Cultivating a healthy creative mindset is a must. Without awareness and tools, we wilt whenever the going gets rough.
The reality of the writing life is that we spend most of our time trapped in a room with a nit-picky Inner Critic and a recalcitrant Muse. Part of our quest is to trick them into getting along and being helpful. We need to develop skills to redirect the Inner Critic and muster the Muse.
The creative journey is stacked with challenges, such as a highly competitive system, subjective judges, and moving goals. On top of these external trials is a minefield of internal battles—in other words, issues of mindset.
I’ve identified five mindset issues common to creatives:
- The drive for validation
- The fear of failure
Hello Darkness, my old friend…
We might as well make friends with this old cur, because Self-Doubt is so common it’s arguably an integral part of the creative process. In The Successful Author Mindset, author Joanna Penn, rock star of indie publishing, admits even she wrestles with Self Doubt and its ugly step-cousin Imposter Syndrome. Joanna says she’s not the only one. Yes, even the literary glitterati struggle.
Self-Doubt can be crippling. It sucks the joy out of writing, makes us blocked, and leads us astray. It’s a type of unhealthy self-consciousness. We doubt ourselves because we focus on and worry about ourselves too much.
Compare it to the self-consciousness that goes with skinny dipping. Nothing beats butt-naked exposure for making a person feel vulnerable and ill-equipped. Instead of anticipating a pleasant swim, all you think about are your inadequacies—or your surplus. In this vulnerable state, you feel certain that EVERYONE is watching and judging your bits…
…Until you jump in! Once you’re semi-submerged and moving through the water, you forget about you. The water’s got you—it buoys you. You can focus on the experience. It’s refreshing; the sensations are relaxing; the experience is fulfilling.
Skinny dipping is an apt analogy for the creative life. The vulnerability that comes from putting our work out there is huge. It releases uncomfortable insecurities, which draw undue attention to Self, which in turn takes attention and energy away from the writing. The only way out is in. You’ve got to get ‘yer daks off and get in the water—the well of creativity! Splash around, frolic like a duckling, have creative fun.
HOT TIP: Speaking from a decade of experience as an emerging writer, I can say that the times of greatest misery and difficulty are when I’ve heeded Self-Doubt’s whispers and stopped writing. I can also say that the best way—maybe the only (legal/non-medicinal) way—out of the mire is to write my way out.
The Drive for Validation
Just because a person longs to know from others she’s special, valued, needed or loved does not make her superficial or flawed. The drive for validation is normal, perhaps necessary for creative people. Writers crave validation that their writing is good enough, and they prefer this affirmation in publishing terms: a devoted agent, a multi-book deal, and a growing fanbase.
Seeking validation through art has its risks because the response is subjective and unique to the reader/viewer/audience. Our art will resonate with some and fall flat with others. We put our work out there to strike a response, but the response might not be what we are expecting.
The artist owns the effort; the reaction belongs to the beholder. We have to learn to focus on our stuff—the effort, or we’ll send ourselves a wee bit bonkers.
Learn to Self-Validate
Creatives expend a lot of energy circling the Am-I-good-enough tree. A vague question begs a vague answer. Stop the madness and find some diagnostic tools that help formulate specific questions and generate helpful feedback that will promote growth.
Look for handy checklists and templates. These materials empower us to self-validate. Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid offers Editor’s Six Core Questions. A few of my writer-friends recommend Writing Blueprints. I have my own Chapter One Checklist here.
These tools give you ways to objectively critique your own work, and from there you can validate your writing, quantify your growth, and identify areas to strengthen.
An important lesson for any creative person to learn is the process is the point. It’s not about fame or fortune, though both are super. It’s about creating. It’s about expression. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about the outcome—the published book or the displayed art. As soon as one finishes, another one starts.
Satisfaction (and, if you’re lucky, some money) comes from the final object, but joy, fulfilment and PURPOSE come from the process.
The Fear of Failure
Playing the What-If game is no fun.
Emerging writers fear: What if I never get published?
Veteran writers fear: What if my publisher drops me? What if my book bombs? What if the reviews are all one star?
Anyone fears: What if I don’t have what it takes? What if someone notices I’m a fraud?
The strange thing about us humans is we excel at the negative version of the What-If game. Psychologists call it catastrophising.
Forecasting Gloom & Doom
Because of our sensitive souls, we creative types have a propensity to become Disaster Forecasters. The awful failure we fear, the Big What-If, churns and rages like a cyclone building over the ocean. Just as the sea lends its energy to the storm, we feed the gloomy forecast by rehearsing that one prediction over and over, rather than challenging it.
The good news is it’s just as easy to imagine a positive possibility as it is to imagine a negative one. Most of us just practise the scary forecasts more. We can disperse the cyclonic power of the Fear of Failure by generating alternatives and options. For every negative What-If failure, imagine three What-If positive possibilities. Each positive option you add diminishes the power of the Big What-If.
For example: Max is writing his second children’s novel. He worries, “What if it’s so bad no one will publish it.” Rather than dwelling on this possibility and reinforcing it, he generates three positive What-If scenarios for it.
- What if I submit the revised draft to a competition and it wins.
- What if my critique partners think it’s good enough to submit to a small press.
- What if it’s so amazing that it gets me an agent, who takes it to international auction, and after a heated bidding war, I end up with six-figure advance and a movie option.
See how the original What-If has a lot of negative energy around it? With each new option, though, that energy is diminished. Generating options is a wonderful practice for everyone, especially Disaster Forecasters.
HOT TIP: Failure fears tend to be fairly general. Beef up your positive options by making them as specific as possible.
“It has to be perfect.”
Newsflash: Perfection doesn’t exist.
However, perfectionism does exist, and as a creative mindset, it’s a cruel taskmaster. Perfectionism can immobilise a person, leading them to procrastinate. It takes its toll on health, relationships, and artistic practice.
If you’re a perfectionist, you probably know it. And there’s a good chance you don’t enjoy being called out on it, because it sounds…well, imperfect. But the truth is, perfectionism, like most traits, has pros and cons, a light side and a dark side. It can be helpful and harmful.
Perfectionism may well be the superpower that got you where you are. Be proud of your commitment to excellence. The world needs your people of your calibre and standards. However, high achievers and perfectionists are not the same. The former strives for real excellence, as in a personal best, or the best on the day; the latter pushes for an ideal, unattainable perfection. To the perfectionist, ‘almost perfect’ is the same as failure.
Please take time to honestly appraise the personal cost of perfectionism. Since this article is about self-care and a healthy creative mindset, now is a good time to consider whether your M.O. is working well for you or driving you into the ground.
Do you experience any of these hallmarks of toxic perfectionism?
- A habit of procrastination, of never feeling “good enough” to start
- Weariness, fatigue, “going through the motions”, tearfulness
- A loss of joy in creation and interests
- An inability to stop working; a compulsion to push harder
- Physical complaints, like insomnia, anxiety, digestion problems, stiff neck, etc.
- A recurring desire to give up or fantasies about running away
The above list applies to toxic perfectionism, but it could also apply to other health problems. If you’re distressed or concerned, please talk to a trusted friend and your family doctor. Don’t suffer in silence. Taking care of yourself is a worthy priority, and sometimes that means seeking professional help.
To combat perfectionistic tendencies, try practising curiosity. Instead of “I MUST or I should…” try “I wonder…” and “Wouldn’t it be fun to…” Curiosity fosters a sense of discovery and adventure and a willingness to allow things to unfold. Perfectionism runs on duty and drudgery and has a tendency to force and shame. Guess which one is more fun?
Playfulness is also helpful for battling perfectionism. When things “get grim,” whip out your sense of humour to lighten things up. It’s amazing how perfectionism shrivels up and creativity blooms when you’re having fun.
Strive for excellence, but make GROWTH your aim.
No matter what level you are at, from beginner to mega star, it’s tempting to compare yourself to someone else, your journey to their journey. Comparing—looking at how your peers are tracking—is not a cardinal sin or even a character flaw; it’s just risky. Think of all of the road accidents caused by rubbernecking.
My yoga teacher encourages the class to: “Keep your eyes on your own yoga mat.” This is to protect our necks from injury and our egos from demoralisation, but it’s also to keep us focused on our personal experience—what’s happening in our bodies and minds. This is healthy!
There’s only one person you can honestly and accurately compare yourself to: the writer you were a year ago, five years ago, a decade ago…
Avoid gratuitous sideways glances! Instead, look at you! Celebrate how you’ve grown as a writer from year to year and project to project. You’ve come a LONG way, baby!
If you find yourself struggling with feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and bitterness, it’s time to pause. Remember, these aren’t “sins” or character flaws; they are common human feelings that simply indicate how strongly you want something you don’t yet have.
Acknowledge the feelings without judgement. “Hmm. Interesting…” Then move on! Ruminating on it or shaming yourself or poking yourself in the eye do no good. In fact, you could spiral down from there to self-loathing and despair.
While jealousy and bitterness are normal, they are also uncomfortable emotions, and they could cause you to say (or post) something unwise or behave in a counterproductive way. There are also health complications that may arise from or be exacerbated by unchecked bitterness. Pause and reflect: what’s feeding these emotions?
The Social Media Trap
It’s hard to avoid comparison on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. These platforms serve up a carefully curated, highly distorted perspective of life.
I got an agent and another contract! I won an award! My story is in an anthology! I’m on TV! OMG – My book has been optioned for film!
The stream of good news and congratulations on Facebook can be a wonderful party or an overwhelming parade, depending on where you’re at emotionally and how you’re tracking on your creative journey.
If social media is making you feel sad, bad about yourself, bitter, or jealous, take a sabbatical. Facebook will be there when you’re ready to come back.
Write Yourself Free!
Here’s a playful exercise to try: Write a Letter of Confession to a trusted friend (perhaps someone who’s not a fellow creative). Be honest about how demoralised you feel. Admit your jealousy or bitterness, and describe how they are affecting you. It may be enough to write it without sharing (i.e., keep it for your journal or shred it).
Another version of this cathartic writing project is to compose a (fake) snarky ‘Confess All’ article for a trashy magazine—not to share or submit, just to purge your feelings and make you feel better.
HOT TIP: In either case, shoot for humour. Look for a funny angle or a self-deprecating bent. The whole process is cathartic; it helps you reframe your feelings of disappointment and pain; and it keeps things light! Humour is a handy life skill and an essential tool in the creative’s toolbox.
HOTTEST TIP: If nothing else resonates, do this.
As you navigate self-doubt, curb the drive for validation, reframe the fear of failure, unpack perfectionism, and mellow the temptation to compare, remember to give thanks for the privilege of creating, for friends in the creative community, and for your various unique gifts. The attitude of gratitude keeps us balanced and healthy!
And one final HOT TIP …
Two books that have helped me when I’ve needed to tweak my creative mindset or adjust my attitude have been:
The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writing Journey by Joanna Penn
A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting & Productive Writing Practice by Jordan Rosenfeld
Over to You
I’d love to know your thoughts on cultivating healthy creative mindset. Do you know of handy resources? Got any HOT TIPS to share? Leave a comment!
Sunflower Photo by Andrew Kitchen on Unsplash
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