Writing is an amazing experience when you are brainstorming and drafting for yourself, but once you invite readers into your bubble, things can get dicey. Even though we know criticism is an inevitable part of the process (and even necessary for our growth as writers), it can still trigger negative feelings like self-doubt.
One of my dear friends, Christina Rann, is a brilliant author who knows these feelings all too well. We’ve had some long, deep conversations about our struggles with it and she’s shared some excellent advice in her guest post. If this is something you experience, you’ll definitely want to bookmark this one to refer back to often. — Lindsay
Other posts you may like:
- 8 Easy Go-To Remedies for Imposter Syndrome
- One Thing Every Artist Must Do to Overcome Self-Doubt
- 7 Powerful Lessons for Creatives from Seeing is Believing: Women Direct
Shadow Work for Writers
Writing is magical, but it’s also painful.
Like any skill, writers hone their craft by growing through failures and rejections. But our stories are little pieces of our soul on a page, so when someone scratches NO on them in bright red pen, we feel that pain deeply. As an art, storytelling is the act of opening your chest, pulling out a tender beating heart, and offering it to the world—knowing full well that it will come back bloodied.
Our growth hurts because it is so, so personal.
Long before others have the chance to reject us, however, we do it to ourselves. We study craft books and read blog posts and work in classroom-esque huddles to learn all the reasons our stories are flawed and all the ways to make them better. We become the first line of defense: the first rejectors. We set the standards and install the hoops we must first jump through before we feel like the story is good enough to have other eyes on it—whether that’s betas, agents, or indie readers. And then once their feedback comes in, we internalize it to become better… which means we move the hoops, raise them higher.
Rejections don’t have to be bad. They’re opportunities to learn, to move in new directions, to think of things in new ways, to find what works for us and who the people in our corner should be.
But I think writers—like all artists—are particularly susceptible to rejection sensitive dysphoria, or at least a pale shade of it. The pain of rejection can be unbearable, which triggers extreme fear and anxiety of those rejections, and in turn we kill ourselves doing whatever we can to prevent them.
We become our own drill sergeants; we drag ourselves through the muck.
We do whatever it takes to not come back bloodied.
Except we are. We’re bloodying ourselves.
Stories have power.
As readers, we’ve been profoundly affected by story magic, and as writers, we’ve studied the spell work to make our manuscripts sparkle like that too.
However, the stories we tell ourselves are far more powerful, and the way we tell them either uplifts or buries us in the pursuit of our art.
I’ve struggled with this a lot recently. My internal critic got too strong, my drill sergeant too cruel and unforgiving. I rewrote the same 300 words for hours and wept over my keyboard because no matter what I did, it didn’t feel good enough. I’d internalized some negative feedback and lifted that hoop to unachievable heights.
I kept telling myself no because I feared that others would say it to me again. How’s that for logic?
If you’re struggling with this kind of writer’s block, it might be time to examine what stories you’re telling yourself: what fears, anxieties, traumas, and triggers are feeding your internal critic.
Since my personal writing philosophy is magic meets intellectualism, here’s my solution:
Shadow work is a witchy buzzword for personal development that falls somewhere along the lines of cognitive behavioral therapy (examining and confronting patterns of thought and behavior), psychoanalysis (exploring the subconscious and the repressed—or at least the avoided), and spiritual healing (connecting with the universe or your deity of choice).
The goal is to face your shadows: those fears, anxieties, traumas, toxic behaviors, and internal monologues that are negatively impacting your day-to-day life, or in our case, our ability to create and edit.
They might be personal, ideological, or societal. But ultimately, they are the darkness that we try to avoid, the negativity that creeps in on the edges no matter how much we try to push them back.
What Does Shadow Work Look Like?
- Therapy or Counseling
- Talking with Loved Ones
- Internal Dialogue
My breakthrough was talking with loved ones (and an informal kind of therapy with Lindsay Elizabeth, actually, who’s trained in CBT techniques), but I’ll be continuing my shadow work with journaling… and inevitably more talking with loved ones. Choose whatever tool fits you best or layer them up in a custom cocktail. I’m sure there are other methods out there as well! Tarot and journaling? Meditation? Find what makes sense to you.
How Does Shadow Work Function?
The general themes running through the listed methods are dialogue and internal exploration. Whether you talk with someone else or talk with yourself, the goal is to face the shadows and ask hard questions about the (often irrational) logic that feeds them.
If you search “shadow work” on TikTok or any other number of sites, you can find journal prompts that will help you confront those fears, but here are a few examples:
- What does success look like to you, and what would you consider failure? Where do you think you got those ideas about success and failure from? What would happen if you did fail? What is the worst thing that would happen? How might you reframe success to look differently?
- What parts of yourself or your work bring you shame? Do you judge those same things in other people, or are you holding yourself to a double standard? Why are you holding onto that shame or inflicting it upon yourself?
- What is your biggest regret in relation to yourself or your work? What would you have done differently? Why did you behave the way you did, and are you holding onto that regret in an unhealthy way? Are you weaponizing it against yourself with your thoughts?
- If there were absolutely no consequences or no possibility of failure, what would you do (in your life and in your creative work)? Why might that be different from what you’re doing now? What fears are standing in the way of following that path?
- What voices are telling you no? What do they sound like and which person is saying them? Are they versions of yourself or are they rooted out of an interpersonal trauma? Are you projecting your internal fears onto the people around you? How could you reply to those voices to quiet them?
- How does your childhood impact your creative work today? Are you using your craft to process anything? Are you particularly sensitive when those stories are rejected? What baggage are you bringing to the moments your work is critiqued by others?
- Follow the what ifs. State what you are afraid of, and then say okay, what if that happens? Then X. Okay, what if X happens? Follow the fear to its end conclusion and list ways that you would cope if the absolute worst thing you can possibly imagine does in fact come to pass. Make yourself experience that catastrophe rather than avoiding it. In a lot of ways, this is exposure therapy: confronting a fear so that it does not have power over you.
As you journal, think or discuss, remember what shadow work is pulling from:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: One of the benchmarks of CBT is intervening with unhelpful and problematic cognition. Your thoughts have power, but when they’re coming from a very flawed place, they can sometimes feel like supervillains in our heads. It’s helpful to tease out those flaws and try to reframe your thoughts from a different vantage point. Every time you state what you consider to be one of your truths, think critically about it and ask follow up questions. It’s very possible that undergirding your innocuous thought processes are pesky, irrational fears.
Psychoanalysis: We spend a lot of energy avoiding and repressing things that are uncomfortable. It’s a coping mechanism, and in extreme cases, it’s the brain’s unconscious way of protecting itself. Your brain will shut down if it feels too much physical pain—it will black out to spare itself. Likewise, your brain is capable of blacking out extreme emotional pain. The less extreme version of that is avoidance. We shove things to the back of our minds so we don’t have to think about them. Shadow work asks you to sit with that discomfort so you can dull the edges of it—so you can take away its power over you.
Spiritual Healing: Many practicing witches talk about shadow work in terms of vibrational energy: you are summoning negative energy, transmuting it, and then reveling in the positive energy you have left. Whether witchcraft appeals to you or not, there is space in this kind of therapy for opening yourself up to the divine or the magic of the universe: believing that rejections happen for a reason, that you are an extension of the creative energy you tap, that you are greater than the sum of your parts, and that you are part of a far greater tapestry of the cosmos. Pulling out of your ego (in the psychological sense) and thinking in terms of a larger, cosmic picture can help lessen the magnitude of your pains and fears. Just as you are a tiny speck in an infinite world, so is what’s troubling you.
Things to Remember Along the Way
Progress is not linear. You might have a breakthrough one day and then backslide into the hands of your internal critic the next (that most definitely happens to me).
Healing is messy. It might be incredibly uncomfortable to face some of these things—especially if trauma is a factor. Be kind and gentle to yourself if volatile emotions bubble up to the surface.
You are worthy. According to Brene Brown, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Just because your work is flawed does not mean you are not capable or worthy of telling stories. Shaming yourself for having a block or not self caring well enough—or needing this self care in the first place—is just compounding the problem.
Feel the pain. Toxic positivity doesn’t help anyone—it just slaps a smiley-face bandaid on the wound and makes you feel like your negative emotions aren’t valid. They absolutely are valid, and you don’t have to run from them or cover them up.
You have to write badly. Every writer creates utter garbage. First drafts, by definition, are hot dumpster fires. Give yourself permission to SUCK. So what if you do? You can delete the whole dang document if you want. No one has to see your suckage.
Art is subjective. Everyone has different tastes, different experiences that resonate. Just because some people share the same opinion doesn’t mean it’s a fact. Write to your tastes and your experiences, not to someone else’s.
Writing and Rejection are Bedfellows.
No matter which path you take or what your publishing dreams are, you will experience rejection as a writer: beta critiques, rejections from agents, rejections from publishers, lack of indie sales, bad reviews, social media trolls.
And, of course, your own rejections, the moments when you read your work and say, No. It’s not good, it’s not ready, ctrl + A Delete.
There’s literally no way to put yourself out there as a creative and not receive some form of negativity or lack of response. In many ways, the fact that we continue creating in spite of that fact is what makes us brave, magical creatures.
But the Pain and Fear of Rejection can Become Immobilizing.
We can become stuck in a rut, a loop. We fixate on the rejections we have seen and end up in this vicious editing space trying to stave off any further rejections, which, as we all know, is impossible to effectively do.
Someone, somewhere, is not going to like our stuff.
Writer’s Block comes in many forms and for many reasons. But this particular flavor is incredibly difficult. So it’s imperative that we find escape hatches.
I do hope that shadow work will at least inspire you to look for one yourself.
Being a writer is a scary, vulnerable thing.
But it’s absolutely magical. And you’re magical, no matter what the critics—internal or external—are telling you. Believe in yourself, face your fears, and own your power.
Writing is your witchcraft.
And I can’t wait to watch you make magic.
Christina Rann is a recovering academic and a full-time writer of witchy tales. She likes her coffee black, her music moody, and her plants to be hoyas! You can read more about her approaches to creative writing and critical engagement on her blog, Write Like You Did It On Purpose, at christinarann.com or follow along with her crazy plant lady / writerly journeys on Instagram @c.rann.writes.