Not long ago, I wrote a book with the title 33 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Business Emails. So imagine my embarrassment when I sent someone an email recently with the number 11,000 instead of 1,100.
Here’s the chapter I wish I’d included in the book: What to do when you do screw up, whether with email, writing, or life.
The answer: Practice self-compassion.
What is self-compassion exactly?
Self-compassion sounds comforting and possibly easy. That’s about half right.
To learn more about it, check out Kristin Neff’s book on the topic, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. In the book (which cites a lot of research), Neff breaks down self-compassion into three parts:
- Being kind to ourselves rather than judging harshly
- Recognizing that our situation is part of the human condition—we aren’t alone in our suffering
- Being mindful or aware of our emotions rather than letting them drive us
This is powerful stuff, with clear parallels to the experience of writing.
Self-compassion and writing
Many writers have a vocal inner critic that pipes up when looking at our own work early in the process.
For example, we see a clunky sentence or lame metaphor. (We all have them!) And the critic chimes in with things like:
- You call yourself a writer?
- [Insert favorite author name] doesn’t write crap like this.
- You’re never going to be good enough to get published. You might as well give up.
Instead of assessing the sentence (useful), we judge ourselves (not helpful).
How can we approach our writing with self-compassion? Let’s revisit Neff’s definition.
Start with kindness
Want a sure way to shut down creativity? Heap constant criticism on the seedling of every idea. Fear and anxiety inhibit the Muse.
If you were mentoring another writer, would you say the things you tell yourself? Of course not. You know that harsh criticism would stop them cold rather than helping them advance.
So, why do it to yourself?
Show up like a mentor instead of a critic.
You don’t have to give up your standards. But bring them to the revision phase of the work. Even then, identify what needs fixing on the page rather than in yourself.
Recognize the universal condition
Here’s the worst-kept secret in the writing world—everyone struggles with their writing. That’s part of the writing process. Your struggle may not look like someone else’s, but we wall have them.
Drafts are ugly until we make them better. That’s why we revise.
Productive and professional writers learn to tolerate the mess and ugliness to get to the final product. But we all hear that inner voice whispering in our ears at different times.
Be aware of the inner critic and its motivations
Recognize your inner critic for what it is—simply one of many thought processes in your head, perhaps implanted from childhood.
Get some distance from the voice. It’s not you, and it’s not the universe at large.
Harshly critical thoughts often originate in fear. When you try something new or put creative work out into the world, fear may try to stop you.
Notice the fear. Then move forward anyway, for the sake of the readers.
Servant authorship can help
Here’s a fourth practice for writers—focus on the reader rather than yourself. Practice servant authorship, or writing to serve the reader.
Who do you want to serve with your writing, and what do you hope it does for them?
Keeping the reader squarely in your sights streamlines the myriad decisions involved with writing. It also gives you a way around the harsh inner critic. Because what matters isn’t what you think. It’s the value that other people will find in your work. That’s your goal.
In my experience, centering on the reader rather than on myself and my writing ability de-stresses the process. It’s not about me at all. It’s about the reader.
Give yourself permission to be messy. Show self-compassion when you’re stuck or too busy to write. And remember, it’s all part of the universal writing experience.
Watch my webinar on self-compassion for authors.
Check out the book Self-Compassion.