Like it or not, all of us self-sabotage in one way or another at some point in our lives. You might even be doing it right now. Hopefully you haven’t lived a life of self-sabotage, but even if you have been there is hope.
All of us can learn to be successful, removing the obstacles blocking our progress.
Maybe you’ve heard that once neural pathways have been formed in your brain, they’re set. That’s incorrect, but I was taught that at one time. Rather than launch into a deep scientific discussion about neuroscience, try reading Neurosculpting: A Whole-Brain Approach to Heal Trauma, Rewrite Limiting Beliefs, and Find Wholeness by Lisa Wimberger.
Another book I’ve found tremendously useful is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. You can change your life, no matter how bad things might be, if you have the desire to change. Self-sabotage is not your predetermined fate.
Once you’ve established that you can do something about self-sabotage in your writing career, what’s next? Building awareness of the ways you personally engage in this negative activity, determining why you do it, and addressing those root causes is key. At least that’s what I’ve learned in my experience of ten-plus years of full-time writing.
We have a running dialog in our heads, a narrative if you will, of who we are and what we’re all about. What does your say?
Quite likely, you spend a considerable amount of effort to drown your dialog out, at least in part, because of the negative spin you tell yourself. We don’t like to hear from anyone how incompetent, bad, or insufficient we are, and it hurts even more when all that is coming from your own head. However difficult it is, listen you must if you want to change your internal dialog.
We all make mistakes. As an editor, I spot mistakes in others’ writing constantly. It’s even worse when I see it in my own, especially if it’s already published and nobody caught it before.
The issue isn’t whether or not I fail, because failure happens in life, but how I take it. Do I call myself stupid? Do I say I’m a horrible writer? A loser? No good at anything? Be honest with yourself: do you say those sorts of things to yourself? Force yourself to face the truth, no matter how ugly. If it makes you squirm, there’s a problem.
To surpass that problem, you must first face it squarely, no matter how overwhelming it seems. That’s tough, but if you start paying attention to the things you tell yourself on a daily basis about who you are, what you do, and why you behave that way, you can learn much.
If you wouldn’t say something to your best friend, child, or someone else you care deeply for, why is it okay to say it to yourself?
I know myself and can be extremely harsh to me. You’re likely the same way. After all, being your own worst critic is almost celebrated by certain elements of our society. I’m not saying you need to join the cult of self-love (really, more like self-aggrandizement) to avoid this trap, because you’re just falling into another that’s just as dangerous. Be honest with yourself, admit when you’ve screwed up, acknowledge your deficiencies, then figure out how to do better instead of beating yourself up.
Being overly negative about your shortcomings is an extremely common way writers self-sabotage. It can actually fuel many of the other self-sabotage techniques I’m about to mention, so don’t just gloss over this area if you’re serious about pushing to the next level. You likely engage in this to one degree or another.
Procrastination is one I think everyone knows is a form of self-sabotage. Some writers celebrate it. I see many online cartoons laughing about how funny it is to put things off. While taking breaks can actually boost productivity, procrastination obviously does the opposite.
Your reasons for procrastinating might vary, but often fear is the motivation. You’re afraid that really putting in all your effort will result in not reaching a specific goal like a certain number of pages written or selling so many copies of your book, so you procrastinate and only put in a partial effort. It provides a nice excuse in case you fail, which is what you fear will happen, instead of saying you gave it your all and still fell short.
But if you actually did put in a full effort, you might’ve been successful. Still, it’s easier to fall down than to climb up, because climbing up involves the risk of failing while pushing yourself to do your best, which can really hurt. It’s a strange psychology, but nobody said humans always make sense.
Not living a balanced life is another self-sabotage technique. Warren Buffet once said, “ultimately, there’s one investment that supersedes all others: invest in yourself.” That’s especially true if you’re a writer.
You are your greatest asset.
I was in a Barnes & Noble not too long ago and noticed with some amusement one of the seasonal displays the employees put together was items for writers. It was before NaNoWriMo started, so I’m sure that was at least part of the reason for the display. I quickly noticed the vast majority of the items were related to coffee. I’ve been in writing groups where the running joke is writers don’t sleep very much. Other stereotypes include writers eat a poor diet of convenience foods, they are addicted to alcohol or other substances, and they aren’t into much physical activity. This is unfortunate.
Again, without getting too deep into the science, not sleeping enough literally makes you dumber. It also lowers your energy levels (even if you’re guzzling coffee or other caffeinated beverages constantly) and leads to weight gain, which triggers other health problems. None of these boost your creativity or language prowess. Living an imbalanced life isn’t you doing your best. Instead, you’re hobbling your abilities as a writer and diminishing your quality of life. Period.
Editing while you’re writing a rough draft is another way writers self-sabotage. Your rough draft is called “rough” for a reason. Just get the words on the page, then once the rough draft is done you can start to critique it.
The most important thing about writing a rough draft is to keep moving forward and finish in a reasonable amount of time. If you expend all of your energy on the rough draft, you won’t have the energy and time it takes to go through the editing steps properly, and I contend that’s where the real writing happens. I’m sure I’ll touch on rough drafts more in later posts.
Finally we have the dreaded writer’s block. I don’t believe in it and neither should you. One of my professors in my undergrad would have us write about something, anything for the first ten minutes of each class. His point was to teach us that writer’s block is a myth, something you make up to hold yourself back.
Sure, you might struggle to write about a certain subject, but you can always write about something at any moment, even if it’s ironically about how you can’t write about anything.
Once you start writing about anything, including what you want to do for the weekend, why you hate basketball, or how much you look forward to eating avocado, writing about other things becomes easier. As someone who literally depends on my writing for my survival, I can tell you writer’s block is a form of self-sabotage you don’t need to subject yourself to.
This post doesn’t touch on all the ways writers self-sabotage because quite frankly that would be impossible. There are countless ways to hobble yourself.
We all have our individual quirks, but as Aristotle said, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” If you as a writer aren’t introspective, you likely won’t see much success. That’s just the way it works.
Image by Steven Symes. All rights reserved for this blog post test and the accompanying photograph.