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Hello, friends. Have you missed these guys?
They are the frolicsome little devils who live in a cave in the psyche—I suspect of each of us. Everyone’s demons are different—perfectionism, comparison, fear of failure, what have you—but what they have in common is that they like to party, and sometimes those little boogers come out of the cave to play. And by play I mean tromp all over your confidence, your motivation, your self-image, your productivity, and your state of mind.
Mine have been playing very nicely in their cave for quite some time. I look in on them now and then, say hello, see if they need anything, but generally they’ve been perfectly content in there, doing whatever it is demons do when they’re not busy marauding through the psyche.
I must confess I have not missed them. But I guess they missed me, because they’re back.
And apparently they want me to stop everything I’m doing and party with them, so they’re doing their best to make it hard for me to focus on anything but their shenanigans.
Let’s Cut the Sh*t
Let’s stop being coy with the metaphors, shall we? Lately I have felt myself falling into some old unhealthy mental patterns, and it’s undercutting my confidence and presenting challenges with my work.
When you love what you do, when you have a genuine passion for it, it feels like a privilege to get to do it. I always joke that my worst day at work is still a pretty good day, because I love with my whole soul editing and story and writing craft and helping authors. And in general I feel like I do a pretty good job at that, which is its own set of satisfactions.
But here’s the flip side: When you love what you do and you have genuine passion for it, and suddenly you are not only struggling to do it but wondering if what you’re doing is effective or good, it can pull the rug out from under your whole identity.
I’m wondering if this is hitting a chord, writers.
In any business as subjective as art, I think a certain measure of periodic self-doubt is normal and even part of the process. I think it’s actually healthy to question what you think you know and to have a mindset that there is always more you can learn. I’m working hard to be comfortable with the fact that stumbles, struggles, and even failure are a normal part of that process.
But I do this thing when I’m in company with the demons that I call globalization and eternalization: Everything sucks and it will always suck. Meaning that it’s easy for me to forget that these low moments are a perfectly normal part of the creative process—and, in fact, of life—and instead to believe that things have somehow taken a turn for the catastrophic and there’s just no changing it now.
This, as you might imagine, does not make the process that I’m already struggling with any easier. And it does not make me any more likely to succeed.
But the work must be done. I have deadlines, as many of you do. I have personal and professional goals, as many of you do. I fear losing ground with what I’ve already accomplished, as perhaps many of you do.
“Leave me alone,” I tell the demons. “I have things to do.”
“I don’t think so,” say the demons, chortling and cavorting and yanking me by the hands.
So here we are, in a standoff. Now what?
Wrangling the Demons While the Party Is Going On
Here’s the challenge for me at times like this: Rationally I know I have all the tools I need to handle not only the demons, but my work. Rationally I know that I have done it before and evidence shows I’ve done a decent job more times than not. Rationally I know that that is enough.
But it’s so hard to be rational when the demons are filling you full of smack because they think it makes you way more fun to party with.
So, if you’re still indulging me at this point—and I’m hoping that what I’m talking about isn’t so narrowly self-focused that it’s not resonating with at least a few of you—I invite you to walk this through with me while I’m in the middle of the festivities.
Step One: Manage the Chaos
First step—and I know this: I’ve got to turn the volume down on this shindig to give me some space to think. For me that means I need to do a little bit less, ask a bit less of myself.
One of my demons, perhaps the clan leader of the demons, is perfectionism, and he loves to tell me that if I’m not doing it all and doing it perfectly, I’m failing.
So the best way to prove him wrong is just to stop: stop taking on projects, no matter how fun they may sound, and stop trying to be an infallible or completely comprehensive editor or teacher.
This morning I turned down an opportunity I really want to do, but I reminded myself I don’t have to do it right at this moment. There will be other times. Phew. Already it’s a little quieter in here and I can think.
Step Two: Remove the Audience
Another fun thing this party entails is me attacking myself for it happening at all. Obviously I’m incapable of keeping these ridiculous little red demons contained. A better person, a more confident, competent, fill-in-the-blank person would never let those goofballs run wild in the first place.
I’m beating myself up for beating myself up, and the demons love this because now they know they’ve got me where they want me: doubting myself and doing a lot of their work for them.
So prong number two is that I need to stop that, and that usually means, just as with a truculent toddler throwing a tantrum, simply leaving the room.
In this case it means finding things that distract me from the demon bash in my head. That might be an evening out with girlfriends or calling a friend. A walk with my dogs in nature. Doing some absorbing activity or task that I enjoy. Watching a stupid movie with my husband.
Ignoring the demons doesn’t make them go away. They’re still partying back at the house when I get back. The reason they came out in the first place was that they weren’t feeling very attended to, so now attention must be paid.
But I can’t do that effectively until I can calm myself down enough to be a centered, calm, mature leader, the adult in the room.
Step Three: Calm This Sh** Down
The third step, once I’ve taken a little space to collect myself, is that I can be a little kinder to myself, and by myself I mean me as well as my demons.
I have to remember that they are part of me and they’re out here partying because they were not feeling heard or were feeling threatened in the cave. Making enemies of them just keeps us in that standoff, so before they burn the house down we need to have a parley and I need to see what’s going on with them and what it is they need. And by them I mean me.
“Okay, demons,” I begin. “What is it.”
The demons would like me to know that our upcoming webinar had better be perfect, and we need to be high-energy and 100 percent engaging, and it has to be the BEST ONE ANY AUTHOR EVER SAW or we will lose any good reputation we have for our work, as well as our entire career, and make a complete fool of ourselves.
I see that they are very scared of this. So I reassure them.
“No, demons,” I gently explain. “All we have to do is offer something useful to at least some of the people who will be there. And we do that a lot—pretty much every time, in fact; remember all that great feedback we’ve had for previous presentations?”
They look skeptical, so I continue:
“Remember that we know this material pretty well based on all the experience we’ve had working on stories, and it’s solid and well organized. That’s enough. And it’s okay if we’re not feeling all that high-energy today—we can just show up where we are, and that’s enough too.”
The demons rustle, but I see that they are calming down. They aren’t quite ready to settle down completely and go back to their cave yet, but that’s okay. I can do this presentation with them in the room as long as I just focus on the work itself and what I enjoy about doing it. Pretty soon I’ll forget they’re there.
They may be waiting when I’m through with it, of course, but that’s okay too. We’ve all calmed down enough now that we can take it a little easier on ourselves so we can do what we need to do well enough to feel good enough about it. That’s really all we can ask of ourselves.
Eventually, when I’m ready, I can go back in for cleanup—with the demons’ help, because it’s also good for them to learn to clean up their own messes. And it’s good for me to do it with them side by side, because after all, we’re all on the same team.
Authors…I’m interested in hearing about your inner parties too, if you’d like to share—or how you deal with the demons when they swarm out of the cave and call all their friends over for a free-for-all at your place.
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