‘Tis the season of giving and caring, at least for most people in the States. We’ve just passed the annual milestone of stuffing ourselves silly on Thanksgiving Day, and have entered the mad dash toward the holiday finish line of gift-giving and merry-making. Along the way, there will be holiday parties, too many drinks and more rich food, and (sometimes too much) time with extended family.
At its best, this is a time of reflection, of being thankful, and for thinking about and hopefully doing something to help those less fortunate. At its worst, this is a time of feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and even depressed. With so much to do and finish and remember, it’s easy to forget to take care of ourselves.
Unfortunately, lack of self-care and self-compassion isn’t limited to the holiday season. For creative types, it’s easy to fall into harsh self-criticism traps year-round, which can shut down creativity in no time.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve shared some of my new attitudes about and approaches to creativity as I’ve worked by way through Jen Louden’s workshop Getting Your Scary Shit Done. I’ve talked about getting out of my boom and bust work approach, identifying my own best writing processes, and taking up a gratitude practice. At the core of my rediscovered joy of writing is self-compassion. Of all the things I’ve shared and recommended over the past month, I consider this one to be the most important. It’s also one you might find surprisingly difficult to implement.
We’ve discussed before the way human brain is hard-wired to protect us from the dangers of the world. The very human habit of self-reproach falls right in line with our brains’ attempts to keep us hyper-vigilant, ever alert, and in anticipation of the worst. And once again, we have to take a moment to thank our brains for all their hard work, and then we need to give our brains permission to let go of all that negativity. If you have trouble being kind to yourself, here are some simple steps to get you into good self-compassion habits.
Make small, ‘keepable’ promises. I would like to earn a green belt in Krav Maga, complete a sprint triathlon, and write my next four novels by tomorrow at 6 PM. Yeah, that’s ridiculous. And easily identifiable as such. But we set crazy, probably impossible goals for ourselves all the time. Which can be fine, and great, and aspirational! Unless we don’t reach those goals, and then beat ourselves up over our ‘failure’, and feel so awful that our will to create evaporates. It’s not that big, lofty goals are bad. It’s just that they shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. Yes, you want to eat that elephant. But you cannot swallow it whole. One bite at a time. One step at a time. One word, sentence, and paragraph at a time. That’s how our work gets done.
What if, when you sat down to work on your project, you already had a list of small, doable steps that are important to the eventual completion of that great big goal? What if you were to assess how hard the next chapter or scene or page will be to write, and assigned yourself the task of just getting through that in the next hour or day or week? On the cover of my project journal, where I keep – among other things – my ever-changing list of small steps, I have this saying: The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Today, stop obsessing about the thousand-mile mark and take that one step.
Thank yourself for showing up. I loved Michaeline’s comment to my gratitude post last week. She said she is grateful for her brain. Our brains, our quirks, and our individual creativity are amazing things! When is the last time you thanked those pieces of yourself? Do that now, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. (OK, depending upon where you are, use your best judgement on that.) And the next time you sit down or stand up or prop yourself against the wall to work on your project, thank yourself for bringing that brain and creativity to the work. And when you’re done for the day, regardless of your progress or lack thereof, praise yourself for having shown up with intention. Say your praises out loud. You will feel like a weirdo. That’s okay. If you’re a writer, most of the world already thinks you’re pretty weird (and pretty cool and pretty awesome, too). But hearing the words out loud, outside of your own head, does something to your brain, and over time, it actually makes it easier to come to the work.
Reconsider that reward system. This one might sound counter-intuitive. A lot of us have built in rewards for ourselves when we reach a goal or cross a finish line. Rewards make our brains happy. Happy brains have more energy, and more energy can translate to more creativity. BUT…let’s consider the flip side of that for a minute. What happens when you don’t reach the goal or cross the finish line? Do you postpone your reward, or ever cancel it? Or maybe you eat that chocolate, drink that fancy Bourbon, or watch that next Netflix episode anyway, and then are wracked with guilt because you didn’t earn it. You didn’t deserve it.
The problem with a reward system is that while it seems to be based on positivity, it has the potential to be punitive. Instead of hanging that reward just out of reach until you’ve proven yourself worthy, consider making that great thing part of your regularly scheduled self-care. Instead of giving yourself a piece of chocolate if and only if you’ve written enough words or crossed some other goal line, have a piece of chocolate each night at 9 PM because you are a good person, and you are worthy. You are not your word count. You are not your next big goal (says the eternal goal-setter; the irony is not lost on me). You are not even your novel! You are human, and fallible, and brilliant, and lovable. Really, have the chocolate.
Let go of today. It’s always wonderful and fabulous and cause for celebration when we meet our stated goals. But sometimes, we don’t. We fall short. We prove ourselves to be that worst of things – human. Things didn’t go well today? Then before you go to bed tonight, make a new promise to yourself for tomorrow. In the immortal words of Lenny Kravitz, baby, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. Yes, the cliche that life is short is true. BUT the cliche that each day is the first day of the rest of your life is also true. If you’ve had a rough writing/creating day or week or month, forgive yourself. Really, do it. Say it. Out loud. “I forgive myself for not accomplishing [fill in super fancy thing you wanted to have completed by now].” Remind yourself this creative journey is a process. And it’s not over. Go listen to the song if it helps (come on, you know you want to!). Then get your butt back in the chair tomorrow, free from guilt about today.
I hope you’ll find these four practices relatively easy and painless to incorporate into your creative practice. By doing so, you’ll learn to appreciate your own hard work and treat yourself with more kindness. Remember, you wouldn’t say harsh and critical things to your best friend or sister or mother for failing to meet a goal or write a best-selling novel in a month or finish every creative endeavor on time. So don’t say harsh and critical things to yourself for those things.
Now tell me, what kind, wonderful thing are you going to say to or do for yourself today?