I say that I’ve tried my hardest?’

When I feel myself cowering under the weight of what scares me, I consider this: So much of my creativity has yet to unfold. There are innumerable things that haven’t happened yet—in fact, so many things haven’t been given the chance to happen because I am afraid.

What we hate to admit to ourselves is that living in fear doesn’t stretch us—it doesn’t introduce us to the wonders inside the world or the wonders inside of ourselves. When you shrink one area of your life, every other part of your life suffers, too.

There is no beauty in perfection. There is beauty in challenge, adversity, failure. There is beauty in rejection and in carrying large pain, knowing you have the ability to stand with it within you. The beauty is in the rising—in creating strength and determination from the places where fear lives.

Meera Lee Patel
Get the Artsy app
Download on the App StoreGet it on Google Play
Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019