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For over thirty years my primary specialty has been the prevention of secondary stress (the pressures experienced in reaching out to others.) During these three decades, I have experienced periods during which the situation has become more difficult for those in the healing and helping professions. For the past several years up to the present, I believe this has become the case again—with an even greater, far ranging initial negative impact, not only for professionals, but also for those whom they serve.
In some cases, the impact I have noted is quite dramatic. When getting ready to speak to military chaplains in Germany, many of whom returned recently from Iraq and Afghanistan, a colonel walked up to me and said: “Before you give your presentation on resilience, I want to give you a caution.” “What is it?” I asked. “There are a lot of ghosts in this room,” he said. “What do you mean by that?” I responded. After a pause, he said, “There’s nothing left inside them.”
Such cases are often termed “acute secondary stress.” This occurs when helpers and healers encounter trauma in others in such a dramatic way that their own sense of well-being is psychologically contaminated. As a result, they too can begin demonstrating the symptoms and signs of post-traumatic stress. Their dreams can be disturbed, their sense of security disrupted, and their overall outlook on the world dimmed.
However, during these times, I have found that a possibly even more disturbing pattern is one termed “chronic secondary stress,” or what has long been called “burnout.” Although this sounds less dangerous, and is certainly not as dramatic as its acute counterpart, I find it to be more worrisome because it is so insidious. Marshall McCluhan, a Canadian philosopher of communications, once said, “If the temperature of the bath rises one degree every ten minutes, how will the bather know when to scream?” In today’s society, I don’t believe we know when to scream or, in the parlance of what I would term “compassion erosion,” know the signs of when it is essential to strengthen or own a self-care program so we can continue to have the broad shoulders to bear others’ burdens as well as our own.
This is not only an American problem, it’s a worldwide one. After presenting a lecture on maintaining a healthy perspective to an audience in Johannesburg, South Africa, a social worker said that she had had enough and was going to leave the profession. When I asked her why, she said that she worked with women who were single parents, had been sexually abused, and were living on the edge of poverty. When she would go to court with them because of the rape they had experienced, they would need to take a day off from work; something they could ill afford. Yet, often the judge would just look at them and say, “Oh, I haven’t had time to look at the material. Schedule another time to come back.” She was clearly despondent and felt she wasn’t making an impact, despite her efforts to help the women that she served.
Even when the individual is initially optimistic and energetic, staying the course can still be problematic. A professional caregiver for the Veteran’s Administration enthusiastically greeted one of the returning Vets when he came in for his initial appointment. He responded by saying, “Boy, you are full of great energy.” To which she smiled and replied, “You have served our Country well. Now, come on in and let us know what we can do for you.” Yet, in the past months she has had to deal with the unpleasant reports that seem to tar the whole VA. Few reports include reference to those workers who are doing good work and truly respect the deserving clients they serve.
The problem goes beyond these events of course. Everyone, not simply helping and healing professionals, are being bombarded with negative and, in some cases, tragic events either directly or indirectly: news of the horrible outcomes of wars in the Middle East, physicians being sued not for malpractice but mispractice (even though no one can be perfect 100% of the time), financial stress due to the unavailability of good paying positions, educators being hounded rather than supported by parents when their children are corrected or not given the grade they expect, clergy being treated with disdain even though they have done nothing inappropriate themselves, nurses being unappreciated for their role as representing the heart of health care… The list is endless and causes both a drain on one’s personal quality of life and an increase in compassion erosion (a decrease in the ability to reach out to others in need on a continued, natural basis).
So what is to be done? Well, to start, several essential steps must be taken by all of us—not just those among us who are in the helping and healing professions. One of these actions is to reframe any efforts at helping others in our circle of friends, family, and those whom we serve so that we focus on faithfulness (which is in our control) instead of success (which never totally is). In the case of the South African social worker, I emphasized to her that she was the only one present to the poor abused women whom she served and this, in and of itself, was of crucial importance and was definitely a positive support.
In addition to appreciating the power of presence, spending time on self-care is also important because one of the greatest gifts we can share with others is a sense of our own peace and a healthy perspective – but we can’t share what we don’t have. In a restaurant, workers are mandated to wash their hands after they go to the lavatory so they don’t contaminate the food of those they serve. In the hospital, the workers must also wash their hands before as well as after they use the bathroom to decrease the occurrence of cross contamination. The same is necessary psychologically for those of us who serve others—even if it is simply our families or co-workers. We must take the necessary steps to be resilient so when encountering negativity, we are not psychologically infected by their problems. Of what good can we be when this happens?
Finally, recognizing the importance of alone time (time spent in silence and solitude or simply being reflective and mindful when in a group) is essential. When I was up on Capitol Hill speaking to some Members of Congress and their Chiefs of Staff on the topic of resilience, I took away an important quote by a former Senator. When asked what he felt was one of the greatest dangers facing the Congress today he replied, “Not enough time to think.” We need some quiet time to be mindful or we will not make it.
We are all in a tough spot now as compassion erosion seems to be spiking for the present. Many of us feel even more than ever before that life is not good and we have little to share with others. However, taking a page from the posttraumatic growth (PTG) literature is essential: namely, some persons who experience severe stress or trauma have the possibility to experience even greater personal insight and depth in their lives that would not have been possible had the terrible events not happened in the first place. So, chronic and acute stress need not be the last word. They may even set the stage for a life of greater, not less, compassion and an appreciation of what and who is truly important to us. However, for this to happen, we need to recognize the danger and do something about it now.
First of all, have you watched this yet? If not, do. Then we’ll talk:
Now here’s what I have to add to the topic of weight and body image and all that:
When I was quite a bit heavier than I am now, I went through Weight Watchers. And I’ll never forget what the instructor told us at one of the meetings: “Underwear isn’t supposed to hurt.” Changed my life, that statement. But maybe not for reasons the instructor would have expected.
She was trying to inspire us to reach our goal weights, and that was fine, as far as it went. But what it really said–to me, at least–was that we might not even realize we’re being mean to ourselves by wearing clothes that don’t fit us well. Maybe we’re so caught up in the idea of “these are the pants I’ll wear when I get down to X pounds,” we forget that we’re allowed to feel comfortable NOW, even before or while we work on losing weight.
Maybe some of you are like me, and you’re very good at being stern with yourselves. Being the drill sergeant, the disciplinarian, the one who makes up all the rules and then tries to come up with proper consequences when you violate them. So if you eat this cupcake, you’d better work out twice as hard tomorrow. Or my favorite at one time, the “bland days” that would follow a few days of unbridled eating. Then it was nothing but rice and vegetables or dry toast for me. Fun, huh? Really enjoying my life.
But I don’t do any of that anymore. Because I realized there’s no one making me be mean to myself but me. I’m a full-grown adult now, and I’m allowed to treat myself the way I would treat someone I love. I can’t imagine saying to my niece or to my best friend, “You ate half a bag of tortilla chips and a whole container of salsa this afternoon? Bad! You’re horrible! You’d better eat nothing but salads for the next five days!” Instead I’m sure I’d laugh it off, tell them I’ve done the same and more in times of stress (you have no idea how many cookies I sometimes need to get myself through the writing of some chapter that’s giving me fits), and then we’d go on talking about something far more important than whether her pants would be too tight tomorrow. Yes, they probably will. So what? Life goes on.
What I always found destructive in those times of self-criticism was the attitude of, “Oh, well, I’ve ruined it already. Might as well just keep eating everything in the world.” Uh, no. Might as well go do something sweet for myself instead, like take a hot bath or read a great book or pop in some rom-com DVD. Any of those take the place of chips or cookies–pure indulgence, meant only for me. Which means I’m also not allowed to criticize myself for goofing off. That’s right, I’m doing this right now. Because I’m allowed to be nice to myself.
I mentioned last week that I’m currently on a green smoothie kick, but let me be clear: It’s not a punishment of some kind. I’m doing it because I finally experienced what a proper green smoothie tastes like, I enjoyed it, I liked how it felt in my body, and so as a kindness to myself I’m going to drink some more. But if at any point I decide I don’t like the taste anymore or I don’t like that full feeling from having gobs and gobs of fruits and nuts and vegetables in what seems like a simple chocolate milkshake (by the way, I’ve been working on that recipe and have made it even better), then that’s it. No more. I’ll only do it if it feels nice.
That’s one of the pleasures of being an adult. A pleasure I wish I had learned back when I was a chubby teenager wearing clothing that hurt me every day, thinking it would motivate me to be skinnier. It didn’t. It just made me feel bad.
So I hope next time you pull on a pair of underwear with a waistband that cuts into your skin, you stop yourself and think, “Underwear isn’t supposed to hurt.” And that you take the next step by going to Target or wherever and buying yourself a package of underwear one size up. Or two sizes up, if you need to. Because that one simple thing might mean the difference between you feeling happy and comfortable in your body today, and you feeling miserable and guilty and unworthy. Such a simple fix. And believe me, you deserve it.
And the next time you go crazy eating something you’re sure you’re not supposed to eat, shrug it off. Do better tomorrow. Or do better starting a minute from now–the right path is always there waiting for you, whenever you feel like stepping back onto it. No worries, no punishment, no “bland days” or drill sergeant. The time to be sweet to yourself starts now.
As I mentioned last time in “Overloaded Lives,” writers need margin in their lives in order to write. However, margin has disappeared for many people.
Frazzled mothers, office workers, retired grandparents, and other writers struggle to find both time and energy to write. Make no mistake: it is harder today than at any other time in history. It’s not your imagination.
It’s also not hopeless. It comes down to adding margin back into your lifestyle.
Before we talk about how to do that, let’s talk about how the overload happens and what it looks like.
Tipping the Scale
Overload in any area of your life happens slowly. It is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It is having one more expectation of you at work or home, one more change, making one more commitment, making one more purchase that you must pay for, facing one more decision.
You can comfortably handle many details in your life. But when you exceed that level, it’s called overload.
Reaching My Limits
All people have limits, and overloading your system leads to breakdown. Some overloading is easy to spot. A physical limit can easily be recognized. For example, I know I can’t lift my car, so I never try.
Performance limits can be more difficult to recognize. If my will is strong enough, I will try to do things I can’t do for very long. I might try to work 80 hours per week every week or lift my refrigerator. The overload can result in sickness or stress fractures.
Reaching your emotional and mental limits can be the hardest to spot. Each person is unique. My overload might result in symptoms like migraines and ulcers; your overload might result in a heart attack or road rage.
Has overload always been with us? No.
Changes are happening faster and faster, and overload can appear almost overnight. Here are some ways you can become overloaded:
Activity overload: We are busy people, we try to do three things at one time, and we are booked up in advance.
Change overload: Change used to be slow, and now it comes at warp speed.
Choice overload: In 1980 there were 12,000 items in the average supermarket; 10 years ago there were 30,000 items. Now there are many more.
Commitment overload: We have trouble saying no. We take on too many responsibilities and too many relationships. We hold down too many jobs, volunteer for too many tasks, and serve on too many committees.
Debt overload: Nearly every sector of society is in debt. Most are weighed down by consumer debt.
Decision overload: Every year we have more decisions to make and less time to make them. They range from the minor decisions at the grocery store to major decisions about aging parents.
Expectation overload: We believe that if we can think it, we can have it. We think we should have no boundaries placed on us.
Fatigue overload: We are tired. Our batteries are drained. Most people are even more tired at the end of their vacation than they were at the beginning.
Hurry overload: We walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, and feel rushed all the time. Being in a constant hurry is a modern ailment.
Information overload: We are buried by information on a daily basis-newspapers, magazines, online blogs and ar
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During the 1988 Jamboree encampment of 32,000 Boy Scouts, one troop (38 Scouts) led the entire Jamboree in cuts treated at the medical tent.
The huge number of nicks from busy knives sounded negative until someone toured the camp and saw the unique artistic walking sticks each boy in that troop had made. They led the entire encampment in other kinds of games, too.
Wounds simply mean that you’re in the game. It’s true for Boy Scouts–and it’s true for writers as well.
I know an excellent writer who has revised a book for years–but won’t submit it, even though everyone who has read it feels the book is ready. What benefit does she get from that? She never has to face rejection. She never has to hear an editor say, “This is good–but it needs work.” She never has to read a bad review of her book, or do any speaking engagements to promote her work, or learn how to put together a website.
She will also never feel the exhilaration of holding her published book in her hands. She won’t get letters from children who tell her how much her book means to them and has helped them. She won’t get a starred review or win an award or do a book signing. She won’t move on and write a second (and third and fourth) book.
Paying the Price
If you want to be a writer, you have to get into the game and risk a few wounds. Figure out ways to bandage them and recover from them, but don’t be afraid of getting them. They’re simply a sign that you’re a writer. Wear the battle scars proudly!
What part(s) of the writing life make you want to stay on the sidelines and out of the line of fire?
Women are givers. Women writers are some of the most giving people I know.
We tend to have stronger relationships because of it–with babies, grown children, friends, and extended family.
But unless you learn how to balance all this giving with replenishment, you’ll find it nearly impossible to write.
Gift from the Sea
It has been a particularly busy family time the last six weeks, with little sleep and even less time to write. I wouldn’t go back and change any of it either–very rewarding times. But there comes a time when you realize you’re close to being drained. Pay attention to those times, or you’ll pay for it later (in your health, in your lack of writing, and in lack of patience with those around you).
This morning I was reading a bit in one of my favorite little books, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book, Gift from the Sea. I re-read it at least once a year. Here are a few snippets that might speak to you giving women:
What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives. It leads …to fragmentation. It does not bring grace; it destroys the soul.
Eternally, woman spills herself away in driblets to the thirsty, seldom being allowed the time, the quiet, the peace, to let the pitcher fill up to the brim.
Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others, I am beginning to discover. And, for me, the core, the inner spring, can best be refound through solitude.
One must lose one’s life to find it. Woman can best refind herself by losing herself in some kind of creative activity of her own.
Is That You?
If you find yourself feeling fragmented and agitated today, find a way to steal away from everyone for even ten minutes of total solitude (and if possible, silence). Breathe deeply. Bring the energy spilled on everyone else back inside for a few minutes. Re-focus. Relax.
If you have a couple hours, get a copy of Gift from the Seaand read straight through it. You’ll love it!
And if you have a couple extra minutes, leave a comment and tell us your favorite way to find solitude–whether for a day or just a few minutes. We all need suggestions for this!
Judging from some questions and comments I got via email about Wednesday’s post, I think I should have probably explained more.
I believe that many of us–and definitely ME–have a slightly “off” definition of being optimistic. It isn’t about thinking more positively or saying peppy things to yourself to keep going. (I’m good at both of those things.)
Pessimists come to believe a bad condition is probably permanent (”Diets never work for me.” “You never talk to me.” “Life will always be hard.” “Editors will never want my writing.”)
Conversely, pessimests also believe the good things that happen to them are transcient. (”I tried hard that time.” “My opponent was just tired that day.” “I got lucky that time–it was a fluke.”)
An optimist believes good events came from permanent causes (”I’m smart” and “I’m talented”) and that bad events come from temporary causes (”I was having a bad day” and “she’s just hormonal this week.”)
Pessimists let bad news or events in one area of life spread to other areas. (”I can’t write–I just had a fight with my spouse/teen/best friend.”) Pessimists make blanket judgments. “All editors are unfair.” “Writing books are useless.”)
Conversely, when good things happen, pessimists are very specific. (”I only did well there because I’m smart at math.” “The editor only agreed to look at my book because I was charming at the conference.”)
An optimist can put bad events in a box and not let a failure in one area spread out into all areas of his/her life. Specific events stay separate. (”I’ll deal with my teen later–I’ll write now.” “This writing book is useless.” “The editor asked for my manuscript because my pitch–which I worked on for days–was good!”)
This is when taking responsibility for your part in things (which is good) becomes self-blame (where you take all the responsibility for a problem, whether any or all of it is your fault or not.) You may have been raised with blame or live with someone who makes everything your fault. Either way, when things don’t work out in some area of your life, you automatically assume 100% of the blame. (”I’m just stupid.” “I’m insecure.” “I have no talent.”)
An optimist is realistic about how much responsibility to take for a problem. She doesn’t feel guilty assigning blame to others or events beyond her control when appropriate. She feels responsible for herself, not everyone she knows. [This was my biggest downfall on the test!]
It All Works Together
The test I took scored you on all three aspects. I scored high on some and low on others, which is how I got a zero. Some things–like taking too responsibility for things–turned out to be a bigger issue than I would have guessed. A
You meet an editor or agent in an elevator or the banquet line. They turn to you and ask, “What’s your book about? Why are you the person to write it?”
Which One Is You?
Do you give a confident 30-second talk summarizing your book’s main points and why you’re the only one who could do the project justice?
Do you say, “You know, that’s a good question. I’m a lousy writer! Who do I think I am anyway, masquerading as a writer? It’s a dumb book idea.”
Of course you don’t spout that second example!
And yet, many writers do that very thing to themselves every day. That evil little voice in your head or over your shoulder whispers, “That’s a stupid idea” or “That’s been done before–and a lot better” or “You’re never going to finish that story.” And like agreeable little twits, we nod and tell ourselves, “This is a dumb idea. I’m never going to finish this. This concept was done last year–and a whole lot better!”
Then, discouraged for another day, we head for the ice cream.
Pitch It to Yourself!
The name “elevator pitch” means a short speech you have ready for that opportune moment when you can market yourself or your book idea to someone that might buy it. Every day–even many times a day–you need to pitch your writing project and yourself TO YOURSELF.
How are you going to sell your story idea to yourself? What elevator pitch can you give to yourself when you’re surprised, not by an agent or editor in the elevator, but by your own nagging questions?
When “voice in the head” says, “This is just too hard!”
You say, “I have done many hard things in my life. I can do one more difficult thing.”
When “voice in the head” says, “There’s too much going on in your life for you to write now”
You say, “Writing is at the top of my To-Do list because it’s important!”
When “voice in the head” says, “Editors and agents scare me!”
You say, “Even when I feel anxious, I can act like a professional.”
When “voice in the head” says, “I can’t write because I can’t tolerate rejections”
You say, “NOT writing is the only rejection that matters. It’s a rejection of my dreams. I can write a little each day.”
Write Your Own Now
Take a few moments today and write at least three elevator pitches of your own, counter-acting the voice in your head. Write the pitches on cards and tape them to your computer. When the “voice” badgers you the next time, read one of your cards OUT LOUD. Several times.
And if you’re feeling very brave, add an elevator pitch in the comments section (up to three pitches) that you can begin pitching to yourself today!
Have you reached a point in your writing career where you’re not as gung-ho as you were? Your fingers aren’t as fast on the keyboard, your neck gets stiff more quickly, or sleepiness overtakes you before you’ve written more than a page?
Maybe you’re in need of renewal.
Like the Eagle
I read a fascinating bit of information about bald eagles today. There comes a time when an eagle can no longer take off as quickly or fly at top speed, when his sharp talons have grown dull, when calcifications have formed on his beak, and his feathers are worn. Did you know that this smart bald eagle takes time to renew himself at this point?
He goes away alone, sits on a high rock close to the sun, and begins to pluck out all his feathers, one by one. (He may have 7,000 feathers! Talk about pain!) Then he finds a stream to clean himself of the caked mud, parasites, and insects he’s collected. When he’s clean and nearly naked, he sits in the sun and waits.
During the waiting period–up to forty days–the eagle sharpens his talons and beak on the rock. He beats the calcifications off his beak. He waits for his feathers to grow back in. Much of the time he rests. He may look battered, he may feel weak, but he is being renewed.
Writers need renewal too. Are you at that point? Have there been one too many rejections or disappointments lately? Have you given it your all for months (maybe years), but without seemingly much progress?
If that’s the case, you may want to carve out some renewal time for yourself before disappointment becomes despair, before the rejections make you give up, before natural tiredness becomes burnout, before brain sludge becomes writer’s block.
Stumped for ideas on how to renew the writer within? One place to start is Monday’s blog post on restoring balance in your life. I mentioned a good resource there. What are some of YOUR favorite ways to find renewal (both short-term and when you need a deeper rest?) Please share!
I have wondered all year if my writing career was about over because I’d lost my motivation to write. What motivated me to start writing thirty years ago and what motivated me to keep writing through multiple obstacles no longer worked to motivate me to write today.
Then over the weekend, I figured out the dilemma. I was reading in Bill O’Hanlon’s Write is a VERB, where he talks about motivation. (He’s a former therapist/counselor.) He breaks motivation into three categories of “time orientation,” and each of these categories can be either “inner” or “outer” motivation.
As I read, I had one of those “aha” light bulb moments. I realized that I actually had plenty of motivation, but I had changed categories drastically. The same old carrot was no longer working for this donkey. If you feel a lack of motivation lately, read on. You may find you’ve done the same thing.
There are three categories of time-oriented motivation: past, present, and future. I began my writing career using future motivation. When energy was low, I motivated myself by reading inspiring stories of authors who sold their first books. I imagined seeing a row of my hardcovers on a library shelf. I visualized reading my own books to my children–and getting to work at home instead of putting them in daycare. None of these things had happened yet–it was all going to happen on some future happy day–and it motivated me to write.
After I sold a number of books, after the hardcovers also came out in paperback, after the book club sales and nice reviews, my reasons for writing changed to what is called past motivation. I wanted to repeat the successes, keep paying the bills, and not let people down who had invited me to speak at conferences and children’s literature festivals. My motivation came from events that had already happened.
But lately, I could dangle all the carrots in front of my donkey nose that I wanted to, but nothing motivated me. I wasn’t trying to break in or repeat past successes. I simply wanted to enjoy the daily writing process again, alone in my office, writing on topics I cared deeply about. I secretly suspected that I was becoming an undisciplined writer prima donna…until I read about the categories of motivation. I wasn’t unmotivated! I had merely made another shift. Now I needed and responded to present motivation. How could I make the writing fun in the present time?
Positive or Negative
Each of those motivations–past, present, and future–can be positive or negative. Most of my motivations were positive, but negative motivations work well too. You may be motivated to succeed as a book writer because you hate your current day job (present negative motivation).
Past negative motivation might come from memories of being told by a teacher or parent that your dreams would never amount to anything–and you’re determined to prove them wrong.
Future negative motivation might be envisioning your writing friend as a bestselling author on tour–and you’re just the janitor at the book store because you quit writing. This negative future vision then motivates you to keep writing.
Inner or Outer
Your motivation is either largely inside you or outside you. Internal motivation means you know how to motivate from within. You have a good work ethic, a good system of rewards for work accomplished, and you don’t require anyone to push you to write. (I was this way at the beginning. I couldn’t wait for the babies and toddlers to take naps so I could get to the writing!)
External motivation is just what it sounds like: a deadline or contract or promise made to someone else that you will write and complete something by a deadline. There is some form of accountability if you don’t write your pages and finish your manuscript. During the years I was writing five series, mostly under contract ahead of time, I had external motivation and grew to depend on it.
When I decided to take a step back from series writing and try single titles again, my motivation suddenly sagged. I had grown dependent on outside deadlines and needed to re-establish that inner ability to work when there is no promise of a sale.
Find Your Combo
Do you feel as if you’ve lost your motivation to write? Maybe that’s not the case at all. Perhaps it’s just that you’ve moved into the next writing season of your life. I was locked into “past motivation” and needing someone to give me “external motivation” for fifteen years. I’m glad to finally understand the changes I’ve experienced this year. I now want “present day motivation” and need to provide it “internally.”
For this season of my writing life, to make my work space enjoyable and motivate me to write on a daily basis, I’ve cleaned it up and organized a lot, then added a reading nook in the corner, which I use many times a day. From now on, I’ll look for ideas that can bolster my “present day” and “internally generated” motivation.
What about you? It would be worth your time to think about and journal about what motivates you to write–and then daily provide yourself that motivation. Don’t be surprised to find, if you’ve been writing for a number of years, that you’re no longer motivated by the same things. Discern your current state, then tailor your motivations to those forms that speak to you most.
After receiving a couple of pieces of very unwelcome news last weekend, it took me the better part of this week to regain my writing focus.
Most mornings were spent getting my mental and spiritual act together, which resulted in having to work till very late at night to complete some projects with deadlines. I got the work done, but I didn’t enjoy any of it.
Today I found myself very mad–at ME.
Time for a Change
Neither situation last weekend was my fault. I didn’t cause either thing, I couldn’t cure either problem, and I can’t control what those people are still doing. So it really, really irritated me that I spent so many hours this week thinking, reading, praying, and journaling about it.
I’ve always been this way, as far back as age four, the earliest I can remember. Obsessive thinking doesn’t help the other person, and it sure doesn’t help me. It robs us of hours and hours of productive, HAPPY times. And for writers, it robs our time to write, our relaxed ability to create, and a focused mind so necessary for our projects.
Enough is Enough!
Yesterday I read a quote that really got me to thinking. In The Little Book of Letting Goby Hugh Prather, it said: “We talk to children about the ‘power of the imagination.’ We attend seminars that tell us our minds have immense reserves of untapped capacity. All in all, we have done a superb job of kidding ourselves that in our roomy ‘attic’ all is useful, worth keeping, and in good repair. But if we observe our minds closely for just one hour, we see that instead of a boundless chamber of magic and wonder, our minds are more like stuffed and stodgy refrigerators that emit peculiar odors.”
It’s time to clean out my refrigerator. I’ve come to realize that all this obsessive thinking and worrying is a life-long bad habit. It’s not a mental illness that needs a pill. It’s not an emotional illness that needs counseling. It’s a bad habit–and habits can be broken.
Identify the Culprit First
I’ve broken lots of harmful habits in the past, and nearly every time it involved discovering the lie I was believing about something. We all have them. (The obese person may believe the lie that “gorging myself will bring comfort.” The procrastinator believes the lie that “I work better under pressure.” The rescuing mom believes the lie that her grown children shouldn’t/couldn’t be responsible for themselves.)
Time to dig into this stinky “mind” refrigerator and find the spoiled junk emitting the odors. Look out! Don’t stand behind me. There’s gonna be some bad stuff chucked outta here!
If you’re a plumber hired to unclog my drain, but I catch you sitting and looking out the window, I can, in all fairness, say you’re not working. If you’re my cleaning lady, but I catch you rocking in a chair staring into space, I can say justly that you’re not working.
What about writers? Not so easy to tell!
Thinking vs. Writing
According to Wallace Stevens, “It is not always easy to tell the difference between thinking and looking out the window.” It’s also not always easy to tell the difference between thinking and going for a walk, between thinking and washing dishes, between thinking and daydreaming, and between thinking and grazing in the fridge.
Why is this true? Lots of thinking precedes writing. For fiction writers, thinking about characters, getting to know them, listening to their voices-all this happens in the head while “thinking.” Plot twists and turns give birth while “thinking”-and woe unto the writer who skips thinking and writes the first thing that comes into her head.
Although all this pre-thinking is critical, that isn’t all the thinking you’ll have to do. Even while working on revisions, you’ll find yourself thinking and staring out the window, thinking and walking, thinking and grazing. You understand that “I’m thinking” means ”so please don’t interrupt.” Chances are, your family won’t. Instead they will walk into the room where you’re “thinking-writing” and say, “Oh good, you’re not doing anything. Can you hold the ladder for me?”
Thinking in Disguise
That’s why I prefer to do my thinking in private if I can. Otherwise it just seems to invite interruptions, often at a critical moment when I’ve just about figured out my theme or where the climax scene needs to go.
If I’m home alone, that’s no problem. If it’s in the evening, though, or on a weekend, I weed flowers or fold a load of laundry or wash dishes when I need to think something through. (Nobody bothers you when doing chores-they might get roped into helping.)
Reap the Rewards
Contrary to the life of a plumber or housekeeper, a lot of the writer’s real work happens when she’s looking out the window. Sometimes my clearest thoughts, my best insights for how to fix things, come when I’m not thinking about the piece of writing at all.
Give yourself enough of this “mindless” time, and you’ll be amazed what bubbles up to your conscious mind. Despite the heckling you may receive, during this thinking time you’re a writer at work. And the pay-off will be huge.
Don’t you love when you learn things from your own kids? My daughter teaches special needs children, and she shared with me a technique she used successfully that I am adopting for myself.
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know I’ve written about taking steps to increase my energy this year. I wanted to write and study more, yet keep up with my other personal commitments. In the Simple•ology 103 course on energy, there’s a pyramid showing five ways to increase energy and the order in which to do each thing to both (1) increase your energy and (2) stop your energy drains.
Your Biggest Drain
The base of the pyramid-the biggest part of increasing your energy-is to “decrease distress.” Distress comes in all forms (poor eating, chronic pain, families), but a recently published book on achieving goals said that nearly 80% of the distress that robs our energy is relationship stress in some form. Looking back over my life, I would have to agree. For me today, relationship stress usually means saying things that would be (for many reasons) better left unsaid.
Now, I have come a long ways. This week alone I know I conserved my energy at least three times when I held my tongue. I’m learning that nothing is worth an argument at bedtime-a huge peace stealer and sleep stealer and energy stealer! But another time, I pushed an issue that clearly wasn’t going to be resolved to my satisfaction, resulting in about 72 hours of distress to me and my sleep. Those writing days were a drag, complete with sleepiness and headaches.
Worth it? Not in the slightest.
Simple, Yet Profound
Back to my teacher daughter then… she was sharing how one of her older boys at school had a syndrome that made him too outspoken and caused him to be shunned by his classmates. Thoughts running through his head just as quickly came out his mouth. (I could identify.)
Through using cartoons, she showed the student the difference between what needs to stay inside him (indicated by a dotted line thought bubble) and what should be verbally expressed (shown as the cartoon character’s solid line mouth bubble.) They role played several situations using the thought/mouth bubbles, helping him determine which thoughts belonged where. Using that technique he was able to be much more successful in his classroom and in his relationships.
I bet you know where I’m going with this.
Stop and Think
I have to turn everything into a goal, so my goal in February (in order to conserve my writing energy, remember) is this: before opening my mouth, I will ask myself, “Does this belong in my thought bubble or my mouth bubble?” For most comments that would cause strife, it usually belongs permanently in the thought bubble. (For those of you who keep everything in thought bubbles, you probably need to confront more, but that’s another topic.)
If 80% of your distress comes from relationship stress-and is robbing you of precious writing energy-work hard to be at peace with everyone, as much as it depends on you. Your health-and your writing-will benefit immeasurably!
According to the National Science Foundation, the average person has about 12,000 thoughts per day, or 4.4 million thoughts per year.
I wager that writers are well above the average because we read more and writing causes us to think more than the average.
Who’s In Charge?
I had known for a long time that our thoughts affect our emotions, and that toxic “stinking thinking” could derail our writing dreams and health faster than almost anything. You are the only one who can decide whether to reject or accept a thought, which thoughts to dwell on, and which thoughts will become actions.
But sometimes–a lot of the time–I felt powerless to actually do anything about it on a consistent basis. Sometimes I simply felt unfocused and overwhelmed.
Need a Brain Detox?
I’ve been reading a “scientific brain studies” book for non-science types like me called Who Switched Off My Brain?by Dr. Caroline Leaf Ph.D. which has fascinated me. With scientific studies to back it up, it shows that thoughts are measurable and actually occupy mental “real estate.” Thoughts are active; they grow and change, influencing every decision we make and physical reaction we have.
“Every time you have a thought, it is actively changing your brain and your body–for better or for worse.” The author talks about the “Dirty Dozen”–which can be as harmful as poison in our minds and our bodies.
Killing Our Creativity
Among this dozen deadly areas of toxic thinking are toxic emotions, toxic words, toxic seriousness, toxic health, and toxic schedules.
If you want to delve into the 350+ scientific references and pages of end notes in the back of the book, you can look up the studies. But basically it targets the twelve toxic areas of our lives that produce 80% of the physical, emotional and mental health issues today. And trust me. Those issues have a great deal to do with you achieving your goals and dreams.
There Is Hope!
According to Dr. Leaf, scientists no longer believe that the brain is hardwired from birth with a fixed destiny to wear out with age, a fate predetermined by our genes. Instead there is scientific proof now for what the Bible has always taught: you can renew your minds and heal. Your brain really can change!
Old brain patterns can be altered, and new patterns can be implemented. In the coming days, I’ll share some more about the author’s ”Brain Sweep” five-step strategy for detoxing your thoughts associated with the “dirty dozen.”
But right now I’m going to read about the symptoms of a toxic schedule. I have a suspicion…
I spent much of last week sick in bed, but it gave me a chance to read more than usual. I got a couple of “aha!” moments from the book I was reading (Who Switched Off My Brain?) mentioned last week.
The book deals with what the author calls “the Dirty Dozen” areas in our lives where we create our own problems, often by well-meaning efforts. This toxic behavior can derail our purpose in life and steal our dreams–including our writing dreams.
Two of the dirty dozen that hit me between the eyes was “toxic seriousness”and “toxic schedules.” And I knew that I’d stumbled across two of the reasons I was sick instead of fighting off common viruses.
I’ve known for years that negative emotions like anger and unforgiveness can literally make you physically sick. But did you know that an absence of fun in your life can make you sick too?
Laughter IS the Best medicine!
For a lot of reasons, I grew up with the firmly entrenched idea that “life is a serious matter.” People who didn’t take life seriously annoyed me. I thought they simply didn’t understand the situation!
Well sometimes life is no laughing matter, but you still need to incorporate more fun in your life. [I finally understood why I felt so much better physically after spending time with my grandkids, despite being tired. I laugh a lot more on those days!]
Did you know this? Studies show that “a really good belly laugh can make cortisol drop by 39% and adrenalin by 70%, while the ‘feel-good hormone,’ endorphin, increases by 29%…Laughter boosts your immune system by increasing immunity levels and disease-figthing cells.”
Another medical study showed that humor gets both sides of your brain working together, which is so necessary to writers. We need to be both creative and editor-minded (left-brained and right-brained) in order to do our best writing.
So take time to bring fun into your life today–and every day. Look for the humor in situations–or even yourself. Watch a funny video. Read something that tickles your funny bone. Tell a joke!
In my case, I realized over the weekend that my “toxic seriousness” went hand-in-hand with what the author called “toxic schedules.” One had a direct impact on the other. My overly serious attitude about life leads to an over-scheduled week that doesn’t work unless I invent a 48-hour day. And, of course, a packed schedule adds pressure and just reinforces an overly serious attitude.
Current brain research shows that there’s a lot more at risk than just being tired when you over-schedule yourself. Of particular interest to writers, without sufficient relaxation in your lifestyle, “you will become a less effective thinker, defeating your ability to accomplish the mental tasks that stole our relaxation in the first place. In fact, for the brain to function like it should, it needs regroup/consolidation time. If it doesn’t get this, it will send out signals in the form of high-level stress hormones, some of which are epinephrine, norepinephine and cortisol. If these che
Rejection is part of the writing life. Writers have always struggled not to take rejection personally. Unless you’re super human, it deals a blow to one’s self-esteem.
“To be a writer is to be rejected. I’m not kidding,”says Rachel Ballon, Ph.D., author of The Writer’s Portable Therapist. “Those writers who stop writing the first time they’re rejected can’t call themselves writers because rejection is part and parcel of the writing game. It isn’t what happens to you IF you’re rejected, it’s what you do or don’t do WHEN you’re rejected.”
You Can Recover
I get concerned when my writer friends and students get so beaten down by a rejection. (And with our struggling economy lately, rejections are happening more frequently.) Rejections do hurt, and the disappointment can be huge. All the “don’t take it personally” lectures don’t help much then. You need more, especially in the initial stages when the rejection is new and raw.
“Expect rejection and disappointments with the knowledge that you’ll recover from them,” says Ballon. “Be just as prepared for rejection as you’re prepared for an earthquake in California or a hurricane in Florida.”
I never thought of that before: prepare for rejection. It makes sense though!
Most of my family members live in Florida now, and when a tropical storm is building to hurricane status, they go into motion like a well oiled machine. Buy batteries and food staples. Nail plywood over windows. Make sure generator works. Stock up on drinkable water. They don’t just sit back and hope the hurricane veers off and misses them. They know that the likelihood of being hit by a hurricane is low, but definitely possible. Being prepared has saved their lives and property more than once. And their plans for recovery and clean-up go into effect as soon as the storm passes.
The likelihood of writers being rejected is about 100%–much worse odds than destruction from an earthquake or hurricane. But how many of us have a plan for recovering from that particular professional “disaster”? Not many, I’m guessing. But we should have. We know it’s coming from time to time. And I wonder if we wouldn’t respond better if we planned for it.
How do you plan for the day-perhaps after months of hopeful waiting or interested nibbles-when your story or novel or proposal is rejected? How can you prepare for it? Well, what makes you feel better when you’ve been rejected by someone in your personal life?
A hot bath and a good novel?
A phone call to your best friend?
A candy bar or Starbucks coffee?
Hanging out with people who do love you?
Going for a hard sweaty run or bike ride?
Curling up with a “feel good” movie or chick flick?
Chances are, those same things will help you through a manuscript rejection. They can be the solace for your bruised soul.
Plan Ahead-Work Your Plan
I think I’m going to make a list on a card called “Rejection Recovery Strategies” and tack it to my bulletin board. And the next time a book or prop
What have you given up in order to have time to write?
When I started out, giving up my hour of pleasure reading in the afternoon (the kids’ naptime) was the biggest sacrifice I made. I loved that hour of escape where I rose above my daily chores and relished adult language and words longer than one syllable. Yes, I could still read at night when the kids were in bed, but by then I was too sleepy to keep my eyes open.
Are You Sacrificing TOO Much?
We’ve talked lately about tracking your time and then sacrificing some of your current pleasures in order to write. And yes, time for pleasure reading may have to be cut back drastically in the “learning years.” Like many writers, my pleasure reading is now used as a reward. (I often set my timer and write for thirty minutes, promising myself a ten-minute reading break for each thirty minutes of writing. I love those reading breaks!) I try to read at bedtime too, but I still fall asleep too quickly.
I once had a student who read five romance novels per week, every week. Really! I had no problem recommending that she turn 75% of that time into writing time. Most of you don’t have that kind of time to read for pleasure–and I don’t either. You may only have thirty minutes to an hour for pleasure reading. And when you give it up, you’re losing a writer’s #1 most favorite pastime: reading.
If you’ve given up pleasure reading in order to write, I hope you will be able to add it back to your life soon. I think writers need to read. (And not just books on craft or books in the genre you hope to publish in.) Reading for pleasure nurtures our soul–and keeps us in touch with what readers want.
So how can you balance this while you’re learning to write, especially when you’re juggling a day job and/or a family? Make use of alternative methods. Discover books on tape, and listen during car pools or while washing dishes. Discover books on MP3 players like Playaways, or download digital books from your library, and listen to them while you run or garden.
When my time was the shortest–when the kids were small and I was working another job in addition to the writing and school visits–all I could carve out for pleasure reading was fifteen minutes per day. It wasn’t enough time to finish a book in a month–and I couldn’t figure out the plot in those little bits.
During those years, then, I re-read the classics on my shelves. Consequently I’ve memorized whole chunks of Pride & Prejudice, Little Women, and other favorites. Since I already knew the plot and characters, I could relax and just enjoy seeing old friends for fifteen minutes each day.
No Time to Read
I know a good number of full-time professional writers who have given up pleasure reading altogether. They said they just don’t have time. What do you think about that? Is pleasure reading something you’d give up in order to have the writing career of your dreams?
When I’m frustrated, it’s usually a sign that I’m trying to control something I can’t control. This can be a person or a situation or an event. The process can churn your mind into mush until you can’t think.
On the other hand, making a 180-degree switch and focusing on the things I can control (self-control) is the fastest way out of frustration. This concept certainly applies to your writing life.
Words of Wisdom
Remember the Serenity Prayer? It goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
How about reducing frustration with your writing life by applying that wisdom to your career? Here are some things to accept that you cannot change:
How long it takes to get a response from editors and agents
Editors moving before buying the manuscript they asked to see
Size of print runs
Publisher’s budget for your book’s publicity and promotion
Trying to change anything on the above list is a sure-fire route to frustration and wanting to quit.
However, do you have courage to change the things you can? Here are some:
Giving yourself positive feedback and affirmations
Reading positive books on the writing life
Studying writing craft books
Writing more hours
Reading more books in the genre where you want to publish
Attending local, state, regional and national conferences you can afford
Joining or forming a critique group
Wisdom to Know the Difference
If you’re battling frustration and discouragement with the writing life, chances are good that you’re trying to control something beyond your control. It will make you crazy! The fastest way back to sanity is to concentrate on what you can control about the writing life.
Choose anything from that second list–or share an additional idea in the comments below–and get on with becoming a better writer. In the end, that’s all you can do–and it will be enough.
Thank you all for the responses! It’s been very helpful. The requests fell into three main categories. Since I blog on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, that made it easy for me. From now on, this will be my general blogging schedule so that I can cover each topic area regularly.
What You Can Expect
Monday = Inner Motivation(includes:)
lack of motivation
a writer’s dream life
working with our “inner editor”
enjoying writing more
Wednesday = Outer Challenges(includes:)
balancing writing with chaos in life
balancing day jobs with writing
our writing needs (vs. “their” needs)
Friday = Tips ‘n’ Tricks of the Trade(includes:)
specific genre help
writing books I’ve found helpful
blogs I find useful
classes I’ve taken
voice (writer’s and character’s)
working with publishers
considering the audience when writing
dealing with publishers who don’t respond
finding good markets
developing depth in writing
selling “unique” pieces instead of jumping on the bandwagon
Thanks for Your Input
All your feedback has been immensely helpful in organizing future blog posts and making sure I cover topics you want to hear about and find useful. If I missed anything on these lists, feel free to let me know!
We hear a lot about setting writing goals. Do any of you have secret thoughts like these? Setting goals is great, but I don’t have the energy to pursue themorI’m already so exhausted that I can’t add one more thing to my life—even something I love.
Is that you? Then you’ve come to the right place.
Plug the Drains
Years ago I had a car that guzzled oil. I added a quart every Monday, but by Saturday the oil light was back on. It did no good to add oil without fixing the leak. The same holds true for your energy level. You can set goals, shore up your willpower, and grit your teeth, but you won’t have any more get-up-and-go until you plug your energy leaks.
We usually lose energy in two ways: enduring annoying or toxic behaviors in other people, and tolerating conduct in ourselves that is harmful (overeating, no exercise, over-due bills, or keeping a cluttered office.) One essential skill is learning how to set boundaries on yourself, such as: no sugar or caffeine before 5 p.m., bedtime by 10 p.m., straighten your desk when you quit work for the day, or pay bills the day they arrive.
You can also set and enforce boundaries with people who steal your energy. Limit your availability, for instance. If you have a cell phone, give the number only to those who really must have it. Your cell phone is to serve you—not the rest of the world. Other people can also drain us with their foul moods, irritating habits, and constant crises demanding our attention.
Learn to set boundaries in these situations; keep your energy inside (where it is useful) instead of spilling out on other people. Believe it or not, family members and friends can be expected to “fix” their own bad moods and self-created crises. (Memorize this: Lack of planning on their part does not constitute an emergency on my part.) If you need help with this essential relationship skill, read Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
Remember: the goal is to find more energy for your writing. You must plug the unnecessary energy drains first. Then you’ll be ready to recover your ability to function with ease.
Get in Shape
You’ll be tempted to skip this step, but I hope you won’t. It’s far more important than most writers realize. Just like you need to maintain your car (oil, spark plugs, belts, brakes) if you expect it to run smoothly, you need to maintain a healthy body if you expect to write in flow, enjoy your work, and be productive.
Are you health conscious? “I watch what I put into my body—no alcohol, drugs, caffeine,” says Sophy Burnham in For Writers Only. “I have become so sensitive to my body’s claims that now I actually often eat when hungry (imagine!), stop and lie down when tired. It has taken me years to learn to listen for those two simple demands, knowing that I write better when the machinery’s warmed up, oiled, clean.”
We all write better in that state. I encourage you to take a “health inventory” right now—and do whatever is necessary to turn you into a lean, clean writing machine.
After you’ve plugged the leaks and kicked your health up a notch, it’s time to actually create energy instead of wasting it. If you have set (and enforced) boundaries on yourself and others, you’re no longer tied to energy-draining habits and situations. This should
First, does the writer below sound like you? (Frankly, Maisel could have been eavesdropping on my brain waves and transcribed my thoughts!) This is what one of his writer clients shared.
“I have always wanted to make a living as a writer. But I always let things hold me back. I let having a day job sidetrack me; I let fear sidetrack me. I procrastinate wildly; and yet the less I write, the unhappier I become with everything. I can’t let go of the desire to write, but I need to let go of the unproductive obsessing I do about writing–the worry about not being good enough, the worry that I won’t be able to make a living, the worry that I won’t be able to think of anything wonderful to write about.”
And the result of all her obsessing?
“I get more and more stressed out, and I write less and less, and it becomes a particularly nasty downward spiral.”
The author’s book isn’t about stopping the obsessions. In fact, Maisel encourages them! His idea is about harnessing all that brain power you’re using in a negative way and turning it into a positive brainstorm of ideas.
A productive obsession is an idea that you choose for good reasons and pursue with all your brain’s power. It might be an idea for a novel or the solution to a personal problem.
According to Maisel, the super focused productive obsession is the mind-set of the creative person. It sounds wonderful to me! I’ll be writing some more about this throughout the week, I think.
Tell Me I’m Not Alone
Do you have trouble focusing that prevents you from getting in the flow of your writing? Do you ever have the above-mentioned “hamster wheel-itis”? I sure hope I’m not the only one! Maybe we can find an answer to it together!
If someone graded you on self-care or self-nurturing, how would you do? Most of us–especially women–would flunk the evaulation. And if you’re also a writer, that can spell trouble.
What’s Your Excuse?
As women, we’re taught to meet everyone else’s needs before we nurture ourselves. And we do so, mostly without complaint, until we drop of exhaustion or illness. We de-value self-nurturing and self-care, putting it at the end of our lengthy list of Things To Do.
Back in 1992, during a particularly harrowing year, I bought a book that I recently re-read. I was delighted to see it has been reissued. The Woman’s Comfort Book: A Self-Nurturing Guide for Restoring Balance in Your Life by Jennifer Louden is chock full of some of the most fun and practical and specific ways you can incorporate self-nurturing activities into your life. The book was written after a year of trauma that left the author unable to write or relax.
As she put it, “I needed to trust what my inner voice was telling me, which was to slow down, take some time to care for me. But I felt too guilty about not being ambitious to heed my intuition. And so a dangerous prison formed: I couldn’t take time to care for myself because I felt I should keep working, but I couldn’t write because I wasn’t nurturing myself. What a mess!”
What’s Your Problem?
One of the best features of the book is a big chart that lists nearly eighty ailments you might have, then the corresponding short chapters that might help that problem. For example, if you feel “deprived,” she suggests the activities in the chapters entitled “Checking Your Basic Needs,” “Comfort Journal,” “A Self-Care Schedule,” “A Day Off,” “Heal Your Habitat,” and several others. If your problem is feeling joyless, you might try the chapters on “Your Nurturing Voice,” “Reading as a Child,” “Seasonal Comforts” or “Animal Antidotes.”
Her ideas are budget-minded (the only kind that work for me), and they are things you can do in your own home. For example, one chapter is on creating a personal sanctuary for yourself. I intend to use a few of her suggestions to rearrange a corner of my office, “walling off” a section with my freestanding bookshelves, moving a small rocker to that corner, adding some plants, a large framed poster of the English countryside, and a small rug to distinguish my sanctuary.
Courage, Fortitude, Boldness
The author claims that it “takes courage to make nurturing yourself a priority. It takes fortitude to meet your own needs. It takes boldness to listen to and trust your intuition.” If it’s been years since you allowed yourself to make self-care a priority, I think her statement is true. I know it was in my own case.
Ms. Louden also asserts that “deserving time to care for yourself is not something you earn…Taking care of yourself is not a reward for getting ten thousand things done today.”
Don’t Wait–Act Now!
There’s no need to wait until you’re burned out with a severe writer’s block to take care of yourself. A little daily self-nurturing goes a long way toward avoiding such conditions. And if you need someone to give you permission to do so, consider it done! I am ordering you to take good care of yourself!
Don’t know where to start? Then I really urge you to get a copy of Ms. Louden’s book and sample some of her fifty chapters of ideas. I know you’ll find something you’ll love!