Writers and Self-Judgment: Why It Happens and How to Fight It

Out of the entire world population, writers are the harshest on themselves when it comes to self-judgment.

No, I haven’t done a study or anything, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was true. Based on the emails I get from writers, and the blog posts I read written by writers, I can see clearly that self-judgement is one of the biggest, ugliest problems we deal with on a constant basis.

I think part of this stems from the fact that, from the time we’re young, writers put other writers up on a pedestal. Maybe we fall in love with big names like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, or perhaps we find ourselves irresistibly drawn toward more obscure authors, but whoever it is inevitably ends up with us worshiping them. We want to write just like them. We want to produce books that sweep the nation, are turned into Oscar-worthy movies, or at the very least, inspire another kid out there just as we were inspired so long ago.

The other thing that comes into play is that writers are intense. Let me tell you, I know A LOT of writers. You name the genre and I know someone who writes it. I know writers who have been successfully published for over two decades and writers who are planning to write their very first poem this coming weekend. I can tell you with certainty that experience and genre don’t matter at all — all writers are super intense. And with this intensity comes ambitious drive and determination, grit, and perfectionism. A writer isn’t just going to write a story, they’re going to write THE BEST story they possibly can and try to make it look EXACTLY like it looks in their head, even if it kills them.

So, it’s not surprising that almost every writer ends up holding themselves accountable to nearly impossible standards every once in a while. It’s also easy to see why writers can get so caught up in comparing their progress to others.

When you are a writer, and you know a good amount of other writers, you see a lot of writerly success on social media. One writer friend gets an agent, another releases their second book. So-and-so just won an award and another so-and-so just founded their own independent press. You’re still trying to complete the novel you’ve been working on for five years. Or you’re trying to launch yet another blog, even though you’ve already started and stopped half a dozen already.

It can be really, REALLY hard to keep a balanced perspective about things when you feel like everyone else is writing faster than you and producing more.

And that’s when the foul, slimy swamp of self-judgment threatens to suck you under.

I know this because I’ve been there myself. There was a time, a few years ago, when I was trying to coach as many clients as I could, work on revisions to one novel and writing another at the same time, while also keeping my blog going and juggling a baby and a full-time day job. No matter how hard or fast I worked, it never seemed to be enough. I was exhausted all the time. I frequently felt like I wanted to cry. I was deeply, frustratingly unhappy.

I just wanted to catch up to everyone else, and it seemed like that was never going to happen.

It wasn’t until last year that the pieces started falling into place for me. I realized that — contrary to what popular culture tells us — I did not have a bottomless well of energy at my disposal. And every time I worked harder and tried to push myself to go faster, it only damaged my energy reserves that much more. The truth was that I am only human, and my mind and body can only be engaged with a finite number of things at one time before everything starts to go downhill.

So, this year I had to make some hard choices. I knew I wanted to concentrate the lion’s share of my creative energy on my own writing. That meant I had to take a huge step back from coaching. I had to tell a lot of people “no” and “not now” and I had to hear and feel their disappointment. Enter self-judgment. I was also reminded of the fact that I’m a slow writer and will most likely never win NaNoWriMo. My new novel is progressing at a snail’s pace. Enter self-judgment again. And I had a release date set for my newest book which I had to push back to give me a little more time and breathing room to finalize the details without making me feel like my head was going to explode, because I don’t do well with multi-tasking. And again….enter self-judgment.

Because of all the emails I get from writers asking for advice, I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this problem.

So far, the only solution I’ve come up with that actually works is to take a big deep breath, cut yourself some slack, and chill the f*** out.

You are human.

You are doing the best you can.

And all the other writers out there feel like they’re falling short in some ways too.

Also, that advice about there being a season for everything is a pretty great insight too. You will have seasons of rigorous activity, in which you’re writing your face off and just piling up the pages faster than you can count them. Then you will have slower seasons, in which you’re mostly dreaming and incubating, getting ready for what’s ahead. Your seasons won’t look exactly like everyone else’s seasons and they might occur on a different time schedule. That doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong, or that you’re a bad writer. It just means you’re normal and you have your own rhythm. Pay attention to it.

If you’re a writer wrestling with self-judgment right now, know that you’re not alone. Pull yourself back from comparison with others and forecasting the future and plant yourself back in this one day, this present time of right now. It’s okay to slow down. It’s okay to just be with whatever is happening (or not happening) for you as a writer in this moment.

It’s okay to be on your own schedule, and in your own season.

Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as a raging alcoholic in her 20s. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.