In a recent Writing and Wellness survey, I asked respondents to share their biggest writing challenges. One answer in particular broke my heart.
The writer explained that a bad relationship had left her with the nagging feeling that her writing would never be “good enough.” She had left the relationship behind, but was still haunted by words spoken to demean her as a person and discourage her dreams of being a writer.
She had courage. She had completed a story and was going to submit it to a publisher. But her ghosts stayed with her, whispering in her ear that she was fooling herself.
Unfortunately, you may have a similar story. Somewhere in your past, someone may have told you that you weren’t that talented, or that your writing dreams weren’t practical, or that your material wasn’t very good. They may have given you a bad time when you wanted to write, or downplayed writing’s importance to you, as if you weren’t smart enough to “get real.”
You probably kept writing anyway. That’s what writers do. But like the individual I mentioned above, you’re still haunted by those voices, wondering if maybe they were right.
Is there anything you can do to shut them up?
Negative Voices Stick Like Velcro to an Artist
Most of us know on an intellectual level that when we hear negative things from other people, it’s best not to take them to heart. But that’s a lot easier said than done.
It’s particularly difficult when you hear these things from people you’re close to. Those are the people who are supposed to care about you, and who should know you best. A bad review from a stranger you can get over. One from a friend or loved one? That’s a lot tougher to shed.
Some writers and artists heard negative messages from their parents, teachers, or other authorities in their young lives. Such messages have a way of imprinting themselves on a developing mind, like tattoos. They become permanent scars, in a way, growing inflamed again and again whenever we doubt ourselves.
Others hear the messages later, in writing workshops, through critiques and reviews, or in the comments of family and friends.
Wherever the messages come from, they are like Velcro, sticking to our beings where they can be easily resurrected. And come to life they do, particularly when we face new challenges.
Your Voices Have Power
When the ghosts of negative voices past visit you, you can tell yourself that you’ll “get over it,” but the truth is that the voices rarely go away, completely. Instead, you need real, practical methods of dealing with them when they whisper in your ear, as they will do from time to time.
Without these practical methods, you run the risk of allowing the negative voices to interfere with your progress. Even if you keep writing, the negative voices will undermine your confidence, which is likely to make your writing less effective than it could be.
“One voice I regularly hear as I sit down to write says, ‘You’re not a writer. You are just faking it. Shouldn’t you be using your time for something more productive?’ It’s really hard to create something compelling with this message echoing in my brain.”
Josh finally realized that the voice came from his old high school guidance counselor, who convinced him to be a biomedical engineer years before. Simply realizing that helped him to quiet that voice.
Most writers have heard both positive and negative comments along the way. You may wonder why it is that the negative comments seem more powerful than the positive. Hypnotist Dr. Sally Stone says that the more emotionally intense our memories are, the more easily we recall them, and that negative emotions are often stronger than positive ones. She explains her own challenges with the insulting voices, and how they seemed to outshout the encouraging types.
“I could hear their complimentary, supportive voices,” she says of her teachers, mentors, and readers, but when she sat down to write, “the negative voices came on like a flood.” One of those voices belonged to a close family member, and left her feeling “demoralized, crushed, ignorant, unworthy, and hopeless.” Listening to it, her will to create “froze up.”
It’s challenging enough to create something new without a negative voice holding you back. Indeed, if you allow them, these voices can sabotage your writing career in more ways than one. Not only will they interfere with the actual creation process, but they will also hold you back from trying new things or stepping out of your comfort zone, whispering poisonous phrases to convince you that you’ll never manage it.
Battling these voices isn’t easy, but it is necessary. As long as you allow them to continue to echo in your consciousness, you will find it difficult to live up to your creative potential.
5 Ways to Banish Negative Voices from Your Creative World
Over the years, I’ve found five practical methods that really work for reducing the influence negative voices have over you and your creative work. I haven’t yet discovered a way to get rid of them completely. Writers and artists are always facing new negatives, as whenever we put our creative work out there, it’s available for someone to criticize, and criticism is easier than ever in today’s world. So it’s near impossible to continue working without having to deal with the echoes of negativity.
But in using the following five methods, I’ve armed myself with tools that help me fend off the ghosts, and turn down the volume on their comments. The survey-taker had already managed the most important step: she had gotten away from the person who was making her feel badly about herself. If at all possible, this is something creative artists need to do.
If the negative voice in your life is coming from a family member, however, you may not be able to distance yourself completely. In that case, I’d refer you to a counselor for more help, as being repeatedly exposed to a person who tears you down can be enough to wear away even the most staunch of creative wills. Care about yourself enough to make use of the professional tools you need to cope.
Even after you get away from the person, however, the voice is likely to stay with you. Try these tips for limiting the power it has over your creative output.
1. Realize that what people say is a reflection of who they are.
This has been one of the single most helpful things I’ve ever learned in my life. I forget where I first heard it, but it’s out there in many forms. The idea is that what we see in the world and in the people around us is a reflection of ourselves and our unique points of view.
“Your perceptions of others reveal so much about your own personality,” said Dustin Wood, lead author of a 2010 study on the subject. He and his colleagues asked participants to each rate positive and negative characteristics of just three people. The resulting statements showed important information about the rater’s well-being, mental health, and social attitudes.
And by the way, negative perceptions of others correlated with higher levels of narcissism and antisocial behavior.
“Inevitably,” says author Lynn Marie Sager, “what people say about others says mountains about them…. the next time you feel upset by what someone says about you, remember that what people say about you is never an accurate reflection of you. What people say about you is really a reflection of them. When people complain about you, they are really saying something about who they are and what they believe.”
When those voices crop up in your head, try to identify whom they belong to. Then realize that the statements were most likely reflections of that person, and not accurate statements about you.
My survey-taker, for example, could remember who said those demeaning things to her, and realize that the person was actually talking more about himself than about her. It’s just the way human beings are wired. The more we can understand this, the less power negative voices have over us.
2. Focus on people who support and uplift you.
Creative people need the support of positive, uplifting people. When you get to feeling down about yourself and your work, a supportive friend or loved one can be invaluable. This is the person that reminds you of the progress you’ve made, of the positive comments that have come your way, and of the goals you’ve achieved.
This is the friend that helps you see the negative voices as just white noise. She easily pooh-poohs that critical review or negative critique. Just when you think your writing career is truly over, he helps you keep things in perspective.
If you don’t yet have anyone like this in your life, don’t despair. Keep writing. Join a writer’s group. Attend a conference. Start interacting with other artists around you. Connect with them on social media. You will eventually find your tribe, and their positive encouragements will help silence those negative voices when they get too loud.
3. Refuse to give power to the voice by taking action.
The negative voices by themselves have no real power over you. It’s when you give them power that they grow and become more influential.
You may not even realize you’re doing it, but if you’re dwelling on something that someone said, you’re giving that someone too much power over your creative career. If you’re replaying the statement over and over in your mind, you’re essentially charging it up.
When an old voice comes into your head telling you you’re crazy to think you can be a writer, wondering whether it’s true gives that voice power. When you’re writing and you hear that voice telling you it’s a useless waste of time, stopping to listen honors its existence.
Instead, refuse to give these voices any power over you whatsoever. The best way I’ve found to do this is to get a little ticked off. Imagine the voice as another person who’s actually standing in the room trying to mess you up.
What would you do if someone was actually right there, saying to you, “What do you think you’re doing? That’s really stupid what you just wrote. You’re never going to publish that story, that’s for sure!”
Would you give this person the time of day? Most likely, you’d wonder what his problem was, and you’d either leave or demand that he leave. When you hear those voices in your head, imagine them as real people, and deal with them accordingly. After all, they came from real people to begin with—it’s time you stood up for yourself.
4. Pump up the positive voices.
They say that one “aw shucks” can erase 100 “atta-boys.” If it’s true that negative voices have more emotional power, it’s time to flood them out with the positive ones. That means you need to immerse yourself in the positive realm more often than you thought.
Writers tend to dwell on the one negative review they got, for example, while nearly ignoring the 25 positive ones. Re-reading the positive reviews with more focused attention can help. Whereas you can probably quote verbatim from the negative review, there are a lot of things in those positive reviews you may not even remember. Turn that around. Require yourself to memorize a few positive ones. Put them up somewhere you can see them.
If you haven’t been published yet, do the same with any positive comments you’ve received. If they’ve been from editors, teachers, or mentors, print them out and hang them up. Showcase any awards you’ve received somewhere you can see them regularly. Give yourself plenty of evidence that yes, you can do this. It’s not bragging if you display these items in your work area simply to encourage yourself. You need a good balance of positive to negative—and for your emotional and creative health, that means showing your brain the positive stuff way more often than the negative.
5. Keep facing your fears.
There is a lot of emphasis in our culture today on “believing in yourself.” Yes, it’s a good goal to strive for, but remember—you don’t have to believe that you’re an amazing writer to get better at writing.
In fact, how you feel about your writing is a lot less important than what you actually do. If you spend time writing every day, and you keep submitting, and you keep getting feedback, and you keep working to get better, you can’t help but improve. As you do, your confidence will grow, naturally, and those negative voices will become less important to you, because you’ll begin to realize how wrong they are.
Just keep going. Face your fears, whatever they are, and when the voices start whispering, tell them you’re not listening, and focus on your writing. Set deadlines for yourself and meet them. Keep moving forward, one step at a time, and eventually you’ll prove all those voices wrong.
How do you keep negative voices from interfering with your creative work?
Wake Forest University. “What you say about others says a lot about you, research shows.” ScienceDaily. August 3, 2010; https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100802165441.htm.