There are weeks when you get a lot done, there are weeks when you don’t get a lot done, and then there are weeks when you don’t care how much you’ve got done because you realize your process of getting things done has been based on faulty assumptions.
That was my past week.
Even though I’ve written in the past about the dangers of tying self-worth and self-esteem to achievement (or lack of achievement) in writing, I find myself forgetting to follow my own beliefs. I wasn’t meeting my reading or writing goals day after day this past week, although there were some bright spots, and instead of learning from my mistakes or lowering my expectations, my self-critical voice would go after me for failing.
“You failed today,” this voice would go, “which means you’ll fail tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that, and you’ll never be published, and—oh, by the way, don’t even dream of hitting that reading goal you’ve set for yourself for 2020.”
Sometimes that voice mixes in with a panicky tone that tells me I must, absolutely must, write and read more without giving any specifics on how to do this.
For so long when these self-defeating and panicky self-talks came up, I would believe them. I convinced myself that as a writer, they were pushing me to embrace the craft, giving me discipline, challenging myself.
Now, I’m not so sure.
After doing some research online—including reading this brilliant and relatable Psychology Today article by Kristen Lee, Ed.D., LICSW, about people who are “anxious overachievers”—I recognized that many times, it’s fear of failure that is motivating me or, in a lot of cases, causing me to fail, ironically.
Let’s say you put in your daily planner the task of “Write 1500 words” from, say, 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. (I’m an evening writer, so this is definitely a hypothetical example—my brain isn’t awake that early to hop onto Word and bash out anything coherent).
For me too often, that task would inspire fear in me. Not fear of the actual writing, but fear of failing to do the writing. The writing itself would be a means to an end—got to get to 2000 words, got to get to 2000 words would be pounding through my mind—and as soon as I achieved the goal, a short-term feeling of relief would come over me rather than feeling happy or satisfied about the writing I did. Or, if I didn’t make 2000 words, my inner critic would make me feel horrible about myself, compounding the problem.
The problem here isn’t the task. 2000 words is a pretty realistic goal for me if I make the time for it and my laptop cooperates.
It’s my approach to the task that can cause issues, and this could be a similar problem for you.
For an anxious overachiever, the primary way to feel good about yourself isn’t really even feeling good about yourself but just doing as much as you can to avoid failing. Because failing at a task makes you a failure as a person, the faulty thinking goes. As I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to feel much satisfaction out of a task if your main reason for doing it is just “don’t fail.”
So where do we go from here? How do we go from doing something like writing out of a sense of fear to a sense of enjoyment, driven by perhaps a healthy sense of anxiety (having no anxiety whatsoever would be an uncomfortable sensation, I’m guessing) but without worrying that failure will define us as writers?
That’s what I’ll be exploring in Part 2 next week.
For takes on reading, writing, mental health, and a whole lot more—all under 280 characters—follow me on Twitter at @ethan_nelsonwrt.