“We can’t let ourselves be seen if we’re terrified by what people might think. Often ‘not being good at vulnerability’ means that we’re damn good at shame”–Brene Brown
Several months ago, a friend gave me a copy of Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. I started it, loved it, and then got distracted. Only recently did I pick it up again–and was struck by an epiphany:
Much of my struggles with writing stem from an unacknowledged sense of shame.
I posted a few months ago about anxiety, and the more I read Brown’s work, the more I think that some of this anxiety is also rooted in shame.
According to Brown, shame is rooted in our sense of worthiness. Essentially, shame says, “I messed this up, therefore, I’m a bad person.” Guilt, on the other hand, says, “I messed up, I feel bad about that, but I’m going to do better next time.”
The problem isn’t feeling guilty about some aspect of our writing–we all mess up, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that, apologizing (if necessary) and working hard to do better. The problem, for me and for (I suspect) many other writers, is that we get stuck in the shame spiral. It’s hard to feel inspired to write when not only do we feel like a bad writer, but a bad person as well. Shame happens when “you’ve knowingly or unknowingly attached your self-worth to how your product or art is received. In simple terms, if they love it, you’re worthy; if they don’t, you’re worthless” (Brown).
I raised this idea in a private writing group I’m part of and was both heartened and dismayed by how widespread writing shame can be.
Here are some of the ways shame affects us as writers:
*Shame makes us reluctant to put ourselves and our words out there–particularly for aspiring writers, who are still in the trenches and learning their craft, shame can say, “who are you to take time and energy away from more deserving writers? Why should your voice matter? Why should anyone waste their time on you?”
*Shame can make it hard for us to own our work. Especially for many women writers I know who struggle to balance families, writing, and outside careers, our sense of unworthiness (as a writer, as a mother, as a worker) can make it hard to carve out time to write because we let ourselves believe we don’t deserve this time, particularly if it “takes away” from other important things in our lives. Or if we fail to write every day, we might also believe we’re somehow not real writers.
*We practice foreboding joy (Brown’s term) through pre-emptive disappointment. When something good happens, we brace for the worst possible outcome so we won’t be disappointed or hurt later.
*We strive for perfectionism, believing that if we can somehow be perfect, we can avoid pain, shame, blame, etc. (but since perfectionism is rooted in how others perceive us, we have no control over that outcome and it doesn’t do anything but make us feel ashamed for failing). As a new writer, I struggle particularly with reviews. It’s hard to separate my product from myself–on good days, bad reviews motivate me to work harder on the next book. But on other days, those reviews wake the gremlin in my head that says, “you’re a bad writer, a bad person, and you probably shouldn’t even try.”
*Shame tries to convince us we don’t deserve good things. My publisher has done some amazing things to promote my book, and I struggle to feel like I deserve them. I’ve read other books coming out that are just as good–if not better than mine–so how have I earned this? (The truth is, I haven’t, but since it’s not something in my control, it’s also not something I should feel ashamed of.)
*Shame asks us to fear success. Because nothing we write will ever be perfect (see perfectionism, above), shame can make us feel like we do not deserve success, which in turn can make us feel like frauds when our books do see success, however modest, and make it hard to reach for further success.
*Jealousy is also a manifestation of shame, I think. Jealousy looks at all the things happening to other writers (paid travel, book trailers, movie rights sold) and whispers, what’s wrong with you and your book that you don’t have these things? When the truth is, a lot of what happens with a particular book is a combination of luck, timing, and the current market. It has nothing to do with the worthiness of your story–or of you.
What can we do about shame?
One of the most important things we can do to overcome shame is to identify what we’re feeling. Brown says: “If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve essentially cut it off at the knees.” If you’re struggling to write because you’re feeling shame (rather than a more productive guilt)–or even anxiety, jealousy, perfectionism–name it. Putting a name on something helps put yourself outside of the feeling (at least a little) and gives you permission to feel what you’re feeling, and then move on. (Oh, and maybe pick up a copy of Daring Greatly. Brown has some wonderful things to say about developing shame resilience).
For me, recognizing that I was feeling shame has helped me start identifying ways to overcome it.
2. Separate the book from the story
A smart friend of mine pointed out that we have very little control over our books (if an agent picks it up, if a publisher buys it, how the publisher decides to market it, etc.), but we do control the story. For her–and for me–it’s helpful to separate the two and focus on the part you can control. Your worthiness does not hinge on what happens to your book.
3. Turn to your tribe/share your story
Brown argues that shame is a social concept–it’s driven partly by how we think others perceive us–and it needs the empathy of others to heal. I think this also goes back to naming the feeling, but sharing how you are feeling with someone you trust can also help you process what you are feeling. When I shared my own struggles with shame in that private writing group and others opened up with their struggles, I was amazed at how empowering it was to know that I was not alone, and what I thought was my own private (shameful) struggle was actually pretty universal.
I don’t think these strategies are fool-proof–shame is pretty ingrained in our culture. But I think they’re an important start to owning our work and not letting our worth be defined by our art or its reception.
What about you? Do you struggle with shame in writing (only share if you’re comfortable doing so!)? What methods have you found to help you productively overcome feelings of shame?