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Creating depends on having a mind quiet enough to allow ideas to bubble up. Living a successful, healthy life as an artist requires that your self-talk align with your goals and your aspirations. Your job is to quiet your mind and extinguish negative self-talk. These are your two most important tasks if you want a shot at living your best life in the arts. Here are nine tips for doing exactly that.
1. Recognize that you are the only one who can get a grip on your mind. There is no pill to take. There is no one to consult. There is nothing to read. You must mind you. You can let your thoughts do whatever they want and go off in any direction or you can say, “No, that thought doesn’t serve me.” Only you can do that work.
2. Recognize that you do not have to accept, tolerate, or countenance a thought just because you thought it. You may have the thought, “Wow, John really made me angry at work today!” Then it is your choice whether to brood about John or whether you want get on with your novel. It may be easier to brood about John than to write your novel, so you may have powerful reasons to stay angry. It’s your choice.
When we say something to ourselves like “my novel stinks” or “I won’t play well tonight” we tend to think that we’ve just had a true thought just because we thought it. But many of our thoughts are simply not true and a lot of the true ones don’t serve us. You do not have to accept, tolerate, or countenance a thought just because you thought it.
3. Listen to what you say to yourself. If you don’t hear your own thoughts, you can’t get rid of the thoughts that aren’t serving you. If you kind of know but don’t really know that you are constantly thinking that life is a cheat, that you’ve badly disappointed yourself by wasting so much time, or that you hate to be criticized, you won’t work to dispute and extinguish those thoughts. Yes, they can be extremely painful to really hear. But it is better to hear them and deal with them than to let them cycle endlessly.
4. Decide if what you are saying to yourself serves you. You are not looking at the truth or falsity of a thought but rather whether the thought is or isn’t serving you. Countless true thoughts do not serve us to think. All of the following may be true thoughts that nevertheless do not serve you to think: I might have written ten books by now; writing a novel is hard; selling a novel is hard; I’m not sure I have it in me to either write a novel or sell a novel. None of those thoughts, even if true, serve you. The only thought that serves you, if you want to write a novel, is “I am off to my novel!” It is your job to decide if the thoughts that you are thinking do or do not serve you. Who else can do that job?
5. When you decide that a thought doesn’t serve you, dispute it and dismiss it. It can seem very strange at first to dispute your own thoughts. Yet you must. Get in the habit of saying to yourself, “That was interesting thought. Did it serve me?” If you know or suspect that it doesn’t, dismiss it out of hand. Do not linger over it! This sounds like, “That thought doesn’t serve me and I am dismissing it!” Mean it when you say it!
6. When a thought that doesn’t serve you lingers on and on, actively combat it. Some thoughts just won’t go away. Maybe it’s the thought, “No one wanted my first novel and my second novel is an even more difficult sell, so why in heaven’s name am I writing it?” This may be a thought that you find that you can’t get rid of simply by snapping your fingers. Then do more than snap your fingers. Fight it tooth and nail. Maybe you’ll have to write out the ten reasons why this book may be wanted. Maybe you’ll have to chat seriously with yourself about self-publishing. Brooding, clinging, disabling thoughts must be fought with—or else those will be thoughts that you are regularly thinking.
7. After you’ve disputed and dismissed a thought, think a thought that does serve you. Creating thought substitutes that you begin to use is an important part of the process. These thought substitutes can be tailored to the situation or they can be simple “global” affirmations that you create once and use over and over again, thoughts like “I’m perfectly fine,” “Back to work,” “Right here, right now,” or “Process.” Because for so many of us our default way of thinking is negative, self-critical and injurious, we want to create and use thought substitutes that help prevent our brain from conjuring up its usual distortions and distractions.
8. Get in the smart habit of extinguishing unproductive self-talk even before it fully arises. Often, we know that a thought is “coming.” Maybe we’ve been waiting to hear from an editor who said she would call on Tuesday and now it’s Friday. You pretty much know that if she doesn’t call today you are certain to begin thinking thoughts like “She’s never going to call,” “She about to reject my work,” and “I can’t stand all this waiting.” You know these thoughts are coming. So, extinguish them now and replace them with, “I’m spending the weekend working on my new project! And I won’t think about that editor until Monday!” How many times have you known that a thought that doesn’t serve you is coming and thought it anyway? It’s time to stop that.
9. Engage in active cognitive support. This means creating the thoughts that you want to be thinking and then thinking them. These thoughts might include all of the following: “I write every single morning”; “I’m going to succeed”; “I know how to make meaning”; “I’m lavishing my love and attention on my novel”; “I’m not afraid of process”; “I show up”; “I take the risks that I need to take, with my work and in the marketplace”; “I am creating a body of work”; “I am a writer.” You can think thoughts like these if you choose to think them!