Yesterday, I wrote–well, guess! How many words do you think I wrote? I’m not taking a break from writing. I’m in the middle of a lengthy short story (sorry if that sounds like an oxymoron, which I realize it is) that I’m liking so far, even though it’s just the first draft and far too soon to make sense of what its end result will be.
I wrote a whopping zero words.
That’s right, zero.
Last week, I blogged about how a deep-seated how a deep-seated fear of failure can cause metaphorical headaches as a writer. If everything you do–including writing and reading–is done from a fear of failure, instead of from loving what it is you do, then things aren’t going to look too pretty in terms of enjoyment or even motivation.
As promised at the end of that blog, I will (attempt to) resolve the basic problem I face as an anxious overachiever: how can you be a great writer, reader, and just overall human from actually wanting to do those things instead of feeling compelled to do them because failure scares the crap out of you?
It hasn’t been easy for me finding many answers.
One exercise I like to do, which I culled from a psychology website on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, is to ask “What’s so bad about X?”
To take my example from just yesterday, I’d ask myself, “What’s so bad about writing zero words?”
My internal reply? “Because that would make me a failure as a writer.”
“What’s so bad about failing as a writer?” I proceeded.
“Because that would mean I’m a failure in life.”
“What’s so bad about failing in life?”
“Ummm . . . it’s pretty obvious: I’d be a failure.”
“What’s so bad about being a failure?”
“I don’t know . . . it just is.”
So, a good starting place is to realize that for an anxious overachiever, a problematic core belief could be the sense that you must avoid failure in everything you do so that you don’t personalize that failure–that is, you believe you are, at core, a success by succeeding and a failure by failing.
I don’t find that all-that helpful.
What I have found helpful is this quote I discovered the other day (also the day I wrote zero words–so it’s not like yesterday was a complete loss!):
“A failure of any kind does not reflect that you are a failure. It is simply that your action failed to have the impact you wanted.”–Brianna Johnson, Healing Low Self-Esteem: Failing Doesn’t Make You a Failure
That’s one of those amazing quotes that is both succinct and profound.
If you fail, that doesn’t mean you’re deep-down a failure. It’s time to rethink the fallacy that failure = worth. If failure = worth, we’d all be pretty awful people. Even if you just failed once, that would dent your worth as a person. I’m not sure about you, but I’m 99.99% sure I’ve failed more than once. So, fellow writers, let’s get it out of our heads that failure has anything to do with our worthiness as people. As the thought exercise I demonstrated above shows, “it just is” is the end result of this fallacy. “It just is” isn’t all that convincing.
From my own experience as both a writer and a therapy-homework-doer (both valid roles), I’ve realized that my fear of failure is an unhelpful rule I live by to cope with the core belief I have of . . . well, I’m a failure. This might not be the same for you if you’re afraid of failing as a writer, so I do want to emphasize that how I’m working through this is tailored to myself and other approaches might work better for you.
So let’s say you do what I did yesterday. You didn’t write anything. A single word. Yes, you–with the good company of every writer who ever existed– failed. But that doesn’t make you a failure.
This isn’t about changing your thinking to, “Oh, I’m a perfect writer. I’ll never make a mistake again!” That’s a distortion just as unhelpful as thinking you’re a failure in life for failing at a task.
Instead, aim for healthy realism.
I accept that I didn’t write any words yesterday.
I accept the disappointment and hurt that comes from not writing anything.
I accept that if I want to be a better writer, I’ll want to work on managing my time better.
Most of all, I accept that I made a mistake. That I failed.
I also accept that there’s an incredibly high chance that I’ll fail to support myself with my writing and a decent chance that I’ll fail to ever be published. I even accept that, seeing as how my first name isn’t William and my last name isn’t Shakespeare (or Faulkner), most readers aren’t going to remember me after I die in the event that I am published.
A fear of failure and the accompanying core belief that you’re a failure creates an “everything to lose, nothing to gain” view of living.
When you accept yourself as a writer (and as a human) and know that you don’t have to prove anything to yourself to be okay with yourself–if you’re okay with yourself failing as a writer and as a person, then you have nothing to lose.
Failing won’t make you the failure that you’re not. Accepting, forgiving, and, yes, loving yourself means you have an established, stable, unwavering baseline. It’s unaffected by what you do, and it’s most certainly not contingent on perfectionism or simply avoiding failure. Or, as Psychology Today contributor Leon Seltzer, Ph.D., wrote back in 2008:
“Changing our behaviors becomes solely a matter of personal preference, not a prerequisite for greater self-regard.”–Leon Seltzer, Ph.D., The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance
So, please, be okay with failing–because success in no way is about somehow not failing. Fail as a writer today. Fail tomorrow. Fail to meet your reading count. Find yourself rejected seventy-three times for the same short story. Learn from those failures because you want to, not because you feel you must to be your best self.