I suck. I’m not a real writer. I’m not Mary Karr. I’m not David Sedaris. I’m not Cheryl Strayed. I mean… who am I kidding? I hear comments like these from my coaching clients all the time, and it saddens me to hear how mean we can be to our creative selves. Writing is hard enough without all the brain damage we create through our endless self-criticism.
Of course, I’m just as guilty. For the last two years, as I’ve worked to fine-tune my memoir, I’ve been convinced friends have been having whispered conversations about the memoir behind my back. “Heads, you tell her the book’s no good. Tails, I will.”
Fortunately, I have a new strategy for dealing with self-criticism. I just finished reading Kristen Neff’s excellent book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. According to Neff, “Suffering stems from a single source: comparing our reality to our ideals.”
As writers, we all have an image in our mind of what we’d like our writing to become, but projects often take much longer and require many more revisions than any of us anticipate. During this long, seemingly endless middle-space—the labor-intensive stretch of time between starting a project and knowing it’s finished—is when our midnight demons do everything they can to push us off the cliff.
Self-compassion, I’m now convinced, is one of the best strategies out there for quelling the critical voices. Why? “Because when we give ourselves compassion,” Neff says, “the tight knot of negative self-judgment starts to dissolve and is replaced by a feeling of peaceful, connected acceptance.”
So what does self-compassion look like in action?
Self-compassion entails three core components: self-kindness, recognition of our common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness sounds like this: My writing is very difficult right now. How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?
Recognizing our common humanity sounds like this: All writers suffer occasionally because suffering is part of the human condition.
And mindfulness looks like this: I am aware of my negative emotions because I’m able to experience them as physical sensations. When we experience our emotions on the physical level, rather than thinking about what’s making us so unhappy (and creating a story around it), it’s easier to stay present. By staying present and anchored in the body, it’s easier to soothe and comfort ourselves for the pain we’re feeling without getting lost in negativity.
Here is an exercise Neff recommends—which I’ve modified for writers—for when the critical voices threaten to overcome you.
Stop, take a moment to breathe deeply, cross your hands over your heart, and tell yourself:
This is a moment of (name the emotion): doubt, worry, fear, suffering.
All writers experience these emotions; these emotions are part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.
This refrain may sound simplistic. It’s only words, after all. But what’s the harm in replacing all the damaging words you hurl at yourself with a kinder vocabulary? What are you really risking by giving yourself a moment of love and genuine attention? Why not give self-compassion a try?
And when you do, I’d love to hear how it goes.
For more on Neff’s work, visit: http://self-compassion.org