Whose Standards Are You Judging Yourself By?

Whose Standards Are You Judging Yourself By?

Whose Standards Are You Judging Yourself By?

I have two very different dogs.

Alex (Alexander the Great Pyrenees) is, true to his breed, as laconic a dog as has lived. He pretty much has one setting: giant lapdog. He’s never so happy as when he’s taking it easy and being loved by literally any human being on the planet, and he moves at a single speed: poky. This is vintage Alex:

Gavin is wired a little differently. He loves two people, me and my husband, and he has limited use for anyone else. He can chill out for a period of time, but after a while he needs stimulation: a bone to chew, people to bark at, something to scavenge (and in his case that’s anything—the dog practically has pica). This is typical Gavin:

When we go on walks, Alex hangs behind us, leisurely plodding along and stopping to sniff whatever captures his fancy. Sometimes we wind up pulling him along behind us as if we’re his sled dogs.

With Gavin, on the other hand, we cover about twice as much ground as we’re actually walking, because I turn around and walk the opposite direction whenever he pulls ahead on the leash—which is at least half the time.

Gavin thrives on obedience training—he’s eager to please and to learn new things. Alex will not be dictated to, and sits calmly in passive resistance until we come to our senses and just give him the treat.

We love them both desperately.

Neither dog is “good” or “bad” (although ask us during certain frustrating behaviors and we may offer another answer). They’re just different, and we “parent” them accordingly, Gavin learning lots of commands and getting fast walks and athletic sessions of fetch, while Alex gets plenty of petting and brushing and nice, slow meanders through the neighborhood.

Hopefully most of us would take a similar approach with our pets, our children, our loved ones and friends: Accept them for who they are without judgment, and try to give each of them what lets them thrive as individuals.

So why do we so often do the opposite with ourselves?

Are Your Standards for Your Writing Career Actually Your Own?

I so frequently hear authors flog themselves with the “shoulds”: They aren’t writing as much or as well as they should. After X number of books they should be able to turn in a draft that needs less editing and revision. They should have more books published, or have higher sales, or should have gotten an agent or publishing contract by now.

The problem with “shoulding all over ourselves,” as I once memorably heard it called, is that it unquestioningly accepts a metric for our assessment of our own performance based on some theoretical idea of what is “right” or “normal” or what the industry or other writers or some marketing guru or blog constitutes success as a writer.

It defines our self-perception and our enjoyment of our career by an external barometer against which we’re comparing ourselves.

It’s the equivalent of my deciding that all dogs should be like Toto and imposing that standard on my dogs, who are neither small nor perky nor capable of walking off leash without wandering away (Alex) or going on the hunt for squirrel (Gavin).

We often do it not just in our writing life, but in general—accepting arbitrary outside standards of beauty, our home and family lives, finances, our careers, even sometimes our ideology.

This puts the measure of our life’s enjoyment and our own self-image in other people’s hands—advertisers, social media “friends,” Wall Street, colleagues, politicians.

Taking Back Your Own Definitions of Success

I’ve been working lately on not mindlessly adopting standards for myself that may or may not fit my goals, my preferences, and my priorities. But it’s so easy for those external standards to slip in.

  • With my latest book release, for instance, it’s been easy to fall into the trap of measuring my success and worth as an author by the daily rankings, by sales, by reviews, by whether my publisher is happy with the book’s performance.
  • After a recent spate of workshops, keynotes, webinars, and interviews, I found myself slipping into hyperproductivity mode, a familiar one for me, based on unexamined subconscious standards for myself that come from a lifetime drive toward perfectionism and overachieving from old childhood messaging—rather than consciously deciding what fits my immediate goals and values.
  • Because of all the work commitments that kept me overly busy for the last couple of months, once they were met I let my assumptions of what I “should” be doing as a good wife, good daughter, good friend, good dog mom, etc., push me into more activity and social engagements than I was ready for.

All of these goals are important to me—to help my novel reach readers, have the opportunity to share craft knowledge with other authors, spend quality time with the people (and dogs!) I care about.

But I’d unconsciously adopted external standards of “success” in each of them that aren’t necessarily right for me at this moment, and were compromising my enjoyment of them for their own sake.

Just like I don’t try to fit Alex and Gavin into some external definition of what constitutes a “good dog,” I need to respect my own preferences and needs—and what I really need at the moment, I realized, is some downtime and rest.

That means saying no to some things, pushing back some deadlines on personal projects I’m working on, removing a few items from my to-do list…and reassessing what I actually want right now and why.

Every person is different, every book is different, and every author’s writing career follows its own trajectory. The next time you find yourself scrambling toward a brass ring or beating yourself up for falling short, ask yourself whether the standards by which you’re judging yourself are your own—or you’re letting outside forces determine what’s best for you.

How about you, authors–do you unconsciously accept definitions of what “success” looks like for you that may not reflect your true goals with your writing career? Have you defined for yourself what those are? How do you make sure you’re operating according to your own goals, values, and priorities when you slip into external judgments?

10 Comments. Leave new

  • Maryann Kovalski
    November 18, 2021 2:09 pm

    We tend to be good at what we want, deep down, to be good at and fail at what we don’t really want to do or be. Then when we fail, we can say, “I wasn’t good enough”and move on to happier places and better fits.

    I suppose failing is the only way we can discover what we really want. I wish there was a less arduous way!

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      November 18, 2021 5:25 pm

      Interesting point…! Do you think that sometimes failure is just our attempts to grow toward something we DO want, but don’t yet have the skills or knowledge for? I hate failing. 🙂 Every time I have to remember not to judge myself for it. I always try to remind myself that I have to fail in order to move down the road toward learning and succeeding.

      Thanks for your perspective, Maryann.

  • Lainey Cameron
    November 18, 2021 4:24 pm

    I’m definitely doing this to myself right now, feeling like I’m slow, less disciplined, easily distracted, or have ADD brain compared to other writers.

    Just this week I’ve been doing a class that has homework each day and struggled with two things – I truly cannot write/ edit when someone is holding a conversation just through the wall no matter how hard I keep trying. This is when I used to turn to going to coffee shops (general buzz dine, one loud conversation, nope).

    Turns out my focus is also 100x improved working off a paper copy ( you’d think I would have worked that out by now!).

    But both examples of the way my own (Gavin?) brain works that I constantly feel bad about.

    Maybe instead of berating myself for struggling to focus, what if I accepted that’s just how I am and worked to accommodate? (Even if sometimes I truly don’t know how to secure that quiet zone).

    That’s what this article got me wondering…thank you., Tiffany

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      November 18, 2021 5:30 pm

      You posted about comparing yourself to other authors recently, and that helped inspire my thoughts on this, actually. (And another article you’ll see shortly on another site!)

      I love that you recognize the ways you work best. It’s so funny that we do hold ourselves up against others in such personal areas like that, isn’t it? I don’t think we’d do it with other people–we’d accept that their process is their process. I’m baffled by the folks who write in coffee shops and the like–I need SILENCE. But I know plenty of writers like you who thrive on that kind of white noise, or noise-noise, or listening to music while they write.

      So much of what holds us back comes form inside ourselves, I think–flogging ourselves with what we “should” be doing, or aren’t doing “well enough” or “the right way.” Learning to get out of our way and be our own best, constant champion is some of the most intrinsic work of a successful creative career, I think. Sounds like you’re doing that. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Lainey!

      • Lainey Cameron
        November 18, 2021 6:14 pm

        Ok oh wise one – here’s my challenge for you for some future article. Once we understand and truly accept that we shouldn’t “should ourselves” or compare to others, how do we get over that behavior pattern?

        It’s such a natural thing to do, and yet so counterproductive. But like going on a diet by saying “I should eat better” it’s not easy to actually pull it off (avoiding comparison). Interesting example there on losing weight- one meal at a time, points system, peer support?

        I wonder how others have gotten beyond constant comparisons? For me I find gratitude helps.

        • Tiffany Yates Martin
          November 19, 2021 2:33 am

          Funny you mention “the shoulds.” You might want to check my next Writers in the Storm post…which you again helped inspire. 🙂

          Gratitude helps me too. So does just reminding myself–again and again and again–that the only standards that matter for me are the ones I set, that matter to me–and to try to stay in touch with my motivations, why I am pursuing the goals I pursue.

          It’s an ongoing process–I don’t know that we ever vanquish these proclivities entirely, but maybe we get more adept at dealing with them?

    • Mary-Chris Escobar
      November 20, 2021 2:34 pm

      Love all and agree with all of this SO much! Mostly just popping in to see if you’ve heard of Coffitivity, Lainey? It’s a website and app that provides coffee shop sounds wherever you are! https://coffitivity.com/about

  • Thank you for writing this post! The timing on reading it is spot on. I’ve been “shoulding all over myself” for far too long, and when I allow that misconception to drive the bus, anxiety is the only passenger left. Comparing my book sales to other author’s success stories only makes it worse. I’m still trying to find the tools to reel in the anxiety, while still work on following my own goals. For the most part, the goals I’ve set for my writing career have been met. It’s just my expectations on what my books sales “should be” that are falling short. But maybe it’s not failure at all. Maybe it’s just time to review what “success for me” actually looks like, and stop comparing myself to everyone else. Maybe it’s time to just be kind to myself and accept the natural flow of failure and success, because the reality is; I’m somewhere in the middle, and that’s okay!

    • Thanks so much for sharing this, Patti. When I started writing openly in this blog about my demons (they are legion), it was fascinating–and comforting–to see how common they are among so many of us. “Shoulding” is one of the most common, I think–we demand so much of ourselves and are so quick to crack the whip on ourselves in ways I think we would never do to anyone else. Comparison too, as you point out–made infinitely worse by social media, it seems like.

      I love that you have found peace from the thought of being “in the middle.” Honestly, it’s the bell curve for a reason–most people are in the middle! But I think we get inundated with this hyper-American ideal of “BE NUMBER ONE!” and anything less feels like failure.

      I was listening to an episode of my current favorite podcast recently, “Dead Eyes,” and something actor David Moscow said (he played young Josh in the movie Big, Tom Hanks’s character) struck me. He said his dad told him, “The mountain never ends for anyone…. Tom Hanks looks at Tom Cruise and wishes his movies were making a billion dollars. And Tom Cruise looks at Tom Hanks and wishes he has three Academy awards and…it never stops. So, you just have to be okay with the ride that you’re on.”

      That really hit me powerfully. The mountain never ends–you just do what you’re doing and if you can enjoy that, on its own terms, then you’ll feel fulfilled. I think that’s an awfully freeing mindset.

      Thanks for your comment–it made me think.


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