Getting along with 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 what it says. Just accept that it’s there and keep writing.

Advice from author Anne Lamott’s on dealing with a writer’s harshest critic: the mind.
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‘I’d start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible. I’d write a lead paragraph that was a whole page, and the critics would be sitting on my shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters. They’d be pretending to snore, or rolling their eyes at my overwrought descriptions, no matter how hard I tried to tone those descriptions down.
But I would eventually let myself trust the process—sort of, more or less. I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft.

The next day, though, I’d sit down, go through it all with a colored pen, take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft. It always turned out fine, sometimes even funny and weird and helpful. I’d go over it one more time and mail it in.

Then, a month later, when it was time for another review, the whole process would start again, complete with the fears that people would find my first draft before I could rewrite it.’

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird.

One woman announced that she was just beginning to write her annual end of-the-year letter to friends and family in February. She felt obliged to write a little personal note on each copy of the letter, which she anticipated would take another month. While examining procrastination she realized that she was delaying because once the letters were mailed, she might find that they were not perfect. This is an example of how the Inner Critic gets us coming and going. If she does mail the letters and they are not perfect, the Inner Critic will beat her up. If she delays in an attempt to make them perfect, and thus mails the letters late, or never, the Inner Critic will still be upset. There is no winning in the land of the Inner Critic. Its only job is to criticize, and it does this job well.’

Jan Chozen Bays. How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness.

What happens next?

We act based on our experience, on our expectation of what might happen next. It is only when we take action, though, that we finally know the truth of what actually happens.

What happens next
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We believe we’re free to make any decision whatsoever to take any action whatsoever. But every choice and action we make and take, spontaneous or deliberate, is rooted in the sum total of our experience, in what has happened to us in actuality, imagination, or dream to that moment. We then choose to act based on what this gathering of life tells us will be the probable reaction from our world. It’s only then, when we take action, that we discover necessity.

Necessity is absolute truth. Necessity is what in fact happens when we act. This truth is known and can only be known—when we take action into the depth and breadth of our world and brave its reaction. This reaction is the truth of our existence at that precise moment, no matter what we believed the moment before. Necessity is what must and does actually happen, as opposed to probability, which is what we hope or expect to happen.

Robert McKee. Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting

‘Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and endless plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it! Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.’

W.H. Murray (partially quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) The Scottish Himalayan Expedition 1951. Cited in: Get out of Your Mind and into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith.

Commitment and the call to adventure

The commitment part of acceptance and commitment therapy can mean taking a leap into the unknown, very much like the heroes of ancient myths, and even modern day stories.

Commitment and the call to adventureThe first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated the ‘call to adventure’—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from the pale of his society to a zone unknown…[a] fateful region of both treasure and danger.

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The job of the therapist is to create situations in which the clients engage in a leap of faith into a future that is unknown and—to the best they can tell—in the direction of their values. A leap of faith implies the willingness to have whatever happens when one makes that leap, to touch down wherever one lands.

Jason B. Luoma, Steven C. Hayes, and Robyn D. Walser. Learning ACT: An Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Skills-training Manual for Therapists.

Don’t abandon your life’s journey

In those moments when, like Oblomov, you feel like you’re getting nowhere, try to find the will to continue. Don’t let life’s swamps keep you from following your path.

Don't abandon you life's journey
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‘Twas as though some one had stolen from him, and besmirched, the store of gifts with which life and the world had dowered him; so that always he would be prevented from entering life’s field and sailing across it with the aid of intellect and of will. Yes, at the very start a secret enemy had laid a heavy hand upon him and diverted him from the road of human destiny. And now he seemed to be powerless to leave the swamps and wilds in favour of that road. All around him was a forest, and ever the recesses of his soul were growing dimmer and darker, and the path more and more tangled, while the consciousness of his condition kept awaking within him less and less frequently – to arouse only for a fleeting moment his slumbering faculties. Brain and volition alike had become paralysed, and, to all appearances, irrevocably – the events of his life had become whittled down to microscopical proportions. Yet even with them he was powerless to cope – he was powerless to pass from one of them to another. Consequently they bandied him to and fro like the waves of the ocean. Never was he able to oppose to any event elasticity of will; never was he able to conceive, as the result of any event, a reasoned-out impulse. Yet to confess this, even to himself, always cost him a bitter pang: his fruitless regrets for lost opportunities, coupled with burning reproaches of conscience, always pricked him like needles, and led him to strive to put away such reproaches and to discover a scapegoat….

Once again Oblomov sank asleep; and as he slept he dreamed of a different period, of different people, of a different place from the present. Let us follow him thither.

Ivan Goncharov. Oblomov

If a person is wholly committed to not experiencing any unpleasant or difficult thoughts, feelings, sensations, or images, then that person will be unable to commit to and maintain a course of action because every course will eventually evoke something that is unpleasant. With valuing love comes the experience of loss, with valuing community conies the possibility of rejection, with valuing creativity comes a negative evaluation of one’s abilities. Metaphorically, it, as if you were on a journey called “living well” and you ran into a swamp that stretched as far as the eye could see. Swamps are no fun. They, smelly, they, icky, they, scary, and yet swamps are part of the journey. Life asks, “Will you wade into the swamp or will you abandon your journey,” In order to choose to act on our values, willingness to experience difficult events is necessary. This action of willingness has the quality of a leap of faith. The job of the therapist is to create situations in which clients engage in a leap of faith into a future that is unknown and—to the best they can tell—in the direction of their values. A leap of faith implies the willingness to have whatever happens when one makes that leap, to touch down wherever one lands. We are looking for this quality in client commitments.

Jason Luoma PhD, Steven C. Hayes PhD and Robyn D Walser PhD. Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists.

Let go of guilt

A reminder, after the sad news of Sue Townsend’s death, that Adrian Mole was therapeutic to so many of us.

The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue TownsendMy mother is now in the hospital 60 miles away, where they are treating her pneumonia. I refuse to feel guilty. Guilt is a destructive emotion and doesn’t fit in with my Life Plan.’

Sue Townsend. The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999-2001

‘The client should understand that life runs in real time; it works by addition, not subtraction. Guilt regarding past failures has no necessary relationship to present commitments. The surest way to undo a commitment is to functionally link it with something that is dead, gone, and can’t be changed. Guilt is always connected to “I’m bad” and thus weakens the client’s ability to move ahead.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change

Making mistakes is human

Ever said that dumb thought out loud and regretted it? Don’t worry, making mistakes is human, and it’s important to allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes.

This is my first day,” Mae noted.

The Circle by Dave EggersAnd then Mae, who intended to say “I shit you not,” instead decided to innovate, but something got garbled during her verbal innovation, and she uttered the words “I fuck you not,” knowing almost instantly that she would remember these words and hate herself for them, for decades to come.

“You fuck me not?” he asked, deadpan. “That sounds very conclusive. You’ve made a decision with very little information. You fuck me not. Wow.”

Mae tried to explain what she meant to say, how she thought, or some department of her brain thought, that she would turn the phrase around a bit … But it didn’t matter. He was laughing now, and he knew she had a sense of humor, and she knew he did, too, and somehow he made her feels safe, made her trust that he would never bring it up again, that this terrible thing she said would remain between them, that they both understood mistakes are made by all and that they should, if everyone is acknowledging our common humanity, our common frailty and propensity for sounding and looking ridiculous a thousand times a day, that these mistakes should be allowed to be forgotten.’

Dave Eggers. The Circle.

‘We try to do our best, but even then we will sometimes get it wrong. (Besides that, is there really a person on this planet who always does their best in everything?) Making mistakes is part of being human and an essential part of any learning process. The only way to avoid it is to do nothing, which is probably the biggest mistake of all. Commitment means we take effective action, allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, accept ourselves compassionately when we screw up, and carry on moving in a valued direction.’

Russ Harris. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT.