Finding a balance between forgiving yourself and getting on with it can be really tough. As a writer, workshop facilitator, performer and founder of For Book’s Sake, Jane Bradley shares some valuable discoveries.
Got a project you’re working on? Maybe it’s a novel, a funding bid, a business plan for that side hustle you were so excited about six months ago. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But it’s something big. Something that’s important to you. And you’ve been working on it, and working on it, and you’re tired, and fed up, and the self-doubt and criticism is starting to creep in, and you don’t know what to do.
Because there are a million books, blogs, articles, podcasts and courses out there, all with their own advice. And a lot of them will tell you that you need to be more realistic in your goal-setting, that you need to practice more self-care, that you need to give yourself a break. And they’re not wrong. As a nation, we’re chronically over-scheduled and sleep-deprived, soothing ourselves with everything from comfort food to social media addictions.
But – if you’re anything like me – sometimes the categories get fuzzy. How do you know when a night of Netflix and ice-cream is self-care, and when it’s just procrastination? When do you need to forgive yourself for not meeting that goal or deadline you were so adamant about smashing, and when do you need to keep going? Is there a way to keep moving forward with your projects while having self-forgiveness and compassion during the times that it’s tough?
Don’t get me wrong. I totally advocate for self-care and self-forgiveness. Having been through two major bereavements earlier this year, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past six months having to learn my limits, move goalposts I wanted to keep set in stone, and – on some days – considering it a victory if all I did was get through to the end.
But – during this period and others in the past – I can see how self-forgiveness and compassion can become convenient ways to think about ourselves and our activities. It can become a kind of comfort blanket. It keeps you feeling safe and cosy, and sometimes that’s just what we need. But sometimes we need to be out of our comfort zones, pushing forward on the things that matter to us most, even when that feels uncertain, unfamiliar or scary. That can be a form of self-care too: showing up for yourself and protecting the things you’ve put so much of yourself into. So, the million dollar question: how do you know which you need when?
Use COAL: The acronym COAL stands for Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance and Love, explained in more detail in Gabor Maté’s brilliant book on addiction, In the Real of Hungry Ghosts. It’s about exploring your motivations for certain behaviours, but without adding that extra poison helping of guilt or self-criticism they might usually come with. If you can seek to better understand what’s really happening for you when you postpone spending time on the projects that are most important to you, there can be valuable lessons to be learnt.
For instance, if your response to a hard day at work is to set aside your writing (or whatever you’re working on) for another night in favour of a two-hour bubble bath, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But if that becomes your nightly routine and it’s stopping you from making progress, it may need some exploring. What emotions are being activated? What’s underneath that drive to soothe yourself? If you’re being constantly exhausted and irritated by a colleague who continually undermines you, for example, that might lead to you feeling uncertain and insecure about your abilities. Is it a fear of failure or judgement that’s leading you to reach for the tap rather than your laptop? The more you know about what’s driving you, the more you can developed an informed, self-compassionate approach to experimenting with potential solutions.
Tiers for fears (no, I’m not sorry for that terrible pun): So, you’re all about the goal-setting and accountability. Brilliant. But then – if for some reason you can’t meet that goal – it can be easy to slip into self-doubt and criticism. So what if you could be less binary (success vs. failure) and more flexible? What if you had a tiered system that took into account that we all have good days and bad? For me, that looks like aiming to spend an hour a day on my current writing project, for four days in each week. But if an hour seems too massive when I sit down, I aim for half an hour instead. And on the days when creating anything new seems too impossible, I edit, or go through old notebooks, typing up or highlighting bits I might want to develop when I feel more up to it. That doesn’t take as much brain power (so it’s more appropriate for the exhausted, sad or premenstrual days), but it still keeps me in touch with my creativity. And – maybe more importantly – it’s me demonstrating to myself that I believe in some sort of future, for myself and for my work. By making notes for Future Me, I recognise that there’ll be one. And that helps stop my confidence from becoming depleted like it can if I stop altogether.
Schedule in that self-care: This sounds contradictory, but stay with me. If you can be proactive rather than reactive about your self-care needs, you’ll be less burnt-out and more resilient. Meaning you’re more likely to be able to make progress on the projects you’re passionate about. It’s not to say you won’t ever need more than what’s in the diary, but it’s a start. So consult your calendar, explore your needs (using COAL, as above) and work out might be possible for you. For me, Wednesday nights are non-negotiable and blocked out in my diary as being just for me. What I do with them might vary, but having that space set aside for myself really helps me feel more restored and committed in other areas of my life for the rest of the week.
If what you need in these sessions is total rest, numbing or distraction, I completely respect that. But at other times, a bit of refuelling can really help. Hearing other people share their journeys – challenges, detours and all – really helps me connect to my own commitment and passion, so I try to walk to work at least once a week so I can listen to my favourite podcasts while I do. I’ve definitely noticed a correlation between doing this and my writing productivity; even though I’m more tired, I’m refuelled in other ways and sometimes that’s enough motivation to get me at the keyboard, giving it a go. (Current favourites: Recovery Warriors, Family Ghosts and Witch Wave Pod). You might have a fail-safe favourite book or film that always gets you feeling more like yourself. While I’m wary of the urge to ‘optimise’ self-care time, for me this is more about developing a more detailed understanding of what you need, then playing with different ways to get it.
If there are other ways you can bring the comfort and joy of your self-care into your day-to-day, that’s worth exploring too. Even little things can make a massive difference. I always blast techno when battling budgets. Writing about personal experience can feel vulnerable, which I counteract that by wrapping myself up in my rattiest, cosiest, most comforting jumper. Embrace these rituals for what they say: that you love and respect yourself enough to give yourself what you need. That’s real self-compassion; a kind that’s not mutually exclusive with making progress on the projects you care about.
- Enjoyed learning about these themes? Want to explore self-care and compassion more intimately with Rose & Butterfly? Join our Self Care, Laughter and Life Goals event on Saturday 23rd June in Leeds. More info and tickets now until 21st.
- Contact Helen at Rose and Butterfly for a complimentary, no-strings-attached powerful coaching conversation to discover how you can make progress out of your comfort zone.
Jane Bradley (www.janeclairebradley.com) is a writer, performer and workshop facilitator, and the founder of For Books’ Sake (www.forbookssake.net), a community dedicated to championing writing by women. Jane delivers creative writing workshops to women and young people across the UK, collaborating with universities, charities and arts organisations including RECLAIM, The Proud Trust and Getting Out for Good. She has been longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Prize for Fiction and a Young Enigma Award, and performed her writing at venues including the Royal Exchange, Contact Theatre, Polari Literary Salon and Edinburgh Fringe.