My book’s not selling. Why did I think I had talent?
Why did I say that in my interview? I sounded so stupid!
You’ve heard it before. You should be kind to yourself. Encourage yourself. Refrain from too much self-criticism.
But it’s not just about treating yourself well. Turns out that how you talk to yourself, and how you deal with your own setbacks and mistakes, could affect whether you succeed at your writing goals or not.
It’s that serious.
We Need to be Critical, Not Self-Critical
Writers need to be capable of a certain amount of self-criticism. We need to be able to evaluate our own stuff, find its weaknesses, and work to improve. We need that inner critic when it comes time to edit, and we rely on it to gradually make our work better from project to project.
Being critical of our work, however, is different than being critical of ourselves, and too often with writers, the two go together. We know we’re supposed to separate our work from ourselves, but we’re also so close to it that the task can seem nearly impossible, sometimes.
When a story is rejected, for example, we feel like we were rejected. When a book doesn’t sell, it feels like we are the failures.
“As writers, having our work rejected is a lot like someone telling us our baby is ugly,” says freelance writer Audra Rogers. “It’s our word art, arranged just so, and it’s hard not to take it personally.”
“It’s easy to take rejection personally,” agrees author Glen Llopis. “Rejection has historically been viewed as a form of failure.”
“Reading bad reviews makes me feel horrible….” says author Delilah S. Dawson. “I turned off my Google Alerts forever after a Goodreads review made me uglycry.”
These kind of setbacks can make any writer feel badly. Whether it’s rejection, bad reviews, poor sales, or just a case of writer’s block, we all know how discouraging the writing life can be sometimes.
We have to be careful, though, that we don’t turn our negative feelings back on ourselves. That step, in itself, could take us so far off the path that we can never get back.
According to the creativity coach and psychologist Eric Maisel:
“Criticism is a real crippler. I’m sure you know that. But you may not be aware just how powerful a negative force criticism can be, how much damage it can do to your self-confidence, or how seriously it can deflect you from your path. Almost nothing does more psychological damage than criticism.”
Self-Criticism Makes You Less Likely to Reach Your Goals
Research over the last few years has discovered just how correct Mr. Maisel is. In 2009, for example, researchers looked at athletes and musicians, and how self-criticism affected their motivation and their ability to reach their goals. Results showed the following:
- Those who were more self-critical were less likely to be able to motivate themselves, and also less likely to reach their goals, then those who treated themselves with more compassion.
- Researchers concluded that self-criticism is a risk factor in the pursuit of personal goals, and increased risk of setbacks along the way.
An earlier 2007 study found similar results. Self-criticism made people less likely to make progress toward their goals. Researchers also found that those more prone to self-criticism were also more likely to ruminate and procrastinate—which could explain their lack of progress.
A later 2011 study reported on a link between self-criticism and lack of progress toward one’s goals. Self-reassurance, however—or self-compassion—creates the opposite effect: motivation and the accomplishment of our goals.
“The current data clearly suggest that self-criticism is associated with diminished goal progress,” the researchers wrote.
In another 2009 study, for instance, researchers found that self-criticism was correlated with depression, eating disorders, and anxiety, but that self-reassurance was linked with lower risks of these conditions.
“People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety,” writes Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times, “and tend to be happier and more optimistic.”
“Self-compassion is really conducive to motivation,” says Dr. Kristen Neff, a leading researcher in this field. “With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.”
Why Writers May Find Self-Compassion Difficult
Writers and other creatives may find self-compassion particularly difficult, simply because of how they’re wired.
“Most creative pros encounter that internal voice that says, ‘You’re just not good enough,’” says journalist Bryn Mooth. “It’s a creativity-killer, that voice. It keeps you from getting started on a project, and it keeps you going on the project long after you’ve reached the limit of billable hours.”
“It’s common for artists and creative professionals to be their worst critic,” says creativity coach Lisa A. Riley. “As creative individuals we beat ourselves up if our productivity or level of creativity doesn’t match up to our expectations.”
Writer and researcher Douglas Eby adds:
“Highly creative and talented people are often susceptible to perfectionism and unreasonably high standards and expectations that can lead to this exaggerated criticism.”
This tendency toward self-criticism needs to be reined in, though, lest it discourage our best creative efforts. As we saw from the studies above, too much self-criticism derails progress toward our goals.
How do we motivate ourselves, instead? Self-compassion. In fact, according to researcher Dr. Neff, self-compassion may be one of the most important life skills to learn. Not only does it motivate us to achieve our goals, but according to a 2010 study, it may facilitate higher levels of creative originality.
How Writers Can Be More Compassionate with Themselves
Just what is self-compassion? It’s letting go of the tendency to judge and evaluate ourselves. According to Dr. Neff, it’s “to treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend—or even a stranger, for that matter.”
This doesn’t mean that we assume we’re perfect, or that we don’t need to improve. Instead, it means that when we make a mistake, or receive a rejection, or fail to sell a book to a publisher, or experience a slew of bad reviews, that we don’t take these things to mean that we are “bad” writers, or have no talent, or shouldn’t be writing at all.
Self-compassion is realizing that self-criticism is the enemy. It’s knowing that the inevitable slumps in a writing career are danger zones, and that we must practice high levels of self-care during those periods. We need to motivate ourselves when we’re struggling, and self-criticism is the opposite of motivation.
Self-compassion means making the best choices for yourself and your future. It doesn’t mean indulging in that carton of ice cream, for example, but choosing healthier desserts instead. In fact, studies have found that people who are more self-compassionate are more likely to lose weight when they want to than those who are self-critical.
Though self-compassion is an important skill for anyone to develop, it’s particularly important to creatives. It’s positively associated with:
- increasing the likelihood of creative originality
- encouraging self-motivation
- increasing energy
- achieving mastery in your field
- optimal performance in general
To help increase your ability to be compassionate with yourself, try the following seven techniques.
1. Focus on the work, not your feelings about the work.
If you’re struggling with a particular project, that hasn’t yet lived up to your hopes for it, focus on the work, not your feelings about it. (Something I learned from Maisel.) It’s normal to feel discouraged if you’ve been trying for a long time and haven’t experienced success.
Don’t allow yourself to fall into negativity. Refrain from self-criticism because, as Maisel says, “you understand that self-criticism is not a motivator but a disincentive to act.” Take a second or third or tenth look at the work and see what you can find. Hire an outside expert to set new eyes on it if necessary.
Maintain your belief in yourself. If you must, set the work aside and create something new. Remember that it’s not about your talent or your ability—it’s only about the specific piece that you’re working on now.
2. Treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
Imagine how you would talk to a good friend in your situation. Likely you would be kind and supportive. Make a point to treat yourself the same way. Be extra kind when you’re going through a tough period in your creative career.
“Self-compassion involves viewing the self with kindness and compassion,” researchers wrote in a 2010 study, “which has been theorized to be particularly important when negative events and experiences occur.”
3. Ask yourself what action you can take for your own good.
Self-compassionate people aren’t only kind to themselves when things go wrong—they also tend to look for ways to save themselves from the same suffering in the future.
“Self-compassion begins to sound like you are indulging yourself, but we don’t find that,” says psychologist Mark Leary, a researcher at Duke University. “People high in self-compassion tend to have higher standards, work harder and take more personal responsibility for their actions.”
What do you need to do to reduce your odds of experiencing this pain again? Granted, writers must make peace with rejection, as we’re likely to suffer it over and over again. But you can increase your odds of acceptance, for example, by improving your craft. Do you need to hire an editor, or a book doctor? Attend a writing workshop? Take an online class? Get help from a mentor?
Taking action that supports you and your future is one of the best panaceas for writing-related distress. Treat yourself as you would a child who is struggling to master a particular subject area. The area is writing, and the child is you. What do you need to succeed?
4. Accept where you are right now.
Creative people are typically visionaries—we have this vision in our heads of where we should be, or where we’d like to be right now. Often, however, our visions are years ahead of where our actual skills and experience are. It doesn’t mean we won’t get there—just that we may need to be a bit more patient.
Accept where you are right now without judgment. If you haven’t yet seen your byline, haven’t yet signed a publishing contract, haven’t yet been on the bestseller’s list—whatever your vision is—accept the reality, and give yourself permission to be as you are in this moment.
Realize that who you are is a good thing, with or without the attainment of that important goal. Remember that you write (or paint or make music) because you love it, first and foremost. Goals are good, but don’t let them lead you into self-criticism.
“Being at peace and content with ourselves and where we are gives a deep sense of coziness in our bodies and soul,” says creative healer Saran Kaur. “It’s a place of an open heart and an easy connection to other people and beings. The surest way to disrupt this coziness is through self-criticism. Judgment closes the heart chakra, the most powerful center of your being.”
5. Adjust your expectations.
Did you assume you’d be further along in your career by now than you are? Did you imagine that writing would be more natural, or that your talent would transfer into great creative works much more easily than it has?
It’s common to imagine that a new skill will be easier to attain than it is. We all imagine that we could learn to play an instrument, or train a dog, or even fix the faucet, without much trouble, until we actually get into it and realize how complicated it is.
Add to that the fact that creative high achievers tend to place sometimes unreasonable expectations on themselves and you have a recipe for always falling short. Try to remember that you’re human, too, and need to make mistakes on your way to becoming the artist you want to become. Be more flexible with yourself. Allow more mistakes, setbacks, and failures. Accept them as the stepping stones they are.
6. See yourself as a person, first; a writer, second.
This is one of the cornerstones of self-compassion—separating yourself from your work. It’s something that’s often difficult to do, but imagine it this way: you’re practicing self-love, regardless of your achievements or accomplishments.
“Unlike self-esteem,” writes Dr. Neff, “the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special and above average, or on meeting ideal goals. Instead, they come from caring about ourselves—fragile and imperfect yet magnificent as we are….And the good feelings of self-compassion don’t go away when we mess up or things go wrong. In fact, self-compassion steps in precisely where self-esteem lets us down—whenever we fail or feel inadequate.”
This is something creatives definitely need—that kind self to step in when our work doesn’t go as planned, or isn’t received the way we’d hoped. These are difficult times in a creative’s life, and we need that steady support within to get us through them.
“…self-compassion provides an island of calm,” says Neff, “a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, ‘Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?’ By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness, acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition, we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive.”
7. Separate the pain of the experience from the experience.
Many of us are so practiced at self-criticism that we don’t even realize we’ve fallen into it. We get that rejection and immediately go to thoughts like “my writing isn’t that good.” We read a bad review and our immediate reaction is not to question to reviewer, but to question our own writing skills.
If this sounds familiar, it’s time to practice separating the pain you feel from the self-criticism you’re likely to respond with. The pain of the rejection or the bad review will take time to ease, but you can control any tendency toward self-criticism.
“If, every time you experience this pain, you mentally move to guilt and self-chastisement,” says Maisel, “you are making a mental mistake of the most horrifying kind….We are so used to moving from a certain kind of feeling directly to self-criticism that separating them at the hip may feel impossible. But until you can do that, you will live a half-incapacitated life. You eliminate self-criticism by not turning thoughts and feelings into self-criticism.”
The best way to start separating the two? Notice your thoughts, and tell yourself to “Stop!” the instant you detect any that are self-critical. Then work at distracting yourself. Go for a walk, get some exercise, do something with your hands, or work on taking action that will be good for you. Remember that self-criticism is harmful. Treat it like you would an enemy that is trying to weaken you.
“There is nothing noble or righteous about self-criticism,” says Maisel. “Let it go.”
Have you found it difficult to get away from self-criticism? Please share your story.
Douglas Eby, “Toxic Criticism and Developing Creativity,” PsychCentral.com, http://blogs.psychcentral.com/creative-mind/2011/01/toxic-criticism-and-developing-creativity/.
Theodore A. Powers, et al., “Self-criticism, motivation, and goal progress of athletes and musicians: A prospective study,” Personality and Individual Differences, September 2009; 47(4):279-283, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886909001226.
Theodore A. Powers, et al., “Self-Criticism, Goal Motivation, and Goal Progress,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, September 2007; 26(7):826-840, http://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jscp.2007.26.7.826.
Theodore A. Powers, “The Effects of Self-Criticism and Self-Oriented Perfectionism on Goal Pursuit,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, July 2011; 37(7):964-975, http://psp.sagepub.com/content/37/7/964.short.
Olivia Longe, et al., “Having a word with yourself: Neural correlates of self-criticism and self-reassurance,” NeuroImage, 2010; 49:1849-1856, http://www.wisebrain.org/media/Papers/Self-Crit,Self-NurtNeuro.pdf.