In my last post we discussed striving to find balance and giving ourselves permission to be imperfect. This brought about some interesting discussion and I’d like to expound. I confess. Americans are notorious for “shortening” the language.
We use a lot of words as synonyms when, truth be told, they aren’t. Or we have “blanket words” which mask truth, thus prevent us from making progress in life, with relationships, our career or even ourselves.
As writers, we of all people should appreciate the power of words. We have the ability to create entire new worlds that could possibly endure hundreds or thousands of years…all by using various combinations of symbols. Words have creative and destructive power. This is true in non-fiction, fiction and in life.
When I began college, I was on scholarship to become a doctor, thus spent over three years as a Neuroscience Major. Though I eventually earned my degree in Underwater Basket-Weaving (International Relations/Economics), I’m still a geek when it comes to science.
I subscribe to Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Discovery Magazine and inhale science books like candy, but brain science is of particular interest to me.
Did you know, for instance, that our brains cannot discern the difference between truth and lie? So, if we walk around with a self-dialogue that says, I’m just going to fail. I never finish what I start. I can’t do this. Our brains metaphorically shrug and say, “Okay. As you wish.” It is the human will that makes the difference, and will is guided by self-talk and belief.
I love leadership books and self-help, and I know they catch a lot of flack. I don’t buy the Think It and It Will Happen because this is only part of a much larger equation. We still have to put in the sweat equity. BUT, self-talk can act as an internal guidance system, which means we have to be careful of our thought life as well as what we tell ourselves and others.
Another interesting fact is that the human brain begins listening at the first ACTIVE VERB. I see this bungle in advertising all the time.
Don’t forget to sign up!
When does the brain begin listening? What is it really “hearing”?
Forget to sign up.
Changing how we talk to ourselves and others can make a HUGE difference. Instead of saying Don’t forget where you put your keys, replace that with Remember where you put your keys. You’ll be surprised how much your “memory” will improve.
Blanket words are particularly dangerous because of their vagueness. We cannot change our self-destructive behaviors, rid poor habits, gain better habits, achieve or even properly communicate if we get lazy with the language. All right, maybe some can, but life can already be tough enough, why make it tougher?
I’ve told this story before, so forgive me if you’ve heard it. Part of how I became a writer is I have HORRIFIC food allergies, which often can be diagnosed as other illnesses. In my case, I was misdiagnosed with epilepsy.
The misdiagnosis destroyed my career and wrecked my immune system. I’d had pneumonia three times in a year and couldn’t get well. I lost everything and had to move in with my mother, which was humiliating and demoralizing.
I recall my mom coming into my room one day and I was still in bed. I’d always been a neat-freak. In fact, when I was in sales, I once moved and the movers were shocked it took less than three hours to move me and took less than four hours for me to completely unpack. They teased me that I was the “House the Rubbermaid made,” meaning everything was neat and organized and labeled and in an appropriate box.
So fast-forward to me living with my mom. Laundry everywhere. I couldn’t have found my own butt without GPS and a flashlight. I’m still in bed. All I want to do is cry and OD on chocolate. My mom comes in and asks if I am depressed. This was an A-HA moment for me.
I said, “No, I’m overwhelmed. I’m angry. I don’t know where to start. I’m heartbroken.”
For the first time, I refused to use this blanket word depressed. I spoke aloud the truth of what was really happening inside and, for the first time, this empowered me. What could I do about being “depressed” other than maybe take meds and go to yet another shrink who wanted to talk about my childhood and have me journal to my Inner Child? (I walked out of the last psychiatrist’s office the second she mentioned “journal.”)
And journaling might have been productive had I been being specific instead of playing the internal violin and using nebulous words like sad or tired or depressed. When I finally confessed I was overwhelmed?
Well, Kiddies, we can do something about that.
We can make lists of everything that is scaring the bejeezus out of us and break those frogs down into manageable parts for positive change. Anger? We can confess that and let it go. Figure out WHY then change that, too. Tired? Are we really tired or are we disillusioned, overwhelmed, or wounded? Maybe we are simply dehydrated or need more exercise and sleep.
I was really proud of my mom the other day. She works a tough job as an RN. Instead of saying, “I had a bad day” she said, “I had an arduous day.” Note the difference? Bad is a blanket and amorphous qualifier that risks tainting our overall attitude. Arduous?
“Arduous” is limited to the circumstances of that day and even implies a bit of victory because, despite the day being difficult? She MADE IT!
Careful of False Synonyms
This dovetails into my next point. There are a lot of words we use as synonyms which really aren’t. For instance, someone might say, “She is such a mature eight-year-old.” No. Maturity is only birthed from experience and, unless this eight-year-old just escaped a concentration camp? Unlikely she is mature. Now, the child might be precocious (seeming older than her years) but she isn’t mature.
She’s still a delicate little kid who needs the support of adults. “Mature” implies she’s earned emotional armor she doesn’t have and often can set the kid up for facing things alone when an adult really needs to be there for guidance and support.
Mad or angry are other false synonyms. What are we really? Disappointed? Ask the tough questions because those yield the best answers and thus can reveal the best plan to remedy the situation.
If I say to my husband, “You are such a jerk and I’m mad at you,” this limits what either of us can do.
However, if I say, “I’m really disappointed. I feel like too many of the plans for global domination and laundry are being left to me and I need help. I’m overwhelmed.” THIS implies a reality which has a plan of action to remedy the situation. Let HIM train the sea monkeys Ju-Jitsu for a change.
Situational Versus Conditional
This brings me to the impetus for this blog. “Striving for excellence” and “perfection” are two different things. If I’m caught up in “perfectionism” notice the “ism” at the end. The —ism is Latin for the condition of things. Alcoholism, racism, sexism. See how this implies a belief and a continuing state rather than an event?
The reason perfectionism is particularly nefarious is perfection is an impossible goal. Thus, when we buy into perfectionism we’re automatically setting ourselves up for failure, disappointment, self-loathing and neuroses. Perfection can’t be attained so the goal can never be reached.
There will always be someone who doesn’t like our blog/book/article. We cannot please everyone. There will always be someone fitter, thinner, richer, more talented, and The Perfection Gremlin goes nuts when faced with any kind of “competition.”
Striving for excellence? Totally different story. We can be excellent without being “perfect.” Excellence ships. Excellence has deadlines. I can finish and let go of an excellent book. A perfect book? Good way to still be editing the same book for a decade.
Perfect steals the life from life and from art. Life is messy and rough and often what we humans love. We don’t like “perfect” people or “perfect” characters because we can’t connect and relate.
Perfectionism is qualitative, where as excellence is QUANTITATIVE. We can’t measure an imaginary ideal. We can, however measure PROGRESS.
Make it a habit to say, “I’m not where I want to be, but I’m not where I used to be. I’m growing every day.” Say it even when you don’t believe it. Eventually the brain with catch up and so will reality.
Tell Me What You WANT
I get onto my mom about this all the time (yet she still loves me and IS improving). For instance, after a major surgery last year, she started working on rebuilding muscle. She’d say, “I don’t want to be an old lady who can’t even get off the toilet.” I corrected her and said, “Okay, now tell me what you DO want instead of what you DON’T want.”
I want to be extremely fit. I want to be an energetic, athletic older woman.
Same with writing. Instead of, “I don’t want to be a failure.” Tell me/yourself what you DO want. And going back to one of the point I made earlier in the post, look at what negative and even positive goals are REALLY telling us if the brain is lazy and only begins listening at the first active verb.
I don’t want to be fat.
I want to be fit and healthy.
I don’t want to be one of those writers who never sells books.
I want to be a successful author who makes enough off my writing to quit the day job and live even more comfortably doing what I love.
This is why I LOATHE the term “aspiring writer.” Aspiring gives us a pass. It labels us as hobbyists who are holding back out of fear. “Pre-Published Author” comes with responsibility, confidence and a plan of action.
To achieve anything, we must set goals. From finishing the laundry to finishing the novel. Yet, a key component of solid goals is they are positive, actionable and attainable. And don’t let the attainable throw you off. Yes, timing, luck and chance can factor into this. BUT, I can have a goal of, “I will be a NYT Best-Selling Author” and take steps to make that reality…like, um, writing.
Testing What We Believe
One of my first jobs as a writer was I wrote textbooks for teaching forensic writing analysis. To do this I trained for months with investigators studying thousands and thousands of writing samples (and I used to give a super cool presentation on this subject).
The FBI can look at handwriting and tell A LOT about the person and it’s a fantastic way of constructing a psychological profile. Why? Handwriting doesn’t lie.
***And people will say, Oh, but my writing is always different. I have at least five types of handwriting. To the trained eye? Nope. There are fundamentals that will remain consistent.****
I can look at a sample of writing and tell if the person still has her wisdom teeth (there is a neurological hiccup that will give an extra dollop of ink at a particular hesitation mark in rounded letters like “o” once those particular teeth are removed).
The trained analyst can see anger, aggression, level of self-esteem, suicidal tendencies, depression, emotional repression, psychosis, immaturity, narcissism, self-confidence, joy, love and on and on. The “science” (though only a tool and not admissible in court) is truly remarkable and frighteningly accurate.
There was one tidbit of my training that I’ve kept with me for the past fifteen years. In our handwriting (for most people) it is impossible to lie. Our subconscious will tattle on us every time. How? Spaces.
Most people aren’t sociopaths so we kinda suck at lying. If forced to lie in a conversation, one of the ways others spot our lie is in our hesitation.
Where were you?
I was at the movies.
The same phenomena happens when we write. There will be a space if we don’t believe what we’re writing. The bigger the space? The more we disbelieve what we’re “saying.”
Take out a piece of paper and a pen and write things you know you believe versus something you know is completely false (at a normal speed of writing) and look at the difference. I do this to double-check what I believe about my goals and see what I really feel on a subconscious level.
I will be a New York Times Best-Selling Author!
I will be a New York Times Best-Selling Author
Often I will crosscheck with silly sentences to compare.
I will give up writing for life in the rodeo.
Thus, if I get:
I will finish my next novel by May.
I will give up and go back into sales.
I can cross-compare and SEE what my subconscious believes is truth. And, to be blunt, when I began as a writer? I didn’t believe I’d succeed. I’d write:
One day soon I will be published.
The spaces represent what we either don’t believe, accept or even where we might be emotionally distancing. Other things that might happen in this exercise is, if we don’t believe? We will misspell things. If we believe? We can see !s or even underlines. This shows we really are believing what we are writing.
When I began doing this 15 years ago, I didn’t believe it when I wrote I will be a successful author. I got:
I will be a succsessfull writer
But, as I took steps to learn the craft, build a platform, read, train, and finish, guess what happened? Eventually my belief changed and I could literally measure how my subconscious self was improving over time with this simple exercise.
I went from:
I will be a succsessfull writer
I will be a successful writer (notice the spaces closing and no longer misspelled)
I am a successful writer (Hmmm, no punctuation and still have gaps, but notice the verb change)
I am a successful writer (No more spaces)
I am a successful writer. (Improving)
I am a successful writer! (BINGO!)
I believe that success, finishing, joy, peace, reaching dreams and making them reality begins in the mind. We can only achieve that which we can first conceive. I’m very careful about my self-talk. If I catch myself saying, “Don’t forget to send out that check.” I stop and say, “Remember to send out that check.”
I only permit the positive. I used to chant, “Oh, I am such a failure. Why hope for anything good? I’ll just be disappointed. I’ll never finish this book.” I expected rejection and failure, so guess what I got?
To be blunt, this transition wasn’t overnight. I had a lifetime of bad habits when it came to how I spoke about myself, my situation and others. I had to first be aware of what I was thinking and saying. Then, I had to change that and learn to rephrase in the positive. Changing my way of speaking changed my thinking and then finally my beliefs.
But, it was a process and it’s one that never ends.
Even in the darkest times when life was kicking me in the teeth, instead of playing the Woe is Me tune, I began thinking and saying, “What is this challenge developing in me? In my character? How am I going to grow stronger because of this?” It might even be something as simple as remaining peaceful. We don’t have to be at the mercy of circumstance.
We can’t choose our situation, but we can choose our attitudes. We can change how we see ourselves and our futures. And this is like bathing, it should be done daily. There is no Magic Thought Wand that’s going to transform us overnight. This is a process and a habit and it must be maintained (and paired with work), ergo why I really love that writing exercise. It’s clear when I’m slipping and allowing negativity and doubt and perfectionism to take over.
What are your thoughts? *bada bump snare* Do you have negative self-talk? Are you working to break the habit? Are you conscious about your thought life? Do you struggle with the trap of perfectionism? Are you now terrified I will see your handwriting? 😀
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Also, I hope you guys will check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World. THANK YOU!