Self-sabotage is one of the trickiest unconscious behaviors to pin down. When we engage in self-sabotage the mind almost effortlessly comes up with “rational” excuses for doing things that are not in our best interest. Self-sabotage shows up in romantic relationships, office politics, parenting tactics and in the world of writing. One of the most harmful times it can rear its ugly head is when you decide to put your work out into the world.
Screenwriters in particular can succumb to self-sabotage in three major ways.
Self-Sabotage Scheme #1: Taking “Imposter Syndrome” Seriously
Every writer has been there. Part of you knows you have the talent and ability to make this dream of being a screenwriter happen, but the other part of you, well… really isn’t that sure. The critical voice inside your head tries to tell you that you’re fooling yourself. You can’t be worthy of success. You can’t succeed. You’re not a good writer. You see how these kind of thoughts can quickly spiral out of control. “Two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes… described it as a feeling of ‘phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement,’” according to an article in the New York Times. It’s called “Impostor Syndrome.”
How It Hurts Us
After listening to our inner critics tell us we’re frauds for so long our brain starts gathering evidence to support this claim in real life. We might notice similarities between the plot of our script and a blockbuster movie that hit theaters last year, and so we decide there is no point in trying to sell our idea to anyone. Or, we might stop sharing our writing altogether, afraid that if someone sees our work, he or she will discover we’re fake. Imposter Syndrome constricts writers and eventually paralyzes your creative muscles.
And now that you know about it, you can stop it from happening to you. When you hear those thoughts creeping into your head, challenge them. Every time the inner critic whispers that you’re a fraud, you have to ask, “Oh? Is that so? What if the opposite were true?” Tell yourself not to let impostor syndrome get the best of you. You’ve written and great script and you’ve got to get it out there.
Self-Sabotage Scheme #2: Giving in to Procrastination
According to the Association for Psychological Science, “True procrastination is a complicated failure of self-regulation: experts define it as the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we’ll suffer as a result.” No one knows procrastination better than writers. In fact, it’s the number one issue my writing clients say they want to work on in our first session together.
How It Hurts Us
When we procrastinate, we direct all the energy we were going to use to creatively work on our script to come up with excuses of why we should NOT work on it instead. After hours—or even days—of focusing most of our time and attention on putting it off, we end up exhausted and discouraged. This is the worst mental space to be in when trying to get good writing (or rewriting) done. If you’ve already done the hard work of successfully selling your script to someone, self-sabotage through procrastination might very likely pop up when you’re under deadline to submit rewrites.
Ask for help and bring in support. Enlist a writing buddy and match each other on goals. You get ten pages done this morning, and he or she gets ten pages done, too. Afterward you meet up online or in person to report your progress and stay accountable to each other. Psychology Today says that, “A long-standing concept in social psychology is that the mere presence of someone else affects your ability to do an activity (Zajonc, 1965).” Now you know why so many people have running partners or boot camp buddies. If you’ve ever had someone counting on you to show up to get something done, you know this is true. Two is easier than one.
Self-Sabotage Scheme #3: Not Being Selfish Enough
Our culture pushes us to give as much as we can—time, energy, love and money—and often times to others first. This is especially true for women, who are usually raised to meet the ideal of the “Good Girl,” the person without any needs of her own who exists solely to support others. Most writers are also sensitive souls and highly intuitive. Giving of ourselves and supporting others comes naturally, but not many of us have been taught how to save some of our energy for our own pursuits. It starts with setting boundaries. You need to know when to say no to others so you can say yes to yourself.
How It Hurts Us
When we put our own needs last, we get the dregs of everything. Our writing time dwindles because we’re too busy dealing with the drama of other people. The energy we need to research opportunities for our scripts is depleted from running errands that really aren’t our responsibility. The inability to say “no” narrows our bandwidth in a thousand tiny ways that quickly adds up. When you have zero resources left over after meeting everyone else’s needs, it’s nearly impossible to put any extra effort into gaining the confidence you need to sell your script to an outside party.
As hard as it might be, we have to put ourselves first. “Putting yourself first is not a negative quality; it’s your job to take care of yourself and get what you need,” says Melissa Deuter, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. If you have trouble setting boundaries with people, practice saying “no” to little things first and gradually work your way up to the big stuff. If you need more time to yourself to write, say so. If you need an actual writing desk to get your work done, make that happen.
The tendency toward self-sabotage might be deeply ingrained in some of us, but with a little investigation into our motives and the intention to consciously do what is best for ourselves, our writing, and our creative spirit, this tendency can be overcome.
So the next time you find yourself—or a potential opportunity for one of your scripts—blocked, examine the underlying reasons why this might be happening. If you find self-sabotage at the root of it, embrace the chance to own up to it.
Be your own catalyst for change.