I stared at my computer, at the email I’d perfected over the past month. Attached was my manuscript proposal, which I honed on and off for the past year and a half. The send button glared back at me, daring me to press it in one moment and repelling me in the next.
Alone in my office and in spite of the fact that I had checked and rechecked and edited and gotten feedback, I couldn’t seem to trust that I’d done enough to hit send. This email would go to my two top choice literary agents. I knew that my platform was pitifully minute, and so I put even more pressure on the other elements of my proposal.
The longer I sat there, the more paralyzed I felt, the more I wondered if I was making the right decision, if I was missing some key element, if my book idea had the legs I thought it did.
Our brains are committed to homeostasis, to keeping things the way they are. The tension comes when we also want to grow, when we realize that just because things are a certain way doesn’t mean that’s the best way. And then on top of that we want to create things and share the result with others.
It can feel like our brains will do literally anything to keep that from happening.
In addition, as Christians we believe there is an enemy that "comes to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). While I am reluctant to blame every little thing that goes “wrong” on the devil, I don’t think he’s not a factor in our internal process, particularly when we are working to bring light and hope into the world.
So, how do we deal with these things? We know that the resistance is not going away, yet we want to be able to persevere in our good work. Here are some practices to walk through when your inner critic makes your creative work feel like life and death.
What does it sound like?
Are there any phrases or feelings that you notice coming up? Be as specific as possible. As you’re noticing the feelings you’re experiencing, whether it’s fear, frustration, sadness, or doubt, pay attention to the story you’re telling yourself.
For me, I notice the phrase, I can’t do this a lot, as well as, What’s the point? Nothing you do matters, and Your hard work will never pay off, so you might as well give up. I notice myself feeling anxious and my perfectionistic tendencies dialing up to eleven. I notice tension creeping up my neck and my breath becomes shallow. I notice that I fold in on myself and my thoughts feel like a shaken snow globe.
Is it true?
Our inner critic wants us to buy into the idea that our creative work is not worth sharing, that it doesn’t matter, that it’s not good enough. And so, when we notice those thoughts beginning to swirl around, we can non-judgmentally ask ourselves if the story our brain is telling us is true.
A friend of mine suggested that I make a chart with my self-doubt’s greatest hits, and next to each one write a bit of truth. I chose to use verses from the Bible for mine, so that when one of those thoughts pops up, I can gently point my brain back to solid ground.
Another way to approach this one is to question how we define the attributes our brains are putting onto our work. How are we defining “good enough?” What do we mean by “perfect?” What about our works makes it not worth sharing?
What if it’s true?
This is more of a stoic approach, but one that helps my perfectionist brain walk through some worst case scenarios. I used it more so when I was auditioning and I’d worry about puking in the middle of my sixteen bars. Another way to phrase this question is “What do you think will happen?” These questions can help us follow our logic train to the very end of its tracks. It’s helpful to do this with a trusted friend or counselor who can help us see where our logic isn’t lining up.
If I’m worried about sending a query letter to an agent, for example, I might get caught up in the fear of making a bad first impression and landing myself always and forever on some sort of blacklist. It is good to edit and to have someone proofread. But if I get to the point where I’m so obsessed about not making a single mistake that I can’t even send the letter, it’s worth looking into that. So I might ask myself, Alright, brain, what’s going on here?
I’ll walk through the naming exercise and notice that I am worried that I’ll overlook some detail that will cause the agent to dismiss everything else about my letter and proposal, and they’ll think I’m unprofessional and a bad writer. Ok, what if that happens? What if you forget something? Once I ride the wave of paranoia a bit, I then can consider, Ok, even if that does happen, is your desire to get your book in the hands of those it’s designed to help worth the risk of that happening?
If I reach that question and find the answer to be “no,” but it’s still something I feel I need to do, I have a great therapist and some trusted friends and mentors who I know will challenge and encourage me.
How can I imagine this differently?
Our imaginations are powerful tools that shape our thought patterns and our perception. We can expend energy and bandwidth using our imaginations to worry about all the things that can go wrong. What if we also chose to consider all the things that could go right? What if we imagined ourselves held by God through the process? What if we imagined delight and joy instead of shame and guilt?
I can imagine an agent looking at my proposal and picking up a red phone that connects him to other agents and telling them, “Watch out for that MaryB. character. She put a comma in the wrong place in her query letter. She is banned from the inner circle forever and always. Tell the everyone.”
Or, I can use that same energy to imagine God cheering me on as I take a creative risk. I can imagine him saying, “This is my [daughter], whom I love, in [her] I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). I can imagine that God’s love for me does not depend on the placement of a comma. I can imagine that the agent is passionate about finding new writers with new ideas. I can imagine receiving rejection or silence and choosing to continue in my good work anyway.
What do I believe God would say about that?
This is one to enter into prayerfully and with discernment. The point is not to put words in God’s mouth but to examine our heart toward God. If I believe that God has invited me to participate in his work on this earth through the gift of words, how do I think he feels when I opt out? If I think he’s disappointed, is that backed up in the Bible and in my experience with God?
More often than not, I find that my self-doubt comes from a place of pressure to follow rules that I’ve picked up along the way, but that are not from God. Somewhere along the line, I learned that I could guilt and berate myself into better behavior, thus avoiding any real heart change, maintaining my illusion of control, and making people believe I’m better than I am all in one. I am nothing if not efficient.
1 John 4:18 says that, “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Romans 8:1 says that, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:15 says that “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” Several places in scripture call God “... gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Though our brains will continue this warped effort to protect us from change, and the enemy will try to get us to live in fear and shame, God delights to invite us into this work. We are not bad or wrong for struggling with self-doubt. We’re just human, and God knows that.
When the inner critic starts up, let’s have some practices in place. But also, whether we walk through them perfectly or forget them altogether, whether we do the work scared or put it off another day, we have more of a choice than we think we do. That choice does not determine our value or worth, but it is a choice. Today we might choose to trust the truth, tomorrow maybe we trust the self-doubt.
One thing my therapist always says, which has made its way into my core values, “There is no losing. There is only winning and learning.” Let’s choose to learn.