Every writer grapples with self-doubt, but how we deal with those thoughts and feelings can make the difference between a completed book and an unfulfilled dream. Psychotherapist Philip Kenney shares the practices that he and his clients use to enable them to keep writing.
The great novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor once said,
“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.”
Why is the great Flannery O’Connor losing her hair? And why do so many authors go through periods of despair or consider abandoning their vocation? Because writing is tough. It subjects perfectly capable people to bouts of insecurity, self-doubt and enough encounters with demoralizing rejections to last a dozen lifetimes.
Six months into the search for an agent and publisher for my first book, I found myself in a negative tailspin that is familiar to most writers: “You can’t write. Who are you kidding?”
Sound familiar? I considered stuffing the manuscript into the lower drawer of my desk. Writers die a thousand deaths in this way.
Writing is also exhilarating. A wonderful feeling of aliveness accompanies the work when we are in the flow.
The trouble is, at one time or another most authors are burdened by emotions that interfere with the magic of the creative process.
In thirty years of practicing psychotherapy, I have worked with countless authors suffering from the spell of self-reproach. These are talented people who struggle with persistent feelings of inadequacy. In nearly as many years as a writer, I have faced my own dark hours feeling the pain of the internal narrative that shouts, “You aren’t good enough!”
Even our most successful writers are subject to troubling insecurity and episodes of self-doubt, ultimately undermining their creativity. These pronouncements are terribly convincing and utterly false. We live many hours and days in a trance state. These spells of confusion come from deeply embedded feelings of shame that result in the kinds of negative self-talk we are all familiar with.
Shame may be the worst of our emotional distress. It is what causes us to shrink from exposure and inflate ourselves in search of recognition. Shame is like blueberry stains on a white t-shirt. We strive every day to rid ourselves of the stain that won’t go away by hiding our real self, straining to write a best-selling book and demanding the impossible of ourselves.
[Note from Joanna: For more on dealing with self-doubt check out my book The Successful Author Mindset.]
The Good Enough Approach
It takes a concerted effort to break these powerful trance states. What is bewildering to me, and my patients, is the passivity with which smart and otherwise proactive people allow these accusations to dominate their mood.
Every day, I am surprised by the helplessness my patients exhibit in the face of these attacks. Every day, I am surprised by my unquestioning acceptance of the opportunistic voice in me that takes advantage of any misstep to make me feel bad. It is dumbfounding. What can we do to help ourselves? How can we break the trance?
We are vulnerable beings. Vulnerable to the turbulent emotions that are part of a creative life. This should not be taken to mean that something is wrong. Sensitivity is at the heart of what connects us to the creative impulse. Though we are susceptible to these insecurities, we are not helpless.
And one of the great gifts of writing is that it affords us the possibility of waking up to our real self and the world. There is an approach we can develop that supports this opening and knowing, “I am good enough.”
This approach should not be mistaken for resignation to a shameful state of mediocrity. Far from it. To embody the sense of good enough is to experience self-support and grounding in one’s basic goodness. That grounding allows us to ride the waves of the creative journey with equilibrium and recognize the real value of our work.
These methods do not promise perfect stability; they are not a one-and-done solution, but they do suggest ways of empowering yourself in an ongoing relationship with your emotional life and the disruptive negativity of the mind.
My approach involves three primary aspects of what I consider one force pulsing through our lives. The three energies that move us are the mind/body, the creative and the spiritual. Each has a particular quality that can be used to relate to vulnerability and cultivate a solid sense of yourself and your work.
1. The Mind
Working with highly charged negative self-talk. I call this the “Shame Brain.” We have seen the power of taking to the streets in protest and yet we have not recognized the possibility of using internal protest to stand up to self-talk. The next time you are besieged by the berating voice in your head, try confronting the Shame Brain.
The Mamma Bear Approach:
- Stand up and say STOP. Say it firmly. Don’t be mad at yourself, just say STOP.
- Say it firmly like you would to a child about to run into the street.
- Say it like a Mamma Bear. Growl if you need to. It takes practice, but it works.
- After you have said stop, and you feel a shift in your mind, use your senses to ground yourself to the present, to what is real around you.
- Look, and see five objects in your surroundings. Really look at trees or clouds.
- Listen, and hear five sounds. Really listen for birdsong, the wind in leaves.
- Do this for all your senses. Be as fully engaged as you can. Get out of your head!
2. The Body: Connecting with your emotional world
Many writers live in their heads. They often feel overwhelmed by emotion and run away. The way to connect with the creative spirit goes through the heart.
This requires learning to tolerate discomfort and pain. Sorry, but moving away from feelings means severing the tie with yourself that enables the deepest connection with the core self and creative impulse.
- Every day for five minutes, sit and feel into your body. Breath easily and try to experience as fully as possible the sensations, and emotions moving in your body.
- When you encounter difficult feelings like disappointment or shame, do your best to stand in the experience. Breath deep and try to allow the emotion to be.
- Know that these difficult states of being pass. They have a life of their own. If you have experienced trauma, you may think otherwise. They will pass.
- Feel your feet! This will help to ground you, be in your body and stay with your feelings.
3. The Creative: Working with the “not good enough” internal narrative.
Time to edit and revise these stories! It is remarkable how one-dimensional the internal narratives become. Rewrite them as you would a good story. Revise, revise, revise. But first some editing.
- The Socratic Approach: Question the unchallenged conclusions of your story.
- For example: When negative narratives arise ask, “Why are these thoughts coming up right now?”
- Asking this question, “How do you know that?” disempowers the negative voice of the trance state.
- Asking of self-reproach, “Whose voice is this?” helps reverse the process of internalized judgement and creates distance from the shaming voice.
- The Colbert Approach: What better ally than humor? Try Colbert’s method and flush out the absurdity of the inner critic. With a wry grin and a raised eyebrow, tickle that nasty voice, find the funny bone. Expose the ridiculous nature of these accusations: “Oh, so you’re saying that if I sit down and turn out an 80,000-word novel with no typos or mixed metaphors, THEN, I’ll be good enough.”
- Now you are ready to revise. Challenge the stories. Use your creative brain to add complexity and nuance.
- Include the multiple influences of history that go back generations.
- Transform the story of your lacking into the story of empathy and self-recognition.
4. The Spiritual: Connecting with Being
I consider this pivotal to emotional equilibrium. I also consider it an existential reality.
Many of our great writers like Emerson and Whitman were inspired by the spiritual wisdom of Vedantic Literature. This is the perfect antidote to the state of mind that is preoccupied with proving its worth. Instead, this wisdom connects us directly with our basic goodness and the creative source. It allows us to simply be.
Meditation: Meditation is a fancy word for sitting with yourself just as you are.
- Meditate on the simple presence that is you.
- See if you can experience what T.S. Elliot named, “the still point.”
- See if you can feel the awe in being as Toni Morrison does when she sits quietly each morning before beginning her writing practice.
Dedications: Give recognition and thanks to your ancestors. All the great writers who came before you. Know that you are touched by the same creative spirit. You belong.
Get out of your way: Dedicate the day’s writing to someone you love, or someone in trouble, rather than your cleverness.
I suggest you meditate daily before beginning to write. Just sit and be still. Give your attention to your inner being, the simple inner presence that is you. This will ground you to that ineffable source that moves you to join it in creating.
Portland’s beloved poet, William Stafford, once beseeched us to pay careful attention because, “The darkness around us is deep.” How true.
The good enough approach goes a long way toward releasing writers from constricted emotions brought on by the cultural and psychological demands of a writer’s life. This approach helps liberate us from the psychological “Catch-22” of satisfying the ever-shifting criteria of enough.
Shift your attention instead to all the words and images coming through you that are remarkable. Start your day sitting with the quiet of yourself and experience “going on being.” Celebrate your connection with the creative spark that is bigger than any one of us and is the source of our inspiration.
How could that not be good enough?
What are your favorite methods for dealing with negative self-talk and the other types of thinking that get in the way of doing your work? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Philip Kenney is an author and psychotherapist living in Portland. His book, The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity, was a finalist for The Red City Review 2018 Non-Fiction Book of the Year. His work is intended to support writers with the emotional vulnerabilities they face living a creative life.
Mr. Kenney is author of the novel, Radiance and a collection of poetry entitled, Where Roses Grow. In 2018 his essay, The Rebirth of Masculinity: What We Can Learn From Harvey Weinstein and Co. was published in issue #7 of The Timberline Review. Other essays, The Story of an Unlikely Writer and Revising the Not Good Enough Narrative can be found in The Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s Author Magazine.
To learn more about Philip please visit his website.