I recently found myself on Oprah.com listening to Dr. Brené Brown explain the difference between guilt and shame. If you have two minutes and fifty-two seconds, this video is worth your while.
In summary: Guilt is the recognition that we made a mistake and we need to do better. Shame is a label or identity we take on as a result of a mistake. For example, if I lose my temper with my teenaged son and end up calling him an idiot (hypothetically speaking, of course), guilt would lead me to recognize it wasn’t my best parenting moment, and I need to apologize. Shame would lead me to call myself a bad mother. It’s clear which is the desired state.
What is frightening, however, is not only how easy it is to slip into a “shame cycle,” but also the correlation between shame and addiction, mental illness, and other serious issues. Examining how we cope with problems when they arise in every aspect of our lives is critical to our relationships and mental health. As writers, it is also important we examine our reaction to setbacks in the creative realm with a healthy response.
If you are a writer, rejection is a certainty. Every single writer at every single step of the process has and will experience it. From teachers, to critique partners, to agents, editors, reviewers, and the reading public, wanted and unwanted feedback is as ingrained in the work as pen and paper. Those authors who make a career out of writing aren’t necessarily more talented than unpublished writers, but they are more stubborn. More positively: they adapt and move on. They understand rejection is not personal, or the work isn’t ready, or the timing isn’t right. Instead of labeling themselves “bad writers,” they revise the work, make changes in their presentation, or write a new book.
Our internal voices probably have a lot to do with how we were raised. Were our parents, teachers, and other adults in our lives encouraging, open, honest, and trustworthy, or did we grow up in a home where we were put down, told we were no good, or witnesses to bullies and victims? I was fortunate. My parents were supporting and loving people. It is likely easier for me to understand failure is a detour and not a stop sign. But during periods of darkness, the demons of shame are hard for anyone to overcome.
There is nothing like that last copy edit before going to press to convince a writer she is a fraud and her work is trash—hypothetically speaking, of course. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t experience doubt. Writers need a trusted friend or two who can provide the support necessary at those times. My critique partner and I often say that we simply repeat encouragement back and forth when the other needs it. I’m not speaking of empty praise or flattery, but reminders of healthy and honest thinking patterns. Cultivate a tribe to help you navigate through the shame.
I’m Catholic. Guilt is something woven into the fabric of my existence. Until seeing Dr. Brown’s video, I did not fully understand the positive outcome guilt has had on my life, and the power derived from knowing I can and will do better. That sense that there are forces in the universe wishing for my good, and that naming shame exposes and withers it, has served me well.
When I sit down to write, I think of two rejections. The first is from a well-respected editor at a major house. He said, “We all laughed in our editorial meeting about your little Nancy Drew protagonist. She finds a problem; she fixes it. Finds a problem and fixes it.”
Then I think of a reviewer’s words. “Ughhhhh….Chick Lit dressed up as Historical Fiction.”
Humiliating thought it is, I’m naming my shame. Some of those books have gone onto become regional and national bestsellers, and have reaped warm and wonderful reader emails and letters, but I still think about the criticism every time I sit down to write.
To move forward, I created a ritual. I stare at the labels and criticisms for a moment, consider how they were accurate and how they were not, and how I can use them to improve my craft.
Then I turn on classical music and light a candle. I imagine the flame burning the shame, the doubt, and the hurt to ashes.
From those, I rise up and begin again.
What are your rituals to move past shame and self-doubt? What can you do to encourage healthy responses to rejection in your writing life?
*Photo by denizaybar at DeviantArt.com