Self-compassion for writers (and other tortured souls)
I was talking to a Buddhist friend recently who’s a wonderful writer. She creates amazing blog posts that usually start off deeply personal but go on to teach important and universal lessons about life. I have a lot to learn from her about combining the personal and the instructional, and in many ways I regard her as the better writer. The thing is, she told me she hasn’t been able to write for two years now, because she’s a perfectionist.
And that’s the problem with perfectionism. Perfectionism makes us anything but perfect, because, for one thing, it makes it harder for us to create. Perfectionism is like teaching an animal to do a trick by beating it every time it doesn’t do exactly what you want. What would happen if you tried to do this? You’d end up with an animal that could only cower in terror. If the animal was sensible it would run away. If it was really sensible it would bite you first. And I think this is what happens with the creative parts of ourselves when we’re perfectionists. We end up training our creative energies not to create, and we produce what we call writers’ block, or (more generally) creators’ block. Our creative urges run and hide. They see the blank page, and don’t dare mar it because the critical part of us is sure to step in immediately and say “Not good enough. YOU IDIOT!”
But perfectionism is just another name for “low levels of self-compassion.” We need to recognize this because I think saying “I’m a perfectionist” is a way of humble-bragging: I won’t do anything unless it’s perfect, ergo, anything I do is perfect. I don’t create, but if I did it would be awesome. But while there are some high achievers who are perfectionists, their achievements come at a price. Perfectionism puts us on edge. It makes us rigid. When we’re driven by perfection we’re less likely to learn through play, experimentation, or trial and error. Self-compassion is where we treat ourselves kindly, even when we make mistakes. We recognize that we, just like everyone else, mess up. We recognize that mistakes are not only inevitable, but that they’re a helpful part of the learning process. To do anything meaningful we need to tolerate imperfection
I guess I’m an “imperfectionist.” A saying that I take as my pole star, my guide through life, is “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” So when I’m writing I just plunge in. I ignore my inner critic and allow myself to mar the page. The first effort may be ugly, repetitive, shallow, confused, or whatever. I don’t care. At least I have something to work with. Only after that initial creation do I go back and make improvements. That’s when the inner critic comes in handy. Your inner critic is an invaluable asset if you give it the right job to do — and that job is to tell you what’s not best about your work after you’ve written the first draft. Its job is not to prevent you from getting started. So I review and rewrite my work over and over, and each time I smooth the clunks out of my writing my inner critic has less and less to say. In the end it just shuts up because it’s done its job, and there’s nothing but good feelings when I read the text.Beating yourself up just doesn’t work very well as a motivational strategy, and it has wider consequences for your wellbeing as well. Constantly being on edge in case we slip up, and then criticizing ourselves when we inevitably do, is a tough way to live. People who score low for self-compassion are much more prone to being stressed or depressed.
So self-compassion is a great habit. And it is a habit. It’s something that we can train ourselves to have. Just as with my iterative approach to writing, we won’t suddenly produce full-fledged self-compassion out of thin air, so at first we’ll do it badly, as we do with all things worth doing. But we keep practicing, and get better at it as we do.
So, how do we get started? There are three things areas I’d like to focus on: perspectives for self-compassion, mindfulness, and kindness.
1. Perspectives for self-compassion
Everyone suffers. Everyone finds life hard in different ways. We all want to be happy and not to suffer, but happiness is often elusive, and suffering keeps coming along, often unexpectedly. We all mess up. Being human isn’t easy. These perspectives help us to let go of any expectation that life — and our lives in particular — should be free from difficulties. The also help us see that we shouldn’t expect creative work to be easy. As Stephen King said, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.” Suffering — whether at the keyboard or in any other aspect of life — is normal.
Embrace this discomfort, because it’s through building your shit-shoveling muscles that you’re going to create.
Mindfulness is a form of awareness in which we observe our experience almost as if we were watching an external event. Being mindful of our experience — and especially of painful experiences — is a critical component of self-compassion.
First we have to acknowledge that there’s pain present, and this isn’t always easy, because too often we believe the stories that spring up to distract us from our pain. So you sit down to write and it’s emotionally uncomfortable. Instead of just acknowledging the discomfort and starting to write, you decide it’s time for a snack, or time to dust the shelves, or to update Facebook. And off you go; the story has won: it’s prevented you from working through your fear. Being mindful creates a gap between the stimulus of discomfort and our response to it, and this gives us the freedom to choose how to act. I feel restless? It’s uncomfortable, but that’s OK. I’m feeling uncomfortable and I’m going to write.
Mindfulness involves acceptance. In the “gap” that mindfulness opens up, there is peace. It’s OK to suffer. It’s OK to feel frustration, to feel disappointed, sad, frustrated, hurt, despondent. These things are not signs that we’re failing, but that we’re human and engaged in the process of living. And when we’re in the act of creating, and we hear the inner critic saying that our work isn’t good enough, we can be mindful of that critical voice and decide not to believe it. Just keep going.
Imagine you a friend shows you a draft of a short story, and it’s not very good. What do you say to them? “You idiot! You’re so stupid to try to write! No one’s ever going to want to read this crap!”? Of course not. But that’s the way we often talk to ourselves.
Elizabeth Gilbert says that self-discipline is overrated: “The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you.” It’s by being kind and by forgiving the shortcomings in ourselves and our work that we get better at creating. This doesn’t mean that we recognize that a piece or work is bad, forgive ourselves, and leave it as it is. It just means not judging ourselves as “bad writers” for having written something that’s not yet good. It means treating what’s substandard as a first draft. It means looking at the crap head-on until we can figure our how best to shovel it. We accept imperfection and then go back and rewrite. Then rewrite again. And again.
What’s going on when we’re kind to ourselves is that the most mature and compassionate part of us is showing kindness to the part of us that’s most in pain. Our inner grown-up is comforting our inner child, giving it reassurance. Treating our painful feelings compassionately can be as simple as placing a hand on the part of our body where the hurt is most prominent, and saying “It’s OK.” We can offer reassurance by saying to our discomfort, “I know you’re hurting, but I’m here for you.” That might sound cheesy. That’s OK. I’d rather sound cheesy than be a blocked writer.
So next time you’re stuck on a project, staring at a blank page, or whatever your creative equivalent is, try on for size the perspective that discomfort is an integral — and valuable — part of creating. Have a mindful acceptance of any painful feelings that arise. Stay with the discomfort rather than turning away from it. Offer yourself some kindly reassurance as you shovel the shit.
Creating is hard, and that’s OK. Be an imperfectionist, and just keep doing it badly, at least at first. Because it’s worth doing.