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How To Overcome Your Biggest Reading Fears

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Thought work has changed my life. In the same way that finding an ideal combination of medication and mindful movement helps to manage my anxiety and depression, thought work—which is the simple way of saying “thinking about my thinking”—has changed my every day, moment-to-moment experiences. Thought work was introduced to me via a required course on life coaching during my 500-hour yoga teacher training, and through my own sessions with clients and my personal work, I’ve grown leaps and bounds into getting out of the grooves of some of the easy, but not useful, thought patterns in my life.

Yoga life coaching is one area of life coaching, which encompasses so many different arenas. Unlike therapy, coaching is about where you are in the moment. It relies on right now, as opposed to working to uncover things from the past that lead to the patterns you’re using right now; this is why it’s often a fabulous complement to therapy. Our brains aren’t hardwired, and it’s our neuroplasticity that allows us to change the ways we think about things as we work to untangle the patterns we are used to in order to build new ones.

Much of the philosophy behind it can be attributed to writers like Byron Katie (Loving What Is is a good place to start) and to T.K.V. Desikachar (which is where the yoga part of the label comes from). I’ve found there to be many excellent podcasts out there, too, that dig into life coaching, including the marathon-worthy Unf*ck Your Brain with Kara Loewentheil.

What everything boils down to in thinking about our thinking is quite simple—which doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s easy. Our thoughts create our feelings which create our response. If we think “I’m cold,” it triggers the feeling of being cold (maybe you get goosebumps or shiver), which leads to putting on a sweater. If we think “my sister hates me,” the thought could create any number of feelings, including worry about seeing that sister or anger about seeing that sister, which then leads to whatever often predictable pattern in behavior (it could be picking fights or ignoring conversation with the sister, whatever the thing is that you always seem to do).

Thought work is about recognizing those patterns, then asking yourself a couple of questions about the initial thought: Is this a fact or is it an interpretation? Is this thought useful to me?

If you want to change a thought, then you do the work of unpacking the thought and turning it around so that you build a better thought and put that thought to practice.

Like I said: simple, but not easy.

This methodology can be tremendously useful when it comes to your reading life. It might not seem related, but it is.

We all have myriad thoughts about who we are as readers, fears we have as readers, and experiences that we believe shape who we are as readers. Using the methods above, though, we can change our thought patterns and begin to let go of the beliefs that we’ll never be good enough and really enjoy every single moment we have with our reading lives.

Note that all of this is a simplification, but one that’s simple enough to grasp and understand, and thereby simple enough to begin to apply. Thinking about thinking is tough, and it’s even tougher to put the well-worn thoughts aside and allow new ones in.

Let me begin with a personal example before delving into 12 common thoughts readers have about their reading lives and how to retrain your brain if you find yourself stuck in any. Perusing Goodreads, I noticed a good friend finished a book I’d also read. I liked the review she left, since she seemed to be the only other person who read the book, and my brain thought to itself, “she reads so much and so widely and how come you can’t also read that widely and write about everything from picture books to adult nonfiction on audio?” This is a thought that could make me feel inadequate easily.

But rather than beat myself up, I noticed the thought, told my brain thanks for thinking it but that I wouldn’t be feeling or acting upon it, and instead, came up with a new thought. That new thought was this: I read an amazing array of fiction and nonfiction for all ages in so many formats and at the right pace for my life. That thought, rather than making me feel inadequate, led me to feel gratitude for the ability to listen to audiobooks when I get ready in the morning, excited to share reviews of books I have read and loved, and happy to be interested in so many different things.

The initial thought was that someone else read much wider and deeper than me. I stopped it there before it could become the feeling of shame for not reading more, which would lead to any number of behaviors. It also is just not a helpful thought. I changed the thought to how I read widely and perfectly for the life I live, leading to the feelings of gratitude and joy, which lead to the action of continuing to read the way I do.

Let’s put this to practice with some more reading- and book-related thoughts, and hopefully help you change the way you live your reading life.

When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of this work, remember this: asking yourself questions about the thoughts you have will forever change the way you experience and think about your thoughts. 

  • That person reads so many books a year. I could never read that many, and therefore I’m not a real book person.

The thought here is not helpful. Where does it help you to disconnect with the title of “real book person,” and more, what does it help to note that someone else reads more books than you per year?

That, by the way, is an interpretation and not a fact.

This thought leads to the feeling of inadequacy and guilt, particularly for someone who has identified as a reader. There’s also a feeling of shame, too.

A better thought to practice here is this: I’m a book person because I read books.

There’s no attachment to an outcome. There’s no interpretation here. This is a helpful thought that can lead to feelings that feel good. Those good feelings will lead to picking up one’s next book.

  • Even if I don’t like this book, what if it gets better in the next chapter? What if I miss out on a great read by not finishing the book?

Someone with an economics-angled brain would talk about cost-benefits analysis and sunk cost and other really logical things that might give you resources to close the thought off for a moment (before it inevitably comes back again later because you haven’t actually changed the thought).

But it might be better here to ask whether this thought is helpful.

The thought here is that the book might get better if you keep reading. The feeling experienced is that of fear—you might miss out on a great story. The action or behavior is to continue reading the book, even though you don’t like it.

A better thought depends on whether the thought is actually helpful. If you don’t want to quit a book, then change the thought to something along the lines of, “I recognize this book isn’t one I particularly enjoy, but I’d like to see how it ends.” There’s an outcome—seeing how the book ends—but there’s not an attachment to how that outcome emerges (in other words, you aren’t anticipating loving it or hating it).

If the thought isn’t helpful, then a better thought might be something like “I read x-number of pages/chapters and it’s not grabbing me. I will pick up something else.” These are neutral thoughts; you aren’t captivated by the book after so many pages, and therefore, you’re going to move on to something else. You don’t attach feelings to those thoughts and therefore, don’t behave in such a way as to feel something about them.

Admittedly, this is a very tough one to practice, but in time, as you train your brain to stop attaching certain values to the outcome, it becomes easier to either plow through or let the book go all together.

  • Someone spoiled the book, so there’s no way I can read it now.

The thought work on this one is really similar to the last, but it might be better to look at this thought with the question of whether this is a fact or an interpretation.

It’s an interpretation someone spoiled the book, not a fact.

It’s an interpretation that you can’t read it now, not a fact.

The fact is you can read the book whenever you want, whether or not someone shared key plot points.

A better thought here would be something like “A person shared a plot point in the book.” Whether or not you choose to read it is a thought you control, but a spoiler is only a spoiler because it’s been given value as an outcome.

It’s a plot point, like the main character has brown hair.

  • I’ll never finish my TBR.

Is this a fact or an interpretation? Is it helpful?

One of the most valuable tools in thought work is thinking about words like “never,” “always,” “must,” and “should.” Those are value statements.

The reality is your TBR is long.

  • I don’t think deeply enough about what I read. I hurry to the next book without sitting and really reflecting upon what I just finished.

There’s a lot of judgements in here to unpack! First: who defines what deep thinking is and what is deep enough thinking? You cannot control the thoughts of other people. You only ever have control of your own thoughts. This means that whatever other people think deep reading is has no impact on your own reading, because you and only you get to determine what deep is for you.

Is it helpful to think about how you don’t reflect upon a book you finished? Is it a fact that you don’t or an interpretation? From where do you pull that interpretation?

What defines hurry?

A more useful thought here depends upon what it is you really want from your reading experience. If you want to read more slowly, that’s one thing. If you don’t want to read more slowly but instead continue at a pace that allows you to read more books, that’s one thing too. But there is no such thing as reading more deeply.

That’s an interpretation.

  • When I read, I don’t get emotional. I don’t cry or scream or laugh out loud. I don’t throw a book across a room when mad or put it in the freezer when scared.

Is this a helpful thought? Is it a fact that every other person who reads a book emotes while reading or is it an interpretation?

If the reality is that you want to feel more emotional while reading, then you’ll want to change your thought to reflect that. A useful one in this instance might be, “When something sad happens in the book, I want to feel that sadness. I will therefore stop when the sad scene is over and sit with what I feel for five minutes.” You can make the behavior whatever it is you want, but don’t attach a judgment to it (as you’ll see, there’s nothing here to indicate what it is you’ll feel in those five minutes nor how you “should” feel anything). It’s a practice of tuning in and noticing whatever does—or maybe does not—come.

  • I bought all of these books and worry I’ll never get to read them (related to, but slightly different from, the above question about the TBR, as well as the question about quitting a book).

Is this a fact or is it an interpretation? Does this thought serve you?

In a case like this one, the thought you might want to investigate is related to what outcome you’re working toward. Do you want to stop buying books? Then your thought will differ. If it’s anxiety about never finishing the books you have, then your thoughts will differ (this one will be like the quitting a book question).

If the reality is you want to stop buying books, examine what feelings you have with this thought. Shame? Anxiety? What are those feelings really centered around?

Chances are this isn’t just about the books but instead about something much deeper.A thought like this might be rooted in greater financial insecurity or fear of mortality or anxiety about time. Dig in.

When you’re ready, reframe the thought. It might be something like “I bought a lot of books and will read one of them for every library book I read,” or if you want to change your buying habits, you might think, “I will read five books and donate them after finishing. Then I will buy a brand new book.” Judgement of outcome gone and plan of action in.

  • I’m interested in reading books on tough topics, but in the current political climate, it feels impossible.

An unpopular way to examine this thought and one that’s certainly uncomfortable is asking whether or not this is a fact or interpretation. (It’s an interpretation, based on observations). That said, this thought is much more readily examined with the question of whether or not it’s useful. A desire to want to read books on tough topics has been expressed, hindered by the interpretation of the current political climate (which hasn’t been given a value statement itself, which is worth noting!).

A more useful thought here would be doing away with the second part of the statement and instead, focusing on the feeling you have of interest. Your interest is in reading books on tough topics. A thought to practice would be just that: “I would like to read books on tough topics.” This might lead to all sorts of feelings, and you can drill down into those feelings, asking if they’re helpful, if they’re facts, or if they’re interpretations.

The reality is this: the act of reading books on tough topics has nothing to do with the current political climate.  They’re conflated in your mind in some capacity, and the work is uncoupling them.

You can choose to attach a plan here, with something like “I would like to read three books on tough topics in the next six months.” No feelings except desire to do the thing are included and you give yourself a time frame.

  • I’m afraid to clean my shelves and get rid of books, because what if I want to read them again?

See above for the worries about quitting books, about the size of one’s TBR, and especially about buying more books than believed possible to read.

Is this a helpful thought? It’s an interpretation, not a fact, that you’ll never be able to read those books again.

(So as not to sound like a feelingless robot, I’ll note that this is something I struggled with for a long time personally, too. Then I realized it was nonsense my brain had relating to attachment to physical objects from worries of financial insecurity. When I reminded myself libraries exist, it was much easier to change my thoughts).

  • Am I the only person who doesn’t get this book? Who doesn’t love it?

This is an interpretation. You’re experiencing reading a book you don’t “get” or love.

Here’s a big takeaway for this question, which by now, many will recognize as similar to some of the above question/responses: you are only ever in charge of your own thoughts, feelings, and actions. You cannot control what other people think, what they feel, or how they act.

Whether or not someone else or many someone elses, including Oprah, Amazon, The New York Times, and even your cousin’s cat loves the book is irrelevant. You are only responsible for how you think about it.

Likewise, “getting” a book is interpretation.

A more helpful thought: “This book didn’t work for me.” No need to attach a value statement or judgment to that. Move on to the next book!

  • What if I don’t love the book I’m reading as much as I love the author (whether because they’re friends or because they’re enjoyable on social media)?

This one sounds complicated but it’s pretty easy. The flawed thinking is that the book and the author have anything to do with one another. There are many pieces floating around about how not to hurt a friend’s feelings who writes a book you didn’t like. But it boils down to this: you’re not responsible for anyone else’s thoughts or feelings but your own.

In a situation like this, there are two thoughts to change. The first thought is, “I read the book.” You could even change it to, “I read the book but didn’t care for it.” The second thought is, “Author is my friend,” or “The author is enjoyable on social media.”

Were you in the awkward position of said author/friend asking you how you felt about the book, well…first, how crummy a friend are they putting you in that position (This is my personal interpretation!), but second, they want you to give them feelings or thoughts and make you responsible for whatever they feel.

You can say whatever you want to say in that scenario, knowing that you’re not responsible for the outcome on their end. You’re only responsible for your own, whether you choose to be honest (“It wasn’t for me!”) or offer a kind lie (“It was fun” or “I think my niece will love it”).

  • I want to support books by marginalized authors but I read a book and didn’t like it. I worry about giving it a bad review or not giving it one at all.

I suspect this is a helpful thought for many readers, to consider the implications of a negative review on a marginalized writer. The thought work here, though, is the same as it is in many of the above cases. The emphasis is on whose feelings and thoughts you’re responsible for and how you choose to act in the moment.

You’re only responsible for your own thoughts and feelings. That inevitably allows you to choose your course of action. If you want to leave a negative review, you can. But you know that the action here—leaving the negative review—comes from your thought along the lines of it being more important to be honest about your experience than anything else. That is not a value statement. Whatever anyone else chooses to think or feel about the review is their experiences and their experience alone.

You can also choose not to leave a bad review. If you choose not to leave any review at all, you’re choosing to think it’s not worth it in some way, and maybe feeling that continues to help marginalized authors. If you choose to leave a positive review—even if that wasn’t your actual experience—your thought might be that it’s more important to you to promote a marginalized author than it is to dislike the book and share those feelings.

None of these are “incorrect” thoughts. It’s about how you want to feel and what outcome you would like to have for yourself.  You’ll never control the feelings, thoughts, and actions of someone else.

  • A friend/family member lends a book and I feel like I need to read it (or, I did read it and didn’t like it).

See the last question and puzzle this one out from there.

Getting honest with yourself, sitting in your thoughts and feelings, and removing the shoulds/have-tos/musts from your life is work. It’s work that takes practice and effort. It’s work that gets very uncomfortable and can indeed be unpopular (not to mention it forces you to feel really gross asking questions about interpretations of the world around you that you’ve held to be facts).

But it’s the kind of work that can change your life and allow you to live moment by moment in a really profound way.

We’re more effective as people when we take full responsibility for our own actions, and as actions come from feelings that come from thoughts, we’re better able to be the best versions of ourselves—and the versions of ourselves that will change the world.