Revising the “Not Good Enough” Narrative
Six months into the search for an agent and publisher for my first book, I found myself singing this line from a John Prine song, “…felt about as welcome as a Walmart Superstore.” Indeed. A negative tailspin followed that will be recognizable to most writers: “You can’t write. Who are you kidding?” Sound familiar? I considered stuffing the manuscript into the lower drawer of my desk. Writers die a thousand deaths in this way.
In thirty years of practicing psychotherapy, I have worked with countless authors and artists who were under the spell of self-reproach. These were talented people who struggled with persistent feelings of inadequacy. In nearly as many years as a writer, I have faced my own dark hours suffering from the internal narrative that proclaims, “I am just not good enough.” Even our most successful writers are subject to troubling insecurity and episodes of self-doubt, ultimately undermining their creativity.
It takes a concerted effort to break these powerful, trance-like states that operate autonomously in the psyche, producing feelings of shame and disrupting self-cohesion. Their pronouncements are terribly convincing and utterly false. Nevertheless, they persist and pose a daily challenge to vulnerable writers who may consider giving up on themselves when feeling battered by their own critique.
What is bewildering to me, and my patients, is the passivity with which smart and otherwise proactive people allow these accusations to dominate their mood. Every day, I am surprised by the helplessness my patients exhibit in the face of these attacks. Every day, I am surprised by my unquestioning acceptance of the negative voice that takes advantage of any misstep to make me feel bad. Even the great Virginia Wolfe berated her writing skills as she wrote the suicide note to her husband. It is dumbfounding. What can we do to help ourselves? How can we break the trance?
In my book, The Writer’s Crucible, I address this conundrum from many different angles. For this article, I will focus on one critical aspect: revision of the internal narrative: “I am not enough.” What better tool for writers than our bread and butter, revision? There are three prongs to the method of unpacking your story. Remember, the goal is to see who you are clearly and craft an internal narrative that is a more complex and empathically based self-portrait. These are not one and done techniques, but ways of empowering yourself in an ongoing relationship with the aspect of mind that is self-defeating.
Phase I is the Mamma Bear intervention. The idea is to interrupt and stop the narrative. You want to silence it, not shame it. (It’s better at shaming than you are.) Before we can deconstruct the story, we have to be able to stop it in its tracks. This involves making an active protest with the force of a Mamma Bear. The next time you are besieged by that berating voice in your head, stand up to it and say, STOP! Say it firmly and with conviction, STOP! You may have to say it three or four times at first. Don’t be mad at yourself, but protest the bullying of the shame-inducing brain. This takes practice, but it works.
Phase II is the deconstruction phase. There are two methods: the Socratic and Stephen Colbert’s. Socrates is the model for questioning unchallenged preconceptions of the mind. When self-reproach begins, meet it with curiosity: “Why are these thoughts coming up right now?” Or you might ask, “Whose voice is this? Does it remind me of anyone in my life?” Standing up to the shaming refrain activates a different part of your brain and begins to break the spell. Questioning the declaration of inadequacy provides grounding in the moment and frees you to ask with confidence, as many times as is necessary, “Really? How do you know that?” You are then a step closer to disempowering the trance state.
The Colbert approach is best employed when the internal narrative is not quite as strong. What better ally than humor? Not the manic, defensive sort, but something more akin to Colbert flushing out absurdity with that wry grin and keen wit he is famous for. You may say, “Oh really? Well, that’s an interesting way to think of it.” Tickle it, find the funny bone — channel Colbert and flush out the absurd Catch-22 quality of these undermining claims, “Oh, so you’re saying that if I sit down and turn out an 80,000-word novel with no typos or mixed metaphors, THEN, I’ll be good enough. Thank you very much. I’m on it!!”
Having broken the trance and separated from the “not good enough” narrative, it’s time to Revise, Revise, Revise! Get ready to rewrite your internal self-story in as accurate, complex, and compelling a way as possible. Slowly piece together a new story based on a thorough historical review and empathic analysis of your situation. This narrative may go back many generations and should include personal traumas suffered by any member of the family. For example, my father’s family was devastated by the Great Depression and his pain shadowed us into the post war years. In a real sense, the struggles I have had with depression are not solely my own but are the result of a great deal of trauma that was unknowingly transmitted to my generation. That awareness allows me room to see my life in a far different light, and revise the narrative that insists there is something wrong with who I am.
We are vulnerable beings. Vulnerable to the turbulent emotions of a creative life. This should not be taken to mean that something is wrong. Sensitivity is at the heart of what connects us to the creative impulse. Inspiration depends on it. Though we may be susceptible to emotional distress, we are not helpless. Revising the “not good enough” narrative alters the emotions that intrude on effective creative work.
Philip Kenney is a psychotherapist and author living in Portland. His new book is The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity.