Tag Archives: mental health

The Sane Writer: Nurturing Healthy Expectations

By Kerry Schafer

What is the very first thought that rolls through your head when your eyes open in the morning? Or before they open, if you're like me and try to believe that both morning and the alarm clock will go away if you can just ignore them long enough?

For me it's very often a wordless primal drive. COFFEE. Which is fine, because coffee is a thing to look forward to. And moving into a simple pleasure first thing in the morning is a fine way to start the day. But sometimes, far too often of late, my very first thoughts involve overwhelm or regret.

I'm writing this post on a Monday, and when the alarm went off this morning the first thought that went through my brain was this:

"Where the hell did the weekend go, and how did I get so little accomplished?"

Now, I'll grant you that this first Monday morning thought was not quite so grammatical and articulate. It had more of an, "Mmph, alarm OFF, things not done, don't wanna" construction. But since I speak fluent morning I was was fortunately able to decipher my own garbled thoughts.

A few minutes later, as I plumped up my flattened brain cells with caffeine, I had another thought. And that thought attracted others until a whole flock of thoughts had gathered and arranged themselves into a sort of order. And the gist of them is this:

I don't want to wake up on Monday mornings with regret.  I want to live my life and adjust my expectations so that when the alarm goes off and my eyes open my first thought is gratitude for the weekend past and the next is happy anticipation for the week to come. When my zombie brain resurrects to the sweet tune of a perfect cup of coffee I want it to be able to savor that experience.

How do I make this happen?

Some would advise a higher level of organization. Get my ducks lined up, streamline my lists, work smarter and get more stuff done in less time. There's likely some truth to this. God knows I could use a little more organization in my world, although where I would actually come up with the time to do the organizing is a mystery.

But I suspect what really needs to happen is an adjustment of expectations.

The truth is that even though I feel like a slacker this morning because there are a number of items on the To Do list that are still To Do rather than Done, I accomplished a lot. If I was talking to a good friend I would likely look at her weekend and tell her, with total sincerity, that she is a powerhouse and should learn to relax. But my expectation for myself are pretty much unachievable.

Since I do have this license as a mental health counselor lying around collecting dust, I took a minute to ask myself a question this morning. "Self," I inquired, "What is to be done about this situation?" Since I find it much easier to dole out advice to other people, I'm just going to throw some ideas into the ring, since I'm pretty sure some of you suffer from the same problem.

1. If you're continually not accomplishing the things on your To Do List, consider paring it down. I know it sounds outrageous, but it's just possible that you're asking too much of your very busy self. Maybe there are things on The List that don't really need to be there. Take them off. Seriously. Write out the list, and then scribble out the things that don't absolutely have to be done. This works better than trying to let go of them in your head, because your brain tends to stick to things. Gray matter can be sticky stuff, like pitch or glue (except for things you want to remember - those get dropped faster than a bad date). Sometimes when you need your brain to let go of an item it helps to write it down and then take a pen and scribble it out. I think the subconscious thought process goes something like this.

Hmmm. Hand says this job is done. I trust Hand. I like Hand. Crossing item off list.

2. Consider adding new items to the List. Yes, I know I just said to take things off the list. But here's a radical idea. What if we added things to our lists that looked like this?

Read book for pleasure

Take nap

Lie in hammock in the sun

Enjoy a glass of wine with a friend

Laugh a lot

Listen to music

Look at pictures of cute cats on Facebook

And then, after we've done those things, we could cross them off The List with a vast sense of accomplishment. I don't know about you, but I need more pleasure and leisure in my life. These things are healthy, and also serve to refill the creativity well. So why is it most of us will put exercise on the to do list, but feel somehow like we have to sneak in the pleasure items?

3. Add items from other people's lists to yours. This is a tricky one. Boundaries are hugely important. It's not healthy to get so sucked into other people's lives and needs that you have no room for your own self and your own needs. On the other hand, it's immensely important (and right) to give, share, help, and generally contribute to the greater good. This serves to keep us decent human beings and prevents us from becoming insufferable, self-obsessed writing fanatics.

I confess that sometimes when a loved one has needs that interfere with my writing time, I experience a nasty little emotional cocktail of guilt and resentment because I have now failed to get things on MY List done. So what if I add those things to my List as they come up, and even prioritize them? I think we already do this when it comes to our kids and maybe our significant others, but not so much when it involves friends and other people in our world. And I'm not talking about the Big Science Project here, or the Cookies for the School Party. I mean simple things like taking time for a conversation about Life, the Universe, and Everything or lending a pair of hands to a home improvement project important to your spouse but not to you. This step would include items like "resolve point of contention with best friend - preserve friendship." I like this reframe much better than my usual take on fights, which tends to be, "well, that was a waste of time." If the disagreement works toward understanding and resolution, it is never a waste of time.

4. Remember to account for changes. Your list may seem sacred to you, but it is an organic and ever changing thing, not graven in stone by the finger of God. Stuff will come up, inevitably, that supersedes whatever you have already planned to do. This weekend, for example, I discovered that the paperback edition of my Indie book, The Nothing, was out on Amazon. This provided an important opportunity to create a little buzz on Social Media without being spammy. Also, I was excited and just wanted to let people know. So I took the time to post on Facebook and Twitter and to experiment with a new Amazon feature supporting giveaways. I think this was important and time well spent, but I did not allow for it on my list and ended up feeling guilty that other things went undone. Much as we'd all like to be Super Writer, we are human and the hours of our days are finite. I'm thinking that when unexpected things find their way onto The List it's going to be important to cross something else off, consciously and deliberately.

5. Create Another List I know, I know. List proliferation is an evil thing, but hear me out. What if we made a completely different sort of list on Sunday evening. Not things we need to do, or things we are dreading, but all of the little bright spots we think might come our way in the coming week. Then maybe - just maybe - when the alarm went off we'd be programmed to look forward with anticipation instead of backward with regret.

 

 

Curing a Case of the Shoulds

By Kerry Schafer

Yesterday I relapsed with a bad case of The Shoulds.

For those of you who are not familiar with this disorder, it is pervasive, dangerous, and can be lethal to the creative process. Unfortunately, medical science has yet to come up with a vaccination and there is no known permanent cure. It's one of those diseases you have to live with and manage - like diabetes.

I know I’m not alone with my affliction, because I see signs and symptoms that the rest of you have also caught this disease. My evidence? Posts on Facebook and Twitter that look a lot like this:

“I should be writing.”
“Oops, yeah you caught me. I should be working on that synopsis.”

See the word “should” in all of these examples? Yep. That’s a dead giveaway, one of the more blatant forms of a case of The Shoulds. Note the following more sneaky manifestations, again of the type often seen in social media:

“Ugh. I’m supposed to be working on my word count.”
“I’m meant to be writing. But you know. Talking cats. Hahaha.”

Note the clever use of “supposed to” and “meant to be,” which really mean the same thing as should.

I pulled a definition from Google, just for fun:

“Should: verb, used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone's actions.”

Criticizing is such a nifty word, isn't it? And criticism of self or others is one of the debilitating effects of the Shoulds.

Still, the above examples are relatively harmless cases. Probably you won’t die from the disease in this form, although it is still likely to affect your creativity and productivity.

The Shoulds are much more dangerous when evidenced by the following types of statements:

I should be published by now.
I should have finished this book months ago.
I should be writing in a different genre.
I should write faster, better, bigger. I should be a best seller. I should be able to quit my day job. I should be a perfect parent, lover, house keeper and writer and manage a day job all simultaneously while smiling and having a good time and always being nice to everybody.

Let me ask you this - what good does this sort of talk do you? It smacks of guilt, self disparagement, hopelessness and helplessness.

Should is not an action word.

Now, take a statement like this, which was probably written in the recent past by me:

“I should be writing, but I’m hanging out here instead.”

Words carry a great deal of power. Should implies that I believe I’m doing something wrong, but am too weak willed to walk way from this social media screen that has somehow magically opened in front of me. That I’m too morally bankrupt to be able to go write the words that I say I want to write. It also carries an underlying message that there are others out there - my mother, society at large, maybe even God - looking over my shoulder and making sniffy noises at my lack of discipline.

But if I switch out the should construction with an action verb, something like choose, everything changes:

“I choose to write now,” is a statement of an entirely different flavor. Or, alternately, “I choose not to write now. I’m going to hang out on FB with my friends.”

This is a significant thought shift. Either I have just set myself up to go get some word count in, or I’ve made an active decision to keep doing what I’m doing - guilt free, and by choice.

One version is vaguely self critical, helpless, with a victim-of-fate sort of feel to it. The other is strong and leads to either a change of action, or an acknowledgement that the action you are already engaged in is undertaken by choice, not because somehow you drifted into it. This allows you to assume the responsibility for your own behavior.

The same sort of shift works for the more complicated should constructions as well, they just require a little more finesse with the reframe.

“I should have an agent by now” becomes, “I choose to start looking for an agent,” or “I choose to wait.” Maybe it gets refined into something like, “I will send out ten queries this week, and a replacement query for every rejection.”

“I should have finished that book by now,” becomes, “I will write 500 words a day, five days a week.” Or even the much simpler, “I’m going to spend the next hour working on my book.”

Speaking of which, I have frittered a lot of time this morning so far. It’s time to get some writing done. Not because I should, but because I choose to.