So many of us feel disappointed with ourselves from time to time or maybe even regularly. We feel disappointed with what we’ve created and what we haven’t created. We feel disappointed for wasting time, for not being as productive as we should have been. We feel disappointed for not being smart or focused or creative or talented or original enough. We feel disappointed for being too lazy or too slow. We feel disappointed about our performance and our results.
And we let these disappointments dictate our next steps, our next day.
That is, we assume that our qualities, inadequacies, mistakes and missteps mean that we should stop. Just stop. We assume that these are roaring red flags, which signal that we have no business creating anything. That we have no business writing stories or penning poetry or painting or sculpting or singing or giving talks or taking pictures or creating new products.
But these disappointments are normal. They’re even part of the process for many, many creators (maybe even all?). Bestselling author Ann Patchett talks about this in her essay “The Getaway Car” in This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage.
Patchett believes that the key to making art is self-forgiveness. It is vital to forgive ourselves for our disappointments. For lacking what we lack. For not being able to translate the wonder of our imagination onto the page or canvas or computer (i.e., onto and into reality). Because living in the deep of our disappointments only paralyzes us. It stops us from creating. (And each of us is born to create.)
Even more, self-forgiveness is “very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life,” Patchett writes. I totally agree. Because berating ourselves naturally steals our joy. It keeps us angry and sad. It leads us to making decisions that don’t serve or support us. It leaves us stuck and unable to savor the creative process.
Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.
Elizabeth Gilbert also stresses the importance of self-forgiveness. She writes in this post:
…The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love).
Of course, forgiving ourselves is hard. It might feel foreign, something you’ve rarely practiced before. It might feel uncomfortable like wearing clothes that pinch your skin. It’s hard to be kind and supportive and encouraging and loving when we’ve broken one of our rules, when we see ourselves as bumbling idiots or true blue failures.
So how do we do it?
Here are a few ideas for fostering self-forgiveness, one tiny step at a time:
- Imagine your loved one did what you did or is struggling with what you’re struggling with. What do you tell them? How do you treat them? Try to apply this kindness to yourself.
- Think of 20 compassionate and/or playful ways you can approach your “disappointment” instead of bashing or berating yourself, instead of not creating.
- Set the timer for 15 minutes, and jot down all the reasons why you’re upset with yourself. Get it down on paper. Look at your reasons, and reflect on the lessons you’ve learned from each one. Then reflect on how you can live out these lessons.
- Think of all the different reasons to forgive yourself. Even if you’re not convinced that forgiving yourself is a good idea, write this out, anyway. Try on this perspective, like you’d try on different articles of clothing at a store. I forgive myself because I am human, which means that I’ll make mistakes from time to time. I forgive myself because I’m not a machine in some factory. I’m someone who needs breaks and pauses and a slower pace. This honors my body and my heart. I forgive myself because this only inspires me to keep going and keep trying. I forgive myself because I can use this as a lesson, as a guiding light, to inform my next steps. I forgive myself because the magic is in the process.
- Take several slow, deep breaths. Listen to a favorite guided meditation (like this one). Do something that relaxes you or makes you feel better. Self-forgiveness is supporting yourself.
- Remind yourself that so many others struggle with the process, too. You’re not alone in being disappointed, in feeling inadequate. For me the fact that bestselling authors like Gilbert and Patchett still feel this way is immensely comforting.
You might disappoint yourself. Many times. You might falter. You might feel like a failure. Regularly. You might not meet your writing goal on most days. You might not create that beautiful image that lives inside your brain. You might bomb a speaking engagement. You might create a product or project that tanks.
So you forgive yourself. You act with self-compassion and tenderness. And you get back to work.