Any writer knows we struggle sometimes with some pretty bad habits. There’s the procrastination. The overthinking. The self-doubt. The drinking. (And the accidental rhyming couplets in our blog posts, but I digress.)
They’re all rooted in our impostor syndrome, the notion that we can’t possibly be as good as we’d like to think — not enough to be in the same kind of publication company as our literary heroes, anyway.
Nevertheless, we persist. It’s a great feeling when our efforts pay off. Yet when life does nothing but get in the way… well, that’s when things get more difficult.
This is especially true for a writer trying to reestablish a daily practice following any period of block or burnout or even just that in-between period when one big project is done, but whatever comes next hasn’t yet made itself apparent.
And yet, as I found in recent weeks, life’s propensity to get in the way made me face some uncomfortable, recurrent themes from my life… and start to think about how to let them go.
The spiral: self-doubt to self-recrimination to self-forgiveness
I had a set of appointments last week, ones I’d been putting off until we had health insurance, as well as some related to business. They were all necessary and even productive, yet because they weren’t “writing,” by Friday — when I did have a block of time to write — I felt scattered and out of sorts.
That day, per my reflective practice, I watched myself not just procrastinate, but also beat myself up for doing it. Why couldn’t I “just”? What was wrong with my brain? Was I just lazy, or what?
Seeing myself spiral into that destructive thought pattern drove me to bag all my obligations. I didn’t know what the answers were; I just needed to do something different. So, as I waited for my son in the school car line, I spent half an hour working on a new short story.
That small, spur-of-the-moment decision turned out to be the “brain reset” I needed to complete one obligation and engage in some journaling — and to recognize the “brain reset” for what it was. I remembered that I’ve done similar in the past — for example, walking from one location to another as a way to switch gears between projects — but acknowledged that it had never happened when I was that deep in self-recrimination. To be able to intuit what I needed in that moment, and then afterward to recognize my ability to follow my intuition, was a pretty big shift for me.
That little bit of self-awareness gave me the space I needed to make another connection: the realization that the self-recrimination was simply a matter of old programming. I’d been telling myself things I’d learned to repeat via not-so-well-meaning folks, who used shame to try to get me in line. It had become a habit from the years when I didn’t know better — that those things weren’t true and I didn’t have to listen.
This realization helped me to reframe my experience. No, I hadn’t completed everything I wanted to do that week. But I had made significant progress. Not only had I worked out a key business challenge; but I’d noticed that I could use a short story, outside my normal fiction-writing hours, to “reset” my overwhelmed brain. In that way, I gave myself a tool that I could use on future “scattered” days.
Shifting from self-awareness to empathy
To some, all this might sound like overthinking, but here’s the thing: it was a solution to a problem I’ve lived with for a very long time. Friends have often asked why I beat myself up so much, and I’ve never had an answer. Now I know: it was because as much empathy as I can have for others, I’d learned I didn’t deserve it for myself.
It’s not hard to make the leap from a realization like that, to seeing how other people, likewise lacking empathy for themselves, fear and resent and criticize. That old programming disconnects us from ourselves, over many years and in many situations:
How do people disconnect from themselves and one another?
- Authority figures in our lives teach us that theirs are the only valid needs and goals, that our worth is derived solely from our ability to meet their frequently shifting goalposts.
- We witness apathy or paralysis in the face of bullying. We learn that doing nothing, even making ourselves invisible, is safer.
- We’re told to “take one for the team,” and in doing so, we leave our own needs at the door — yet teams are only healthy when everyone is equally willing to make sacrifices, and everyone agrees on what constitutes “sacrifice.”
- We’re exhorted to put ourselves aside “for the good of the organization” and are pressured by our colleagues to do the same, so that we never learn to embrace the parts of one another that don’t conform.
- We’re taught to externalize our intuition, outsourcing our decision-making to teachers, parents, clergy, managers.
- We externalize even further than that, linking our own moral compasses to founders, influencers, athletes, political pundits and candidates.
Going back to all I’ve written about burnout, impostor syndrome, and failure, it strikes me that when we experience burnout and paralysis, it’s a sign that we’ve become too disconnected from ourselves. We’ve gotten so caught up in conforming to expectations — those we impose on ourselves, or others, or some combination — to the point where we can’t articulate why we feel burned out.
Maybe we never learned who we were to begin with, or worse, we were taught that who we felt ourselves to be was “unrealistic” for the world we live in. Instead of working towards our own goals, we assumed other people’s, or something we felt was more socially and economically acceptable. If we resisted, we internalized that we were the problem.
Reconnecting to our sense of self
Empathy shows up a lot in my fiction, and it’s always driven my marketing. When I write a white paper or blog or article for a client or employer, it’s because I want to help customers solve key problems they encounter at work. And when I write a short story, it’s to help others look at the world, other people, and yes, animals, in a different way.
That’s why my stories demonstrate the need for and the expression of empathy (Raccoon Rescue), the banning of it (the Sodom & Gomorrah on a Saturday Night novella series), the lack of it (any given piece of horror fiction), the development of it in spite of a person’s surroundings (also horror fiction).
Going forward, I believe reflective practice (and its cousins, meditation and grounding) will help me continue to (re)connect with myself in ways that keep inspiring empathy for self and others — to drive both better fiction and better nonfiction by reconnecting to the way I, and others, process and experience life. To be more intentional about how I use my time and set my goals, and to write articles and stories that encourage others to do the same.
It’s our own internal compasses, in other words, that are perhaps the best defense against the self-doubt spiral. To make a real difference in our world, our capacity to sit and listen for the “still, small voice” — our truth — is the key to channeling it. Through the cacophony of criticism both internal and external, trusting our own drive to create can give us the confidence we need to move forward in our light.