Prioritizing Self-Care Over Publicity
There’s a common perception that authors must participate in public speaking, and that if you do not participate in events or “perform well” as an author on these panels or Q&As, etc., then you’re not doing your job. I would often hide my social anxiety because of fear of how this would affect my book sales. I was prioritizing other’s beliefs, expectations, and, frankly, capitalism, over my own self-care. In a community where we often say that self-care is the number one priority, I have also seen punishing conversations and comments about any author who needs that support and understanding for their self-care when wanting to take a step back from publicity, such as suggestions that they don’t deserve the publisher’s support.
If you’re an author that struggles with publicity and events and panels and interviews and anything where you need to speak and be seen and heard—I feel you, strongly. I want to post about some of the ways I’ve been learning to handle publicity with the help of a coach. I hope it resonates:
First, I spoke to my agent and editors about my needs. Before events, I often have full-on panic and anxiety attacks where I dissociate, frozen, unable to think/move/feel. This clearly isn’t healthy, but in the past, I would force myself to do the events anyway, smiling while I felt like my heart was about to implode, thinking that this was necessary as an author and afraid of being punished. I would even seek out extra events on my own, trying desperately to sell books, because I was convinced that no book sales meant the end of my career. (And, honestly, even if it did—is flooding my nervous system with stress and being worn down by years of anxiety and panic worth traditionally publishing my books? Maybe the answer differs from person to person, but personally, my answer is no.) But when I actually began to state my needs, I was pleasantly surprised. I have only ever worked with people who were understanding and gave me the space from public speaking that I needed, and I think that most publishers would accommodate an author’s needs.
Maybe it’s true that, behind the scenes, publishers are deprioritizing anyone who does not meet their publicity requirements, but if it is, I would still rather accept that and prioritize my well-being. Publishing can sometimes feel like a circus of a popularity contest where the author becomes a character that we have to sell in addition to our books. I’ve had to remind myself that what matters most will always be the book itself, and giving myself space to prioritize my self-care has brought me so much more joy than performing this author character, so much more space and time and energy, which ultimately makes me healthier and, so, also makes me a better writer… which, ultimately, is even better for my career in the long run, than forcing myself to do countless events, exhausting and stressing myself, taking that energy away from my writing and creativity. We’re all individuals with very specific designs and blueprints and emotional needs. Finding the path that best suits our own alignment instead of following a path someone else says is necessary might just be the way to our individual successes.
If you’re someone who resonates with the panic, the fear, the anxiety I described, I’ve been learning how the underlying effects of my various traumas have created these reactions and responses. I won’t go into the details of my trauma, but working to uncover and heal trauma, for me, has been the second most important step in handling my struggles with publicity. There’s a common phrase that goes something like: You can’t heal trauma while you’re in it. It was difficult to heal trauma when I was being re-traumatized with every book event I did several times a week. I needed to stop the constant stream of events first before having space to breathe and enjoy my existence and my life stress-free, out of survival mode, and to begin the work of looking into the past and why it is that I literally feel like I’m about to die whenever I need to do any sort of public speaking.
Tangent: I also want to make it clear that I don’t think any author needs to do any events, ever. Personally, I want to learn how to do publicity without feeling this overwhelming anxiety for my own growth, to show myself that I am safe and that I can be seen and heard without feeling fear—and because beside the fear has also been joy and laughter and fun in connecting with other people as we speak about writing and books. I’ve enjoyed panels and Q&As and classroom visits, even when flooded with stress. I would love to enjoy those events even more, free of anxiety. It’s my choice to have an end goal of participating in public speaking events, but I don’t think this needs to be everyone’s end goal. If your end goal is to say no, thanks, I don’t want to do events at all, then I’m glad you’ve figured out what is right for you.
So, back to the regularly scheduled programming: doing the underlying work is necessary to heal the long-term, but I know how difficult it can be to struggle with the short-term. Learning more about my trauma isn’t going to help me in time for the event I have next week when I can’t control my body’s physical reactions, my nervous system’s response, making me freeze and dissociate. So, third, here are the physical pre-performance body hacks that help to regulate my nervous system, a few things I’ve learned on my own via reading, documentaries, and with the help of therapy:
First, it helps to ground by trying to feel the sensations of panic/fear/anxiety in the body, and then naming the sensation—so, for example, calling my dissociation my freeze and flight response. The amygdala shuts down the prefrontal cortex, which has a function over thought, cognitive control. Feeling and then naming the emotion forces the prefrontal cortex back online. It also helps to remind me that I am not this response. I’m not my anxiety, I’m not my dissociation. This is something that my body is experiencing.
Breathing: I have asthma, so breathing is already hard for me, but I was really shocked when I realized recently that I’m pretty much always taking shallow breaths from the chest. I’m almost constantly in a low-level state of anxiety. I’ve been trying to focus more on breathing in general, to help regulate the nervous system more, so that when it comes time to the events, I will have an easier time of grounding myself so that I don’t freeze and dissociate. I try to breathe from the stomach, and to let out longer exhales, which slow down the heart rate. There are also many google-able box-breathing methods, and one I’ve learned recently is 478: breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, exhale for eight seconds. I’ve also looked into breathwork—there are a ton of exercises on YouTube, but a recent favorite is this one: Healing Through Breath.
More grounding techniques: there are a ton to search online, but popular techniques include the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 senses: name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste. I’m a tactile person, so having small things to play with in my hand during the event can also keep me present.
Ice has helped me a lot recently: placing a bag of ice on the chest, neck, shoulders, and back brings me back to focus.
I say affirmations. Affirmations are another technique that might not necessarily help short-term. I don’t believe my affirmations at first. They’re thoughts that I have to say repeatedly, sometimes for months, before I can really start to feel it energetically. A couple of my favorites: I accept myself unconditionally, exactly as I am. I love myself unconditionally, and I am worthy of love from myself and others, exactly as I am.
And, finally, I love to hug myself while I say these affirmations, and to remind myself that I am safe.
When I first began, I only ever saw authors speak about public speaking and events as if it was a necessary evil, which wasn’t helpful for me as someone who struggles so much with anxiety. If you’re looking for more ways to continue learning about some concepts I mentioned, check out:
The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, podcast episode on Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
Rewiring the Brain by Joe Dispenza—a TV series that helped me a lot, but Dispenza also has several books and clips online to watch