If you’re a writer—and especially if you’re a writer who isn’t bringing in a significant (or any) amount of income from your writing—then you probably struggle with feeling guilty a lot of the time. I know I do. Because you see, I’m not just a writer. I’m also a wife and a mother and a good friend to a few wonderful people. I work a day job and I have a side business that I pour my all into. Simply put: I wear a lot of hats. I have a lot of other people counting on me.
And sometimes…okay a lot of the time…my writing gets in the way of that.
But what I probably feel most guilty about is the fact that my brain arranges it in reverse order: The rest of my life tends to get in the way of my writing.
Writing takes up time, but it also takes up energy and attention. So…I feel guilty when I have to tell my friends that I can’t have lunch with them even though I haven’t seen them in weeks because I NEED that afternoon at the café to concentrate on my writing. I feel guilty when I sit my two-year-old down in front of the TV with a juice box (I’m rotting his brain with mass media and sugar!) because I NEED that 20 minutes to go over the proofs of my latest book. I feel guilty when my husband sighs and says (again), “You’re always off somewhere in your head,” because I NEED that inner withdrawal time to sort out a character or storyline.
Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to work with a lot of different writers at a lot of different places in their lives and so I know now that I’m not the only that struggles with this. I will also say that the struggle has definitely gotten a bit more difficult since I became a mama. Having a small child is not conducive to peace and quiet or cultivating the solitude needed for writing work.
Everything above is valid and true and there’s no getting around it, no use in pretending that I don’t have a lot of different people and things competing for my (very limited) attention.
But what’s really NOT helpful is the big fat dose of guilt my brain likes to level at me.
Because make no mistake, I DO feel guilty, multiple times a week. But the self-critical thoughts of “I’m a bad mother,” “I’m a bad partner,” “I’m a bad friend,” only put me into a cycle of self-deprecation and stuck energy. Then I’m spending my precious attention on feeling guilty instead of deciding on important priorities with a clear head and objective judgment. Then I’m saying “yes” to things out of guilt when my time would really be better served by saying “no.” Then I’m opening the door to resentment and now I REALLY can’t think clearly and I’m not able to finish anything on time, or at all, period.
That’s the sneaky, oily, poisonous nature of guilt. It seeps in and slowly destroys your emotional foundation until you’re putting everyone and everything before yourself and your own needs.
The most powerful way to combat guilt seems totally counter-intuitive—which is why so many writers get stuck in the guilt loop and can’t move beyond it. Instead of trying to be more selfless, more giving, and more of the caretaker to assuage your feelings of guilt, the only way out of it is to be more selfish. The only way to break through the guilt loop is to take more time for yourself, and to take better care of your own energy reserves.
When you block off chunks of time, energy, and attention for yourself that you decide are utterly non-negotiable, a really cool thing starts to happen. Suddenly, you start showing up in the other areas of your life—like the family and friends area—with less resentment, more focus, and a better attitude overall. Because you’ve already satisfied what you need to feel creatively nourished, you’re better able to give that nourishment to others.
This is something we have all heard over and over again. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can assist the person sitting next to you. But for so many of us—especially women—that all goes out the window when we get caught in the guilt loop. We start to feel panicky and afraid. If we stop giving so much of ourselves to everyone else, will they stop loving us? Or will they love us less? They might also get angry at us, or upset with the way we’re changing things, which also feels icky.
Yes, these things do happen. People react against new boundaries. Family and friends might get mad or feel weird about you taking time for yourself. They might not understand how much time and energy the work of writing actually demands. That’s okay. You don’t have to make them understand, or make them less upset. That’s not up to you. It’s their reaction to deal with. And yes, I also know that’s easier said than done. As mentioned, I do have that beautiful husband and small child who are frequently puzzled, annoyed, frustrated, and sometimes, yes, even hurt, by the choices I make to schedule some of my time without them.
But it has to be done.
Because if I don’t get my time to work on my writing, I can promise you that NO ONE is going to be happy in my house that week.
Making the choice to take time for yourself and give up the guilt is going to be an ongoing process, and it isn’t going to be easy. But it has to start somewhere. It has to start with one small choice.
Can you take an hour for yourself at the local Starbucks this week? How about 30 minutes in the back bedroom with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door? Whatever your place, however you choose to do it, MAKE that choice. Choose yourself first. Put your writing on the Top Priority list.
And give up the guilt.