I’m supposed to be writing. Instead I’m in the stacks of the Robbins Library and scouring the library’s catalogue for books on my phone. Every book I’ve looked up in the online catalogue is checked out. Each time I look up a book I’m hit by a pang of procrastinatory guilt, akin to swallowing a Dorito the wrong way. My conscience and the library are aligned saying: Do your work.
Many people are compelled to clean when staring down a blank page and a deadline but my bed is already made and the dishes are washed, so I’m compelled to the library. I’m desperate to know what other people have written about getting work done. I’ve also read basically every book there is on the subject. Hence, guilt, like a Dorito lodged in my throat.
The thoughts and emotions which drive procrastination have many names (which are capitalized auspiciously): Gremlins, Monkey Mind, The Censor, Resistance. . . Here’s one which is rarely used, but Brené Brown has worked tirelessly bring into style: shame, (no capitalization–shame would rather less attention).
I think it’s time we talked about creativity and shame and in the shame department, Brené has done us all a solid. She’s researched it, defined it and talked to people people that have figured out how to defeat it, or at least keep it from inhibiting them from time to time. Brené describes these unicorns as people with high shame resilience.
But wait! There’s more!
She’s gone one step further. She’s distilled their tactics into four simple guidelines we could emulate. If you’re a person struggling with how to get your best work out into the world, I think you’ll want these tactics in your tool box.
Brené says shame’s messages boil down to two themes. Note these, you will be tested:
- “Not good enough”
- “How dare you!?!”
If you don’t already recognize these messages here’s the test: Think of something intend to do, but haven’t. Something that would be fun, or exciting, or challenging. Maybe it’s something that would change your life or your world or your day for the better. Some thoughts will likely arise that complicate acting on it–what are these? Packed away in those messages will be some variant of “Not Good Enough,” or “How Dare you!?!”
Ok, so here are the tactics:
The four traits of highly shame resistant people:
1.They know what shame feels like for themselves (the physical symptoms that signal its onset), and they know what situations and thoughts create shame for themselves.
2.They reality check messages and expectations that fuel their shame, i.e., are the messages and expectations fueling their shame even remotely possible to achieve?
3.They reach out and tell their stories to people they trust. Brené says if shame was isolated in a petri dish, the thing that would cause it to grow would be secrecy, silence and judgment. The thing that causes it to shrivel like a slug dusted with salt? Empathy.
4.When they encounter shame, they call it out, they call shame what it is: “shame.”
Let me go through how I think these apply to my writing.
- Know what shame feels like and what situations create shame.
For me when I sit down to write, my most common shame trigger is the thought that I don’t I have anything to say. I feel scared. My belly pits out and tumbles into the void of infinity. My breathing stops. If it’s really bad my armpits may tingle. The world takes on a surreal quality, like stumbling into the clutches of evil fairies in a dark forest.
I get the same feeling when I get to a point in my writing in which I know what I want to say but I’m scared to say it:
Maybe that thing is too real.
Maybe it’s too embarrassing.
Maybe someone might actually read it, like my mom or my girlfriend.
This, my friends, is how shame feels when I write.
Note well: it isn’t something to run from. It’s something to know about and learn to work with so I can get my work done.
- Reality checking messages and expectations that fuel shame
Here’s my least sustainable belief about writing: That every word and every line I write should arrive perfectly formed; Michelangelo’s David, but without any rock to carve away from it.
I know that when I sit down to write, I’m going to write some crap, which is the best fertilizer (as Pat Pattison says) but I carry the irrational belief that my writing should be perfect anyway.
My writing routine is more like getting out of bed. I wake up groggy. I stumble into the kitchen not-so-quietly desperate for prefabricated coffee. My mouth is pasty and my eyes blurry. The day will be fine eventually, but it rarely starts pretty. My Writing is like that and I tell often tell myself that’s “not good enough.” Note again, this isn’t necessarily something to fix, which is likely only shaming myself from a different direction. It’s knowledge to act from. My writing process needs some time to warm up, so I’ll keep writing.
- Shame resilient people reach out and tell their stories to people they trust.
Here just writing can be a helpful first step. Just writing a thing down can sometimes alleviate much of the shame of it:
“I hate this”
“I have nothing to say”
“I don’t want to do this today”
or any of a million other variants are fine and time honored ways of starting a day’s writing.
Also, it’s vital to have friends, peers and compatriots you can talk with about how much writing, (and anything else that comes to mind) sucks. The important thing is, the person you share this information with has to understand too, and not judge you for it. If you don’t have a safe person in your life now, seek one out. The world is filled with Facebook groups and real world support groups which are places to find someone you trust.
4. The shame resilient call shame “shame.”
This simple but can be deceptively hard. I remember the first time I really started talking about shame. I’d just started listening to and reading Brené, and I had a friend I knew I could trust to hash this stuff out with and I still nearly choked on the words. The good news is it gets easier and easier as you go. It gets less scary.
There’s a secret about shame, vulnerability and art. It’s something a friend and I tripped over in one of those epic four hour conversations about life and learning that mostly seem to happen when you’re in high school or college.
I was thirty-five at the time.
Almost universally, the songs, the art, even the personality traits that people value most in me (and that I value most in others) are the songs, art, and characteristics I (or they) feel squirrelly about. The things I’m most embarrassed about, the things I feel shame about, my vulnerabilities are almost always tied up in my best work, and consequently the work I most want to hide.
But somehow they slip out of me.
I share a song in a Fearless Songwriting week. I play a song once at an open mike. Then people keep asking me to play it. It wasn’t meant to be a real song. It was just a joke.
I don’t know why creativity seems designed this way but I’ve talked to a lot of songwriters and to a lot of people and they all agree it’s true. This makes doing the work of reckoning with and coming to terms with my shame even more important. Our fears and our shame are inextricably tangled with our best work. Learning shame resilience, means my best work won’t pass me by because I was too ashamed to write down, to share it.