So, negative self-talk is a big way everyone in every field gets in their own way. The Psychology Dictionary defines negative self-talk as “the expression of thoughts or feelings which are counter-productive and have the effect of demotivating oneself.”
When it comes to writing, we call this voice our inner critic. Maybe some of us call it Captain Crankypants. Whatever. It’s that inner voice that says, “I can’t do this,” or “This work is shit,” or “This makes me look stupid,” or the winner, here, for simplicity’s sake, “I suck.” I don’t know that inner critic is quite a harsh enough term to describe this internal voice. As everyone in the creative fields know, critical thinking and constructive criticism are useful things when we’re in editing/re-design stages of a project. Your inner critic isn’t a critic if they are saying things like, “You suck.” If someone else saw you typing or applying pen to paper and interrupted you, to announce, in an authoritative manner, “You suck! That looks stupid! You can’t do that!” I bet you’d call that person an asshole, maybe punch them in the face, or remove yourself from that person’s presence. I’d also like to point out that it doesn’t require the application of a skill like critical thinking to say something like, “You suck!”
That’s just a long-winded way of saying, you don’t suck. Your negative self-talk sucks, and you quit that shit right now so you can get to work on doing this thing that you love.
Easier said than done.
There are a lot of articles on the web and in psych mags about dealing with this internal voice. There are also health conditions that for some, will make my particular advice worse than useless, but there are resources. If you are a writer with depression talk with your health care provider or support network about it and read the literature from health care experts whose information you trust.
Anyway, rather than trot out some other person’s wisdom about this, I’ll talk about how I approach it.
Self-monitor those thoughts.
This is not as simple as it sounds. Our inner monologues are always just below the surface, a constant thing, so we can’t catch every single thought, but when you do catch yourself saying “This is stupid,” figure out why you think that, and then flip the script. Turn it into a question. “Why do I think this is stupid?” or “What can I do to make this not stupid?” That reframes the thought into something more constructive, but here’s the deal, your answer, if you are in a first draft of something is nothing.
That’s right. NOTHING.
It isn’t time for revisions yet. And it might not be as stupid as you think it is, but you won’t know if the negative self-talk convinces you to throw away the draft. I had to repeat this process frequently before I realized that the inner critic is, in fact, absolutely useless in first draft mode. What I learned is that squashing down that negative internal voice is difficult, it takes time. Self-monitoring can work. If nothing else it points you to the inevitable truth that it doesn’t matter if your first draft sucks because without a completed draft there is nothing to fix. The lesson here is to charge forward in spite of yourself. It will get easier, and the negative self-talk in first draft mode will, eventually stop being an issue. As long as you self-monitor, turn those negative statements into constructive questions. Write those constructive questions down on a piece of paper and trot them out in the second draft. Writing them down will also help reinforce the new pattern of thinking you are trying to establish (replacing negative statements with constructive questions). It may sound a little weird, but hey. We are writers. Weird is kind of our wheelhouse.
The second part of this, for me, was not so much killing the inner-critic completely, but repurposing him. Once those statements start as constructive questions instead of negative statements about the self as a writer, it can actually be helpful.
Wake up that bastard during revisions. Hopefully, by the second draft, the inner critic has been cattle prodded enough to use his/her right words so that rather than statements like this sucks, it says, “What could make this section better?” or “I think something is missing here, what is it?”
Anyway, that’s how I handle it. I’d love to hear what other people think about this!