Gratitude – an antidote to the inner critic

I woke up early enough to catch the sunrise from my desk on Wednesday and captured it in the image above. While I am developing the content for my Flow Writer app I’m also editing my novel to smooth out bumpy passages and enhance characterization. Getting up early seems to enhance my productivity and the sight that beheld me as the sun rose over the Forth filled me with gratitude for that moment. Looking out to sea often evokes a sense of awe and a loss of preoccupation with ‘me’. It quietens the mind and soothes any agitated emotions or sense of urgency that can undermine creativity and productivity. That’s why I chose this apartment and why I put my desk in the window. For the rest of the day, I was unusually focused and productive, so much so that I began to reflect on the ability of gratitude to enhance creativity and concentration.

Coincidentally, today an Atlantic article dropped into my inbox on a recent study of the experience of gratitude during the pandemic. The study found that those who practised gratitude suffered less anxiety and low mood during these uncertain times. Practising gratitude entails taking time to notice and focus upon the positive aspects of life that we should be thankful for. Most often these are simple pleasures, like watching the sunrise, enjoying a good meal, playing with the kids, appreciating your home after you’ve cleaned it (something that frequently happens when I have a lot of editing to do- one of my classic avoidance strategies), enjoying the smell of freshy laundered sheets, or a relaxing bubble bath. Simplicity seems key to experiencing gratitude. Appreciation requires a focus on the present moment in all its richness.

Due to the chaos and unpredictability we have all experienced during the past eighteen months, practising gratitude may be more necessary than ever, but not in a smug ‘I’m alright, thanks’ kind of way. We don’t need to ignore the suffering in our lives or the world around us. Rather, we can practice gratitude consciously as a method for alleviating suffering out of self-compassion. Taking the time to appreciate the little things has proven mental health benefits. It doesn’t mean we ignore the complexities and difficulties of life, but rather for a few minutes each day, we choose to focus on appreciating our positive experiences. This shift in attention away from the negative towards the positive enhances creativity and innovation. In his book, Consolations, the poet and author David Whyte reminds us that:

“Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention” (p.53).

I experienced my sense of gratitude watching the sunrise like a cleansing of the numerous little wounds that my inner critic often begins to inflict upon me before I sit down at my desk, especially when editing my own work. Reviewing and editing need not be a ruthless process, it can be a playful crafting that relishes and appreciates the texture of words, their harmonics, tonality, and imagery. It also occurred to me that I should be grateful for the time to tend to my creative writing in this way, rather than working at a job I dislike just to survive as I have done before, possibly will do again, and many others do every day. However, it seems that gratitude also enhances productivity as the blog Creativity at Work states:

“Gratitude is the antidote to anxiety and fear, allowing feelings of grace, wellbeing, and optimism to flow. Scientific studies have proven there is a link between gratitude and creative problem solving. When we experience positive emotions, we enhance our ability to solve problems and come up with more ideas for action.”

As I got down to editing once the sun was up, my concentration and focus seemed sharper. I was noticing things I had missed in my previous round of editing. I was less distracted and dropping into a state of absorption and flow. So, from today I have decided to begin the day with a small five-minute gratitude practice at my desk. It may be noting three things I am thankful for that morning, or one of the practices recommended by HeartMath. Today, I took three ‘appreciation breaks’. I’ve felt more energised, connected and less frayed around the edges as a result.

“An effective way to improve mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being is to invoke and sustain sincere appreciation. The greater your capacity for sincere appreciation, the deeper the connection to your heart, where intuition and unlimited inspiration and possibilities reside.” HeartMath

If you’re struggling with your inner critic while writing or editing try switching your focus to appreciation and gratitude to dissolve anxiety and smooth the frayed edges of your mind. Practising gratitude enhances creativity and helps establish focused flow. It’s an act of self-compassion and you’re worth it!

Comparison is the enemy of flow

During one of my coaching sessions this week we homed in once more on the problem of overwhelm and how it can be caused by comparison. Often, before any kind of writing project begins a period of research is required. When I’m coaching academic writers, they often begin writing by researching the work of their peers in the field, especially by focusing on keywords and terms unique to their own research. The result can be the discovery of an overwhelming amount of research papers that may have implications for their own work, which they then feed a compulsion to read to stay abreast of current developments. The result can be writer’s block, typically characterised by a sense of excruciating overwhelm, freezing, and feelings of not being good enough to write for publication as someone else ‘probably got there first’. One of my clients discovered that somebody else had once written about a term she believed one of her research subjects had coined during an interview, and asked if it was permissible to use this same term in her paper, or if it would be seen as plagiarism?

My response was ‘reference it’, note the source, and continue. However, the discovery of the previous investigation of a similar phenomenon risked overwhelming my client. Suddenly, she wondered if she would soon discover a well of information that would take months to process. We discussed whether any ideas were truly unique, as new ideas always build on previous research and tend to be eclipsed by emerging ideas later. This describes the evolution of the investigative process that drives all types of research. The answer we agreed upon was clearly ‘no’.

Often, as the writer and literary critic Raymond Williams once explained, new ideas tend to emerge spontaneously in geographically diverse locations in response to a given zeitgeist that characterises a particular period in history. Each interlocutor may well express an emergent idea in complete ignorance of others expressing something similar or the same elsewhere. Emergent ideas arise through a complex, dynamic and intersubjective cultural process that germinates the seed of the new in response to the dominant culture and the residues of tradition. Therefore, almost no ideas are unique due to their emergence from a historical and cultural process. Following this discussion, we returned to the issue of writing in the flow state, and how comparison and structural framing might be better applied after the raw content had been written in a state of flow.

Dropping into our flow state may also be disrupted by the overreach of digital communication and culture. After a discussion of my previous post, exploring awe-walking as a method for shaking off the energetic stagnation that can settle in at the writing desk, my client began to dig deeper. To access flow, it may be necessary to disconnect from the digital world for a while. For example, as I’m writing this, I see an email has arrived. I am in my flow and so I decide not to open it but am aware of the urge to open it disrupting my inner writing process. This overreach of digital communication posting notifications inside the very tools I use to create is disturbing indeed, so setting boundaries to minimise interference is required.

All too often I have followed up some notification, either an email or social media post and an hour later find myself overwhelmed with information; either of no purpose or indicating another line of enquiry that I could pursue. Also, other people’s reports on their progress with their projects surreptitiously invite me to compare myself with them and see myself as lacking. However, most people carefully curate their social media profiles. Each time we log into social media, we are invited into a matrix of online personas apparently untroubled by the everyday hassles and complexities of life. This social network of self-policed identities aims to persuade or celebrate rather than present any kind of truth, yet the act of persuasion involves a subtle form of comparison and plays on our desire to improve. Too much comparison can be paralyzing because there are always people who are doing better, know more than you, have achieved more than you.

Therefore, I asked my client to stop conducting research, or indulging in comparison, and instead focus on her snack writing exercises from the heart, free of referencing and editing. The result was a more poetic, nuanced, and original writing style that was able to express her previous research findings in the context of her new work. She explained to me that disconnecting from the internet and just writing a paragraph at a time had enabled her to write in a more embodied way that ‘flowed’. I suggested that setting a boundary around the overreach of digital communication had helped prevent her from indulging in comparison.

As the educationalist and philosopher, Krishnamurti said

…you are educated to compare…your brain has been conditioned, educated, trained to compare – right? … psychologically …We are trained, educated, programmed to repeat. […]That is how your brain has become mechanical, routine; it is repeating, saying the same thing over and over again: ‘I can’t do it, I must do it, it is too difficult for me, I don’t understand, tell me all about it.

Isn’t comparison a form of violence?

All comparison is based on competition, effort, and struggle. This is the very opposite of dropping into your flow state which feels effortless, joyful, and natural. The 6 -week Flow Writer Challenge will focus on removing all obstacles to dropping into the flow state while writing. Comparison is the enemy of flow and sabotages the content production stage of the writing process.  Structure and referencing may be important but should be the focus of form, not content production. Once this is understood, a writer can dig deeper and discover their unique voice.  Comparison dilutes individuality, promotes conformity, and prevents the perception of the present moment in all its immediacy and richness.