If You Feel Like Sh*t, Sit with It

Tiffany Yates Martin When You Feel Like Shit

If You Feel Like Sh*t, Sit with It

Over lunch with a friend last week, I told her I was working with the idea of tolerating discomfort in my life. She literally shuddered. “I don’t even like to think about that,” she said.

I couldn’t blame her—frankly I don’t like discomfort one bit. Historically I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid it: do more, shut down, give up, or most commonly, berate myself and then try to fix whatever is making me—or anyone else—uncomfortable. (My husband does not find this latter one of my more endearing traits.)

But I’ve also found historically that these behaviors don’t always (or even often) seem to work as well as I think they should. If I’m having a bad writing day, for instance, coming down on myself for it and then trying to continue to work harder just digs me deeper into the pit, stresses me out more, and hamstrings the tender creative part of me that may need encouragement or gentleness or rest.

Or if I try to avoid discomfort and step away from my writing, then I tend to beat myself up for that too, which also does not create an environment conducive to creativity.

Discomfort, by its nature, is…well, uncomfortable. It’s unpleasant. Sometimes it may feel flat-out painful and intolerable. And isn’t our aversion to pain simply basic self-preservation? If you put your hand on a hot stove, the instinct to snatch it away protects you from melting your skin off.

But discomfort isn’t the same as pain. It may be more a signal of something literally outside our comfort zone that might be an area where we need to stretch or grow.

The truth is that discomfort is tolerable. And often it’s necessary—we all know what results from that which does not kill us.

“What makes us stronger” isn’t always a result of our surmounting whatever issue is making us uncomfortable, though. Sometimes it’s simply where we have to accept the human truth of living in a flawed world where much is random, much is outside our control, and things don’t always go the way we want them to. Constantly fighting against it is often what causes a lot of unnecessary anxiety and demons: “I’m not doing enough.” ”It’s not good enough.” “I’m not good enough.”

I’m actually having some discomfort right now as I write this. It’s not coming out exactly the way I wanted it to, and I have a stacked to-do list pressing at me to wrap it up and get it posted so I can move on to other commitments. Both these issues are frustrating and uncomfortable.

But there are also some realities to consider:

  • This blog, while very important to me, is only one of the various prongs of my business—and it’s one that doesn’t pay my bills. It’s also a blog, and many of the pros and advisers I admire most have expressed time and again that one key to successful blogging is not to get too hung up on perfection. Have they MET me? Perfectionism is one of my demons that usually results from my unwillingness to tolerate the discomfort of not getting something exactly right—an impossibility in an imperfect world.
  • I keep a very full schedule, and at the moment I am working on several projects I’ve committed to for other people/organizations that I am contracted for: a publisher’s deadline for an edit I’m working on; a couple of articles for writer’s outlets; creating a new course and a keynote speech for two upcoming presentations. “I’m not doing enough” is another of the band of demons who live in the cave of my psyche, a result of my fighting the uncomfortable reality of time being finite when my ideas and goals may feel infinite.
  • Some writing days are better than others; some days my mind is clearer and more focused in general, or more focused on a certain topic than another and it’s not productive to dedicate my efforts where my mind doesn’t want to go. Sometimes the message you think you are conveying isn’t actually what winds up coming across on the page, and you have to decide whether to fight that and push it where you think it should go or let the writing become what it wants to be instead. This hits squarely on my control demons (there are a LOT of them in that cave), unwilling to accept the fact that creativity isn’t a machine and doesn’t operate flawlessly upon command, and it’s subjective, and it’s variable and inconsistent.

Read more: “A Rational Antidote for Emotional Thinking

Getting Unstuck in Your Writing

Any of this hitting a chord? Here are some of the areas where authors may regularly feel discomfort:

  • Writing: “It’s bad, I’m stuck, I don’t know where to go, I don’t know what’s wrong,” or any of the countless ways writing can be difficult and frustrating and mercurial.
  • Querying/submitting: “It’s overwhelming.” “I’m not good enough.” “Why aren’t they replying?” “Why are they rejecting me?” “Every other submission is much better than mine.”
  • Critique/editing: “I suck.” “This story is garbage.” “That editor doesn’t know jack.” “I will never master this craft.”
  • Revising: “It’s too much.” “I don’t know where to start/how to fix the issues.” “I’m making it worse.” “I can’t do it.”
  • Publishing: “My editor wants to change my story.” “I hate the title they chose.” “This cover is all wrong.” “They aren’t putting much marketing behind my book.” “They hate my proposal/pages for my next book.” “They aren’t renewing my contract because they’ve lost faith in me/I’m not good enough/I’m a failure,” and all the many aspects of publishing that are out of our control.
  • Marketing: “I should be doing more.” “I am terrible at social media.” “Why did these people unsubscribe?” “I don’t know how to do it.” “Nothing is working.” “I hate marketing.”
  • Reviews: “Why does this person hate it?” “This one-star review is tanking my rating.” “They reviewed the shipping, not my book.” “No one is reviewing me.” “They completely missed the point of the story.” “Maybe I actually suck?”
  • Life: “I don’t have enough time to write.” “I’m not doing what I should be doing.” “I shouldn’t take time away from my family for writing.” “I shouldn’t neglect my writing because of family obligations.”

If any of these quotes hit home, notice how each one results not from the problem itself, but from our thoughts about the problem. So much of our discomfort arises from our reaction to what is causing it, our resistance to the reality of it, our efforts to fight against it.

There’s a parable I love about the second arrow. Here’s the gist: A person is walking through the forest when a hunter’s stray arrow pierces them. Damn skippy it causes a mess of discomfort—it hurts like a sonofabitch.

But if we react by wailing and moaning at the pain…by railing against the injustice of having been struck or the carelessness or poor aim of the hunter or how it has destroyed our plans and ruined our lives…or by berating ourselves for being so stupid as to be out walking during hunting season—that’s the second arrow, a pain we cause ourselves beyond the pain of the original event, and one that may keep us from doing what needs to be done in the moment: pulling out the arrow and dealing with whatever problems it has caused us.

We can’t keep ourselves from being struck by the errant arrows of life. But we can learn to accept that they happen—and free ourselves to take action where possible, and accept realities where it isn’t.

We need to operate despite discomfort.

With my recent writing challenges, I did a combination of both that helped me move past the issues I’ve been having and reconnect with my creativity. First I let myself experience the discomfort of my ideas not feeling as if they were coming together the way I wanted them to, and that it felt frustrating and discouraging. I reminded myself that this is the process, quite often—and that in my editing work I often convey that truth to authors: “This feeling is normal, and it’s no reflection on you, your talent or skill, or the worth of your writing.” I accepted these realities I can’t change.

Then I examined what was causing the discomfort and realized that part of it was coming from my worrying more about how my writing was coming across, rather than more organically figuring out what I want to say. I was writing from the outside in, rather than the other way around—focused more on product than process. That’s a familiar demon from my cave, and I know how to deal with him. I let the discomfort serve as a yellow flag for an issue I needed to examine and I (hopefully) grew a little from it.

Compassion researcher Kristin Neff has a sort of mantra that sums this approach up for me, and which I use—to excellent effect most of the time—anytime I am feeling discomfort in any area of my life: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”

It reminds me, as the Serenity Prayer goes, to have grace with myself to accept what can’t be changed, the courage to face and change what can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

24 Comments. Leave new

  • I absolutely chime with the ‘editing’ and ‘life’ woes in particular. And yes, it’s definitely part of the process. Something I notice about myself is that the difference between the way I feel on a bad day and the way I feel on a good day is that it is often all internal. Nothing has changed externally, it’s just my mood/focus/optimism etc. is different. I try hard to memorise how I feel on those world-beating days.

    On another note, it was lovely to see Intuitive Editing on Sarra Cannon’s Heartbreathings Instagram feed on her pile of craft books she bought this week. Don’t know if you saw it, so thought I’d mention it.

    Reply
    • I love that observation, CJ–that nothing is different on those days except our thoughts/attitude. I try to remind myself of that too, and it helps (when I can get in my rational mind). 🙂 I’ve found CBT techniques (cognitive behavioral therapy) and meditation and self-compassion work helpful in internalizing that too, so that I can access it when the downbeats happen. And they will always happen, I’m realizing.

      And thank you for the heads-up about the Insta post from Sarra Cannon! I didn’t see it but will go look. And thanks for your enthusiasm about that–that’s so lovely of you.

      Reply
  • Thank you. Thank you for taking the time from your life, your goals, your stressors and struggles to help us with ours.

    You’ve made the world that much closer to perfect.

    Reply
  • Thank you for sharing this. It’s quite helpful to know that, no matter how different we all are, there are similar things running around in our heads. It’s nice not to feel so alone. That is so helpful, and knowing there’s nothing “wrong” with me is too. 🙂

    Reply
    • Whew, that one helps me a lot too! Just reminding myself that even at my lowest it’s nothing we don’t all feel from time to time–and it’ll pass. That’s where the discomfort work is helpful to me, so far. Not fun, but helpful. 🙂 Thanks, Cathy.

      Reply
  • Lynn G. Carlson
    April 13, 2023 2:37 pm

    So much in this post that is helpful, Tiffany, and your timing is impeccable. Of course, resistance is a daily (hourly) thing, so you could have written this any time and it would apply.

    “… it’s not productive to dedicate my efforts where my mind doesn’t want to go.” So true. I often treat my mind the way I would a toddler, and distract it from a tantrum by saying, “Hey, what if we play over here?”

    My mantra lately is “Don’t ask writing to be easy.” Because ultimately what I’m railing against is the labor. I want this writing business to be easy. I know better.

    Had never heard of the second arrow parable, and I’m copying that off to tuck into my journal tomorrow morning.

    Thanks for all that and more, this fine April day!

    Reply
    • Heh–true, the demons take no vacations, do they? 🙂 I love that you remind yourself that it’s not easy–I think our expectations are so much of what makes us frustrated or disappointed or upset. Accepting that it’s all normal, good days and bad days, clouds and sunshine, helps. Doesn’t make it feel much better in the moment, but helps me know the blue skies will be back eventually. And also that just because it may be hard in the execution that doesn’t mean the result sucks–some of my proudest work was stuff that eked its way resentfully into existence (I’m looking at YOU, POV chapter of Intuitive Editing). Thanks for the insights and solidarity–that alone helps, doesn’t it?

      Reply
  • This is so helpful. I resonated with every part of this post. In Centering meditation there’s a practice that says to welcome the discomfort- or whatever the feeling–rather than run away from it. Your post is an excellent reminder to do more of that, especially at my writing desk. Thank you

    Reply
    • I reference that idea too, Randall! I have used it in meditation to “go into” what makes me uncomfortable or upset, instead of resisting, and while it’s never much fun, it’s invariably not as bad as the way resistance to it was making me feel. Thanks for the comment, and for being here.

      Reply
  • Claudia Lynch
    April 13, 2023 3:00 pm

    I’ve gotten more patient with myself with age. That said, there are things I want to write and art I want to create while I still have all my marbles. My mad-at-myself moments now come with frustration at the constant loss of momentum each time I set a writing project aside in favor of working on a collage, and vice versa. With each switching of gears, it takes time to get my rhythm back, to remind myself what I was doing and where I was going. I try to leave each project at a recognizable point, with the next step clear and easy to pick up, but sometimes…I still feel like trying to do more than one thing will result in accomplishing nothing. But I want to do it all!

    Reply
    • I love the “patience with age” thought, Claudia. I’ll have to ponder whether it’s done that for me too. In some ways yes and in some ways no, I think–I always feel like that line from Hamilton: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” Um, because at this stage in my life I realize I am. 😀 Kind of what you describe too–more ideas and goals than I will likely ever be able to complete. But your reminder to do one thing at a time and fully is a good one for me–thanks. And thanks for being here.

      Reply
  • Debbie Dakins
    April 13, 2023 3:04 pm

    Thank you for this! Your transparency about your own discomfort is a tremendous gift. Love the parable of the second arrow. It’s not easy, but being in it it “together” makes a difference. Appreciate you and the blog! There’s always a takeaway pearl.

    Reply
  • Christopher Mele
    April 13, 2023 3:58 pm

    A beautiful blog post. It is reassuring and definitely resonates. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    Reply
  • Had to comment on this too…. Thank you for the reminder that there are different demons in different caves and they sometimes need different care.

    Was just dealing with perfectionism again… I’m not dealing perfectly with discomfort.

    Your random arrow story was just what I needed to hear. Will start collecting arrows to use on my demons. Lol

    Reply
    • All mine bunk in one cave (in my imagination)–easier to sequester them back there when they are unruly. 🙂 But yes, there are a bunch of them bunking together. 🙂 Glad this resonated–thanks for sharing, Anne.

      Reply
  • Great post. And not just for writers. I cherish the memory of the friend who taught me, “In this world, some pain is inevitable. Suffering, however, is optional.” The suffering is that second arrow, what we do with the pain. Cling to it, or let it go. I was in my fifties when I learned the difference between pain and suffering. Why didn’t they teach it to me in grade school? Actually, I’m grateful that I found out when I did.

    We worry about doing enough: I read somewhere that a scholar familiar with Michelangelo’s work examined his notebooks and reported that he had about two hundred years of work planned. Not to put myself in his league, he was a genius, but on a couple of occasions, I’ve had that. Our creative function, our executive function, our imagination, and our passion will outstrip our abilities painfully if we let them. I’ve found nothing that connects what I’d like to accomplish with any realistic method of measuring or allocating time. And accepting those limitations takes me right back to that discomfort you began with.
    Thanks for reminding me.

    Reply
    • Boy, Bob, I couldn’t agree more–I was just thinking about how it always feels as if there isn’t time enough for everything I want to do–and yet I always think I can do more than is realistic, and that’s where my discomfort comes from. And couldn’t agree more about pain vs. suffering too–I learned that from meditation, Buddhism, therapy, and compassion work, but it’s one of those essential life lessons that feels like something we should be teaching in school. (Instead of…calculus, say. Who needs calculus?!) Knowing it earlier would sure save us a lot of…well, suffering. 🙂

      Thanks, as always, for being here and weighing in. 🙂

      Reply
  • Doug Gilmore
    April 14, 2023 9:01 pm

    Of the forty-ish areas where authors may regularly feel discomfort, I’m happy to report that I only suffer from thirty of them. I soooo needed to read this from you this morning, it makes me feel better.
    Thank you,
    Double Arrow Doug

    Reply

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