Setting Intentions and the Art of Self-Compassion

This blog has been dormant while I’ve been recovering from an eye infection- a complication of my periodic computer vision syndrome (CVS) that causes dry eyes, irritation, light sensitivity, and tearing up. I treated the problem with Ayurvedic eyewashes, rest and taking a break from the screen. The swollen eye also prevented me from videoing the content for my new app, but now it’s cleared up filming begins next week. This got me thinking about the impact of our health on our best intentions, and how an increasingly screen-based working life may be impacting many of us.

I had to consciously choose to take a break from working, despite another internal commentary blaming me for my eye infection and failing to meet my goals on time. In an effort to appease my inner critic, I even tried the compromise measure of one-eyed research and writing, but after ten or fifteen minutes, realised this placed a terrible strain on my remaining vision. There was nothing else for it, I had to stop and take care of myself properly. I remembered Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion and reminded myself that we all deserve care and concern during periods of suffering. I visited her site and plugged in my TV monitor to listen to her again.

I wasn’t struggling with an internal obstacle such as procrastination or avoidance, this was my human vulnerability to illness preventing me from meeting my best intentions to meet my goals. I needed some self-kindness.

I pulled her book off the shelf and re-read her exercise that suggests writing yourself a letter as if you were writing to a friend in need. I didn’t write myself a letter, but I did choose to be kind to myself, slow down, and spend more time off-screen than on-screen while my eye healed. I even postponed some client appointments explaining my situation and received messages of care and compassion from them too. This led to reset my intentions to include self-compassion during difficult times when unexpected events derail my best-laid plans. While my intentions always include remaining aware of subconscious experiential avoidance strategies, it’s also important to remember that unexpected suffering requires attention and psychological flexibility.

This very concrete experience of physical illness led me to reflect on the impact of other unexpected events on our writing lives. What other situations might crop up in the life of a writer that require a resetting of intentions and a period of self-compassion? A common experience for most of us is rejection from a publisher, blog, agent, or journal, or getting a poor grade for a written assignment, which may or may not be accompanied by criticism and discouraging remarks.

Unfortunately, many decisions made in the publishing industry are notoriously subjective and even nepotistic. There’s also a lot of competition and bad writing out there. Getting attention is hard. Many choose self-publishing as an antidote to ‘the old boys’ network’ syndrome that haunts many major agencies and publishing houses. Others sign up for writing courses, join writers’ groups, get a writing coach, or even give up in the face of repeated rejection. The fact is that rejection is part of every writer’s life, and rejection takes its toll on us psychologically. An article in The Cut entitled ‘Rejection Is An Enormous Part of a Writer’s Life’ offers some tips on handling rejection by seven established writers who have accepted it as part of their working life. Samantha Irby writes

“Most people don’t tell you why they don’t want your thing. They just say, “Oh, thanks, but no thanks.” I find it soothing to think about how much of this is out of my control. The only thing that I can be sure of is what I’ve made. I wrote this thing; it made me laugh; I’m happy with it. Why they didn’t buy it, I’ll never know.”

The keyword for me here is ‘control’. So many of the factors involved in decisions to publish are not in a writer’s control. Meanwhile, Akwaeke Emezi recounts how rejections that hurt at the time have sometimes been followed by other opportunities offering something better.

“… one of the things I’ve learned is that, a lot of the time, rejections are like doors that close because there’s a path somewhere else that I’m meant to be on. I don’t really feel bad about rejections anymore because I’m like, Okay, that’s cool. I’m not supposed to go there. I can’t wait to find out where I am supposed to go, because that’s going to be awesome in a way that I didn’t even imagine.”

This attitude embraces the acceptance that is key to cultivating resilience. One strategy for managing disappointment is resetting your intentions in line with your values. When you meet a roadblock in one direction, try again using another route. Meanwhile, Alexander Chee takes a deeply pragmatic approach.

“Rejection is something that, in some ways, you have to work with as much as you work with language as a writer. It’s the other medium of writing, which is to say: Learning to work with rejection, learning how rejection can propel you forward, whether you’re deciding to get better or you’re deciding to move on — you just can’t let it be an obstacle.”

I find this the most useful suggestion given my commitment to continuous creative development in face of ongoing challenges, especially when coaching other writers. Language may be the medium that lights our path ahead, while rejection is the shadow that helps us hone and define it. One requires the other, like yin and yang, or as Thich Nhat Hahn put it ‘no mud, no lotus’. Every edit is a form of rejection, and yet editorial revisions are always necessary to refine our writing, blossom and grow. Rhonda Douglas recommends regular doses of self-compassion as essential to our craft.

“Can you see how this can help us as writers to weather the incredible amount of rejection that most of us are naturally going to experience in our artistic lives, no matter how hard we work or how talented we are? Rejection is just a fact of the writing life, and self-compassion can help us keep moving forward in the face of it.”

As writers, perhaps the key to working with rejection is cultivating the capacity to separate our writing from our sense of personal identity through acceptance combined with cognitive defusion. Of course, self-compassion when we feel the twinge of disappointment is always a good move, while judging ourselves as a failure or giving up may be rooted in a misunderstanding of the reality of the writer’s life. What do you think? Let me know in the comment section below. I will also explore this more in my next blog post. Meanwhile…keep writing!

Author: Jo Nash PhD

I'm the founder of Focused Flow writing coaching. I have a PhD in Psychotherapy Studies from the University of Sheffield, UK, and am a trained mindfulness therapist, as well as a widely published writer. I am passionate about writing and have developed the Focused Flow model to help writers of all kinds overcome obstacles to the writing process and optimise productivity. I offer free tips and techniques to overcome obstacles to writing on this blog.

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