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Writers Talk About Writing

How to Reduce Writing Shame

​​​​Are you proud of your ability to write? Or do you secretly feel embarrassed, worried or even ashamed about it?

I ask these questions because shame is something that sets you up for repeated failure and self-disappointment. It's undermining rather than helpful.

Not long ago, I received an email from a reader who observed that whenever we compare ourselves to others — not just in writing but also in exercise, hobbies, earnings and just about anything else you can name — we tend to focus on the far right-hand end of the bell curve. As a result, we often forget that the vast majority of people fall right in the middle — hence the name "bell curve." Also, we totally ignore the left-hand end of the curve.

"Could you please consider writing a column," the reader requested, "on how to be able not to feel shame when you reduce your writing goal?"

Let me begin by defining shame. Generally, people feel guilty when they've done something wrong. Shame, however, is the feeling that we ourselves are wrong or bad for what we did or failed to do. It is deeper than guilt, and we use it to condemn not just our behaviour but our very selves.

Even though shame is unhealthy, we have a hard time walking away from the feeling because — on some level — we believe it saves us.

First, we think it protects us from punishment. But this is not true because — even if no one else notices our error — we are all inclined to punish ourselves. (Think about how you felt the time you ate a meal out at a restaurant when you knew you couldn't really afford it. Or the time you bought something — whether a car or a piece of clothing — well outside of your budget.)

Second, we believe shame will help us maintain control. This belief is also misguided because shame usually encourages us to continue doing the same behaviours that have caused the problem in the first place. Think about skipping your writing for a day. Is it easier or harder to resume writing the next day? Hint: It's always harder because we've started to lose the automaticity (the ability to do things without occupying our minds with low-level details) that comes with ingrained habits.

Third, shame causes us to believe the problem is all our own fault, and we assume that we just need to pick up our socks. Writing feels so individual and so personal that we have a hard time imagining that responsibility could rest with anyone else. But if you failed to play the French horn, for example, would you blame yourself? (Assuming you've never played the French horn before?) No, of course not! You'd understand the problem was that you'd never had any instruction.

I know, I know, you're going to tell me that you had plenty of writing instruction in school. But the vast majority of school-based writing instruction will have focused on spelling and grammar. Almost none of it will have addressed the issues relating to the behaviour and neuroscience that can make a massive difference to writers.

But there's an even more insidious problem with shame. Research has shown that it causes people to procrastinate to avoid it.

If you are feeling any shame associated with your writing, be sure to take some quick steps to nip it in the bud. Here are three suggestions for you:

  1. Focus on your breathing. Slow, deep breathing is inherently calming and will help keep shame away. Many of us suffer from what I like to call writing apnea and this disorder predisposes us to shame because it puts our autonomic system into freak-out mode. If you want to get really serious about your breathing, then please consider meditating. It's incredibly helpful, especially for writers.
  2. Adopt a realistic attitude toward mistakes. We all make mistakes; it's part of the human condition. But shame always tries to convince us that we should either ruminate endlessly on our failures, never forgiving ourselves for them, or forget about them entirely, as the only way to move forward. If you're able to take a more realistic attitude — owning your failures, as well as your successes — you're more likely to be able to hold shame at bay.
  3. Talk back to your inner editor. Replace each negative message with a positive one. For example, when you hear "It's pathetic that I can write only 50 words a day," respond with "It's great that I'm able to write every day and, over time, I'll be able to finish that paper/chapter, no problem."

Shame is a deep, insidious habit that can not only make you feel abysmal but also derail your writing. Take it seriously and don't let it get its clutches on your psyche.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.