Overcome your inner critic

The mind can be a writer’s harshest critic, and it never seems to shut up. But you don’t need to pay attention to everything it says. Here are three techniques to help you cope with self-criticism.

Best-selling thriller writer Ian Rankin writes a book a year. At a certain point, usually at the end of the first month, he is struck by “the fear.” He becomes convinced that all the work he’s done so far has been a waste of time, that this new book won’t be any good.

When he mentions this to his wife, she usually asks, “Are you on page 65?” He then realizes that he goes through this phase with every novel, always at the same point. Always around page 65.

Many writers, if not all, experience this kind of doubt about their work at some stage. And, as writing is such a lonely profession, they don’t all have someone with whom they can share their frustrations. Continue reading “Overcome your inner critic”

Henry James and ‘the sin of self-esteem’

Whether you suffer from high or low self-esteem, you might find self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-motivation kinder to yourself, and to others.

‘It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage. Meanwhile her errors and delusions were frequent, such as a biographer interested in preserving the dignity of his subject must shrink from specifying. Her thoughts were a tangle of vague outlines which had never been corrected by the judgement of people speaking with authority. In matters of opinion she had had her own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn’t help knowing her organisation was fine), should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic.’

Henry James. The Portrait of a Lady (volume I).

Henry James and the sin of self-esteem
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By far the most common meaning of ‘high self-esteem’ is evaluating oneself positively; in other words, making and believing positive self-judgements and self-appraisals. (This is often described as prizing, appreciating or approving of oneself.) Now keeping to this popular meaning of the term, please do the following quiz. Answer each statement true or false:

  • Boosting your self-esteem will improve your performance.
  • People with high self-esteem are more likeable, have better relationships, and make a better impression on others.
  • People with high self-esteem make better leaders.

Before I give you the answers, let’s go back in time to 2003. In that year, the American Psychological Association commissioned a ‘Self-esteem Task Force’ to investigate if the claims above (and many other similar ones) were true. So a team of four psychologists from top universities – Roy Baumeister, Jennifer Campbell, Joachim Krueger and Kathleen Vohs – systematically ploughed through decades of published research on self-esteem. They looked long and hard for firm scientific evidence to either confirm or refute these popular beliefs. Then they published their results in an influential journal called Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And what did they find? All three of the above statements are false! They also found that:

  • High self-esteem correlates with egotism, narcissism and arrogance.
  • High self-esteem correlates with prejudice and discrimination.
  • High self-esteem correlates with self-deception and defensiveness when faced with honest feedback.

And as if this news weren’t bad enough by itself, when people with low self-esteem try to boost it through positive self-affirmations, they generally end up feeling even worse!

So if trying to raise self-esteem is not worth the effort, then what’s the alternative?

Self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-motivation are all far more important than self-esteem.

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

Dealing with your own prejudice

Everyone has judgmental, even prejudicial, thoughts. Try to recognise these as just thoughts, you don’t need to believe them and you don’t need to act on them.

“A clergyman has nothing to do but to be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine.”

“There are such clergymen, no doubt, but I think they are not so common as to justify Miss Crawford in esteeming it their general character. I suspect that in this comprehensive and (may I say) common-place censure, you are not judging from yourself, but from prejudiced persons, whose opinions you have been in the habit of hearing. It is impossible that your own observation can have given you much knowledge of the clergy. You can have been personally acquainted with very few of a set of men you condemn so conclusively. You are speaking what you have been told at your uncle’s table.”

“I speak what appears to me the general opinion; and where an opinion is general, it is usually correct. Though I have not seen much of the domestic lives of clergymen, it is seen by too many to leave any deficiency of information.”

“Where any one body of educated men, of whatever denomination, are condemned indiscriminately, there must be a deficiency of information, or (smiling) of something else.

Jane Austen. Mansfield Park.

Dealing with your own prejudice
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While our thinking colors all our experience, more often than not our thoughts tend to be less than completely accurate. Usually they are merely uninformed private opinions, reactions and prejudices based on limited knowledge and influenced primarily by our past conditioning. All the same, when not recognized as such and named, our thinking can prevent us from seeing clearly in the present moment. We get caught up in thinking we know what we are seeing and feeling, and in projecting our judgments out onto everything we see off a hairline trigger. Just being familiar with this deeply entrenched pattern and watching it as it happens can lead to greater non-judgmental receptivity and acceptance.

Jon Kabat-Zinn. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.

No one is a success

It’s normal for your mind to judge, to declare you a failure or a success. The truth is that you’re neither. Sometimes you fail and sometimes you succeed. Who you are doesn’t change.

‘It is impossible to be a barrister without imagining oneself a judge, and Ducane’s imagination had often taken this flight. However, and this was another reason for Ducane’s ultimate disgust with life in the courts, the whole situation of ‘judging’ was abhorrent to him. He had watched his judges closely, and had come to the conclusion that no human being is worthy to be a judge. In theory, the judge represents simply the majesty and impartiality of the law whose instrument he is. In practice, because of the imprecision of law and the imperfection of man, the judge enjoys a considerable area of quite personal power which he may or may not exercise wisely. Ducane’s rational mind knew that there had to be law courts and that English law was on the whole good law and English judges good judges. But he detested that confrontation between the prisoner in the dock and the judge, dressed so like a king or a pope, seated up above him. His irrational heart, perceptive of the pride of judges, sickened and said it should not be thus; and said it the more passionately since there was that in Ducane which wanted to be a judge.

Ducane knew, and knew it in a half-guilty, half-annoyed way as if he had been eavesdropping, that there were moments when he had said to himself, ‘I alone of all these people am good enough, am humble enough, to be a judge’. Ducane was capable of picturing himself as not only aspiring to be, but as actually being, the just man and the just judge. He did not rightly know what to do with these visions. Sometimes he took them, now that he had removed himself from the possibility of actually becoming a real judge, for a sort of harmless idealism.

Sometimes they seemed to him the most corrupting influences in his life.’

Iris Murdoch. The Nice and the Good.

No one is a success
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Most of us are far too quick to judge others: to label them as ‘quitters’, ‘losers’ or ‘failures’. If we want to let go of judging ourselves harshly, we also need to do the same for others. The more we point the finger at our fellow human beings, and write them off as weak or inferior, the more we entrench the habit of harsh judgemental thinking. And sooner or later, our minds will turn those judgements back on ourselves.

Life is easier when we recognize there are no such people as ‘quitters’, ‘losers’ or ‘failures’. There are just human beings, who – much like you and me – sometimes quit, sometimes lose and sometimes fail. Likewise, there are no such people as ‘winners’, ‘champions’ and ‘successes’. Rather there are human beings who, just like you and me, sometimes win or are very successful in certain areas of their lives.

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

Learn to love life’s little pleasures

Take time to notice the details in your everyday routines and discover the pleasures you miss when you’re in a rush or when your mind is elsewhere.

The scent of my underarm deodorant reached my nose. I had rolled it on after the shower without thinking too much about it, just routine.

Will Wiles. The Way Inn.

Learn to love life's little pleaures
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Each day, I invite you to practise mindfulness of at least two pleasurable experiences. If you’re having a shower, use all five senses to engage in it: notice the patterns of the droplets on the shower screen, the sensations of the water on your skin, the smell of the shampoo and soap, and the sound of the spray coming out of the nozzle.

When you’re eating dinner, pause for a moment before your first bite, and notice the different aromas of the various ingredients, and the colours, shapes and textures of the different foods. Then, as you cut up the food, notice the sounds made by your cutlery and the movements of your hands and arms and shoulders. And as you eat that first mouthful, notice the tastes and textures in your mouth, as if you were a gourmet food critic who has never tasted a meal like this before.

If you’re hugging someone you love, notice the sensations in your body, and the way you position yourself, and what you do with your arms, and the reactions in the face and body of your loved one.

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap

How to catch the carrot

Pause for a while, be patient and mindful, and let go of your desires, and you just might find the very thing you have been looking for all along.

‘Perhaps man was neither good nor bad, was only a machine in an insensate universe – his courage no more than a reflex to danger, like the automatic jump at the pin-prick. Perhaps there were no virtues, unless jumping at pin-pricks was a virtue, and humanity only a mechanical donkey led on by the iron carrot of love, through the pointless treadmill of reproduction.’

T.H. White. The Once and Future King.

How to catch the carrot
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Buddhist donkeys know how to get that carrot! They run like hell after that carrot, putting maximum effort (viriya) and concentration (samādhi) into moving that cart as fast as they can. Of course, the carrot moves just as fast, always remaining a couple feet in front of the donkey’s mouth. At this point, the Buddhist donkey lets go of desire. They suddenly stop! Because of momentum, the carrot swings even further from the donkey, arcing up further than it has ever been before. But this donkey has faith (saddhā) and wisdom (paññā) and so waits patiently with mindfulness (sati), since effort and concentration have done their work. Patiently observing, the donkey sees the carrot swing away to the extreme, and then sees it begin to swing back again. “Rising and falling,” notes the donkey. Soon the carrot has fallen back to its usual position but, oddly, it is now traveling toward the donkey and at some speed. Practicing patience, the donkey does nothing. It is the carrot that does all the work as it comes closer and closer. At the right moment, the donkey simply opens its mouth and the big juicy carrot comes in all by itself. Crunch! Munch! Mmm! That tastes sweet! This is how donkeys who know the Dhamma catch the carrot.

Ajahn Brahm. Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond.

Mindful listening

Movie week on the Fiction Therapist continues with Shall We Dance.

You often know the answer to your problems, but sometimes you need someone to listen while you work out the solution. Sometimes you need a witness. Other times, you need to wtiness.

There is a scene that has always touched me in the movie Shall We Dance? A man whose marriage has ended asks, “Why do people get married?” His companion says, “Because we need a witness to our lives. You’re saying, ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will witness it.’”

There is a Buddhist recitation for invoking compassion, and it highlights the role of listening in caring for others. “We shall practice listening so attentively that we are able to hear what the other is saying—and also what is left unsaid. We know that by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other.”

Therapists trained in absorptive listening say that it can, by itself, catalyze healing. There are types of therapy in which the therapist does not say anything, letting the wisdom emerge from clients as they listen to themselves talk.

Jan Chozen Bays. How to Train a Wild Elephant.

Accept your beautiful mind

Movie week on the Fiction Therapist continues with A Beautiful Mind.

Although John Nash, a brilliant mathematician suffering from schizophrenia, knows his hallucinations won’t stop, he takes a moment to say goodbye to the characters created by his mind.

A Beautiful Mind. Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar. Nominated for eight Academy awards and won four, including best picture.

An excellent example of acceptance appears in A Beautiful Mind, a 2001 movie about John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner in economics. The movie portrays his struggles with psychotic symptoms throughout his life. One of the powerful aspects of this movie is that the viewers see things from John Nash’s perspective and therefore get to experience what it’s like to be overwhelmed by images, thoughts, and feelings that are totally in his mind. As the movie progresses, the viewers, like the main character, experience a change in perspective as the hallucinations are revealed to be passengers on his bus (our wording). That is, the main character starts treating these very convincing, often flattering persons as characters convincing, often flattering persons as characters conjured up by his mind and not what they claim they are: an FBI agent recruiting him for a special assignment or a best friend who rescues him from his loneliness. In a very moving scene toward the end of the film, John tells the images, “I will not be able to speak to you anymore” and walks away. It is understood that although he will no longer be engaging in conversations with them, these characters created by his mind will continue to follow him.

Victoria M. Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello. Finding Life Beyond Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-traumatic Stress and Trauma-related Problems.

You’re already complete

To commemorate the upcoming Academy Awards, the Fiction Therapist is running a movie week, beginning with a scene from Jerry Maguire.

Jerry Maguire announces to his wife that she ‘completes’ him. Although it’s a touching and brave scene, looking for someone else to complete you can be very unhelpful.

Jerry Maguire. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Starring Tom Cruise. Nominated for five Academy awards in 1996, including best picture.

When it comes to movies, I’m a big sucker for romantic comedies: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, When Harry Met Sally. I just love them. One of my favorites was Jerry Maguire, which gave us the great phrase, “You complete me.” This is the phrase that Jerry Maguire says to his girlfriend at the very end of the movie, to prove how much he loves her—at which point, I suddenly choked on my popcorn!

This is such an unhelpful idea to buy into. If you go along with this myth and act as if you are incomplete without your partner, then you set yourself up for all sorts of problems. You will be needy, dependent, and fearful of being alone, which is not conducive to a healthy, vital relationship.’

Russ Harris. ACT with Love