How to Disarm Your Inner Writing Bully
By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
What if you saw a child trying hard to accomplish something positive – a young boy or girl doing something they enjoyed, maybe trying something new, putting everything they had into it with the playful, non-perfectionist glee many of us lose as adults? And hovering behind that child was another person saying, “That sucks! You’re no good at that! What the hell are you doing? That’s stupid!”
The person behind the child might be another child, a discouraging parent, a toxic teacher, or some random jerk – anyone who found sick satisfaction in infusing insecurity in the heart of a child who was having fun trying to accomplish something.
What would you do?
Would you confront the other person and tell them to shut up? Would you remain silent, rolling your eyes in disgust? Or … would you sidle up beside the bully and reinforce what they were saying, telling the now-deflated child, “Yeah, you loser! You don’t know what you’re doing! You’re an idiot!”
Unless you’re a total asshole, you wouldn’t choose the last of those options.
And yet, if you’re a writer or a creative person of any sort, there’s a good chance you’ve said these things before – to yourself.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was outlining my new online workshop on how to deal with writer’s block, it occurred to me that many of us have something worse in our heads than the “inner censor” or “inner critic” we learn about in writing classes. We have an inner bully – a voice that tells us terrible things about our writing – a voice that tells us things we would never say to anybody else.
“My writing is terrible. It’s stupid. It sucks. I’m a crappy writer. I’m always going to be a crappy writer. I might as well just quit writing and go do something useful with my life, such as repeatedly telling myself I’m a crappy writer.”
Recognizing our writing weaknesses in a constructive manner, so we can work on improving them, is a good thing. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the silent tantrums we throw in difficult writing moments, shrieking to ourselves about how pathetic we are. Most of us who write have done this before. Some of us do it regularly.
The things we tell ourselves in these moments can sound startlingly similar to the hypothetical bully at the beginning of this article: “I’m no good at this. What the hell do I think I’m going to accomplish? This is stupid. I can’t write.”
Ultimately, this self-bullying drags down our spirit and squashes our self-esteem – which is the exact opposite of what we need when we’re trying to get past a moment of writer’s block.
So what do we do about it?
“Stop bullying yourself” is the logical answer. For some people, however, it’s not that simple. We’ve been self-bullying for so long, it has become a reflex. We fall into it subconsciously whenever writing gets hard, whenever we reach a point in a story, an article, a poem, a book, that we’re not happy with.
If you are one of those writers for whom self-bullying is a reflex, for whom, “Just stop bullying yourself,” is impractical advice – because you do it without even realizing you’re doing it – then how do you get over it?
Try these intermediate steps
Recognize you’re doing it. And when I say “recognize,” I really mean just recognize it. Don’t tell yourself it’s bad. Don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up. “There I go, bullying myself again! Man, I’m an idiot!” No. That’s just switching bullying tactics. Instead, for starters, just acknowledge your self-bullying messages, and recognize they’re not useful.
Question what you’re telling yourself and how you’re saying it. “This writing sucks.” Is that true? Hey, it might be – because on some days, everybody’s writing sucks. Some days, my writing sucks dismally. The way I solve that, however, isn’t by beating myself up. The way I solve it is by interrupting my self-bullying, and switching from, “This sucks,” to the alternative thought: Keep working on it.
At other times our writing doesn’t suck, in spite of what our inner bully is saying. We’re just tired, or headachey, or in a bad mood. Bullies like vulnerable people, so when we’re not feeling well, they attack. So be aware that what your inner bully tells you might not be true. Don’t believe everything he or she says.
Don’t personalize or catastrophize. Remember: our inner critic can be useful. It helps us recognize what we need to improve upon. Our inner bully will try to make us feel helpless.
“This isn’t my best writing.” That’s okay to say. “This needs work.” That’s okay too. Those are things we can fix. But “I can’t write” isn’t true, nor is “I’m a terrible writer.”
(How do I know that last sentence isn’t true? Because terrible writers don’t care about the quality of their writing. If you can recognize weak spots in your writing, then trust me, you’re not a terrible writer.)
Watch for the subtleties in what you tell yourself. “This writing sucks” is one thing. “My writing sucks” is more encompassing. “My writing is shitty today” is writing you can work on. “I’m a shitty writer” carries a catastrophizing permanence that causes people to give up.
Say your self-bullying thoughts out loud so they’re not lurking subtly. Then ask yourself: Is this something I would ever say to somebody else? Usually, our self-bullying thoughts are things we’d never say to another person because they are mean-spirited – and we should stop saying them to ourselves for the same reason. Saying them out loud helps us hear how terrible they are. It makes them easier to confront.
Making Your Inner Bully Go Away
Permanently shutting down your inner writing bully might not be realistic. These thoughts can creep up on us at inopportune times, such as when we’re under a tight deadline. We can, however, train ourselves to intercept and respond calmly to our self-bullying thoughts, and make them stop – at least temporarily.
When I was growing up, I was taught that if I ignored bullies, they would go away. In reality, that worked sometimes but not always. When it comes to the bully in your head, however, it will work all the time once you train yourself to really ignore him or her.
Ironically, however, step one is acknowledging your inner bully’s presence. Once you do that, you begin to understand that, unlike real-world bullies, when it comes to your inner writing bully, you are in total control – because your inner bully is you talking. Over time, you can learn to confront and disarm your negative self-talk.
So be nice to yourself. And keep writing.
This article is based on a lesson in my online workshop, “Write-Brained 1: Overcome Writer’s Block and Write with Confidence.” The workshop is the first in a series of courses on the mental and emotional challenges that hinder writers, and how to overcome those challenges.