Overcoming Anxiety (of Public Writing)

As I have not written publicly for a while, largely dictated by circumstance (being on medical elective without access to a keyboard), the basic level of anxiety that I associate with public writing has begun to re-appear. The liberating feeling that I felt after overcoming this hurdle for the first time has largely worn off.

I appreciate that nothing I do will ever please everyone. Even the first article I wrote, for which I received a great deal of positive feedback, will no doubt have been viewed negatively by some. Yet I still find it hard not to care what everyone will think. I harbor worries that people will see me as arrogant, crazy, neurotic, weird, obsessed, stupid or all of the above; that people will be bored and that no-one will want to read what I write. And while this is a likely response of some, should I care?

What is the appropriate response to this? I need to learn to write for myself before I write for others. I want to stop predicting the judgments of others and learn not to imagine or care about their responses while I write as this can be stifling. I believe this principle can be applied to life more broadly also. I want to overcome the anxiety, the second-guessing and the unrealistic expectations that I place on myself when I think about doing something new.

In honesty, part of me thinks that writing in public shouldn’t be this big of a deal. And for many I’m sure it’s not. But then I think back about how hard I used to find it to stand up and speak in public and I appreciate that’s just the way I am. I spent a lot of time at school terrified to stand out, afraid of being asked to talk in front of a classroom and desperate to fit in. However, after forcing myself to face situations that made me feel uncomfortable I now rarely have a problem with public speaking and would consider myself confident in this domain.

At university, we were taught about two techniques used for overcoming phobias, termed flooding and systematic desensitisation. For those that are not familiar with these concepts, using flooding to overcome a spider phobia would involve being exposed to lots of spiders and forced to remain with them until the phobic response subsides. Systematic desensitisation is more gradual; for example starting with pictures of spiders, then videos, then the real thing — each time becoming more comfortable before moving on to the next step.

Although I’m not sure ‘phobia’ is the best word for describing how I feel about public writing, the same principles can be applied. It would be difficult to self-impose a flooding technique without some seriously committed friends but the principles of systematic desensitisation are more easily applicable. If I force myself to write and publish what I write on a regular basis, I feel this would be a positive step towards seeing public writing as not being such a big deal, being less self-conscious about it, and ultimately enabling me to use the medium of public writing to serve the greater good rather than what I am currently writing, which may be regarded by some as purposeless, egotistical introspection.

So that’s what I’m going to do: I will just write. I will have no expectations about what I will write or the responses that I will receive. Even if not a single person reads it, I will not consider the exercise a failure. I will write what I feel like writing about at that time and not base my own evaluation on the responses (or lack of) from others.

I will begin a 5-day period (as soon as a couple of things that are up in the air at the moment become sorted) during which I will write every morning and, no matter what I write, I will publish it on Medium and share the link on my Facebook and Twitter. And I’m pretty confident the world won’t end.

Data Scientist + Junior Doctor in London, Cambridge medicine grad, striving to improve healthcare through technology and education. chrislovejoy.me

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