The Tyranny of the Should*

by Pari

I’m a goal oriented kind of gal. Give me a mountain to climb, a river to ford, a meatloaf to make and I’m a happy camper. But unlike most of the ‘Rati, I don’t have externally set deadlines for my novels. Not yet.

Anything I do, good or bad, is self-imposed.

You’d think that this situation would be a lovely thing — to have the freedom to determine my own timeline — but I’m finding it an odd challenge. You see, my super-ego is in overdrive. No matter what else I do in the day — take care of my children, exercise so I’ll live long enough to see my kids grow up, cook, clean, spend time with my husband, garden — there’s always this voice telling me that I’m not doing enough to further my career.

Even when I sit at the computer and edit or write, that same damn voice screams for attention and most of its messages are negative. I wouldn’t mind if it helped inspire me or urged me to stretch creatively.

But no.

It destroys joy. It smashes fun into shards of guilt, cuts my feet until they’re bloody and makes a huge mess where there could be giddy adventure.

So what to do?

I suspect I’m not alone; I’m not the only writer with this conundrum. As a matter of fact, it might be one of the prerequisites of the job — with or without deadlines.

Lest you misread my words, I’m NOT talking about self-discipline here. I’ve got that out the wazoo. This is something far more insidious and potentially paralyzing.

And it takes more than just the pleasure away; it diminishes productivity.

I’ve tried daily writing goals and I’ve met them. The stupid voice still pounds in my ears. I’ve tried ignoring it or reasoning with it or visualizing myself free of it. I’ve tried shoving it out of my mind with positive affirmations: "I’m making progress." or "I did more than I thought I would today." Or "I am doing as much as I can."

But it’s like some kind of mutating computer virus that keeps adapting to whatever I throw in its path.

If I have to live with the damn thing, I will. I’ve done pretty well so far and have managed write a fair number of manuscripts, books, stories etc. But if there’s a way to put it in its place, to push a mute button, I’d sure like to know how.

So that’s my question for today: Do any of you, Dear Readers, experience this in your own writing or other professions? If so, tell me how you quell the tyranny of the should.


* From Neurosis and Human Growth by Karen Horney. This is a seminal and fascinating book on neurosis. I studied it while in grad school.

45 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the Should*

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ugh, this is painful to read because I so identify. No matter how much I get done I never think it’s enough. It’s depressing to think that self-imposed guilt is what gets the work done, but I can’t offhand think of a single writer I know who doesn’t do that kind of internal guilt-tripping. I’d love to know if there IS some way out of it besides giving up writing altogether.

  2. billie

    Pari, the title and Karen Horney and that inner voice are like a blast from the past. Wow.

    My solution to this dilemma (though it was more pervasive than just about my writing and pretty much had me in shackles in every single way) was discovering the book Rational-Emotive Therapy by Albert Ellis and applying one of his suggestions relentlessly until it worked.

    Basically you change the inner dialogue. Every time that voice starts up you stop it and substitute something very specifically engineered to replace it. It is not an instant fix, as our inner dialogue has usually been with us for a very long time and it seems to be mysteriously *there* – but in reality, it can be changed.

    The thing that really pushed me to do the work to get rid of the voice was when I realized – I would never have said any of those inner dialogue things to a child, to my future children, or to friends. I didn’t say them, would never have said them. So why was I saying them to myself?

    Changing the way I talked to myself inside my head changed my life. Now, it’s the first thing I teach clients who have this issue, and so many of us do.

    There was an interview with Albert Ellis in the New Yorker awhile back and it turns out he was a pistol in a lot of ways – it made me laugh because in fact, his personality in that interview was the perfect match for that evil voice I had eradicated from my head years earlier.

    These days I’m also teaching people EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), which a lot of folks refer to as “the tapping thing” – and thinking of them as a real power pack for clients.

  3. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Alex,I hate to say it, but boy am I glad you experience this too. I wondered after I posted if I was revealing some deep, dark secret that would freak people out.

    So what do you do when the voice gets too loud, too belligerent?

  4. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Billie,I suspected you’d have a comment or two on this .

    Is Ellis’ technique anything like cognitive therapy? I’ve used the latter for behavioral and mental work in the past, but this current challenge feels even more pervasive.

    I think you’ve hit it on the nose, though, on two counts:1. the necessity of a RELENTLESS counterattack2. the poignant realization that I’d never say the things I say to myself about my writing/career/accomplishing in my work — to my children, husband, friends or anyone else.

    BTW: I reason I first found Horney’s book is because a few days after my stepdad died (I was 19), I remember seeing a squirrel playing and I laughed. Another, stronger, inner voice said to me, “HOW DARE YOU LAUGH? YOU CAN’T LAUGH. YOU’RE GRIEVING.” I realized immediately that I was being my own worst enemy and had the smarts to get some help.

  5. Tom

    Pari, I think it means you’re sincere and conscientious and chosen by the gods when you hear those endless whispers.

    “If you pursue this career, if you follow this path, you will never know a moment’s peace again,” warned one beloved voice teacher. Oh, yes. Thirty-five years later, I still lash myself for not having practiced more, not having learned faster, not having had more of a vocal career.

    The Muses are harsh, harsh mistresses. Demigods in the Greek sense, insanity is one of the ‘gifts’ they inflict on their acolytes. Dionysus must have been their nephew.

    The only way I’ve found to shut off their whispers is to say, “yeah, today I failed; so sue me.” But I think I’ll look into Albert Ellis and EFT. Now the ‘failure’ thang is making too big a dent in my consciousness.

  6. JDRhoades

    Do I hear that voice? Do I ever. It comes from one of the biggest and heaviest of those big black birds that perch on my shoulder from time to time. And I know whose voice it sounds like, too, which is why I don’t think I’ll ever shake it.

    Alex, quitting writing won’t help. In fact, it’ll just make the voice louder. Hell, for me, even being between projects with nothing to write but blog posts and columns is making the son of a bitch cackle with glee.

    Only thing I know how to do is put my head down and keep going.

  7. Jake Nantz

    I used to, and to an extent I still do, but about more than just my writing. My wife admonishes me a lot of the time for the negative things I say to/about myself when I make a mistake, do something stupid, or I feel I haven’t done enough or well enough with whatever the current situation may be. So obviously I haven’t “beaten” it. I’m also egotistical enough that I prop myself up with that to fight it.

    I know that sounds terrible, but it’s what I’ve found that works. I am a terribly cynical person because of that voice you’re describing. It’s gotten me to the point that I often battle it by just not caring, shrugging it off. I’ve found that a dialogue like this one usually shuts it up for me:

    Neg. Voice – “Why the hell did you do it that way? what were you thinking? Don’t you know any better than that?!?”

    Me – “Yep, you’re right. All knowing and everything else…but then again, you don’t matter. So shove it.”

    N.V. – “You’re the one that doesn’t matter, and if you keep screwing up like this, it’ll stay that way.”

    Me – “I may not matter to you, but I matter to [insert friend, wife, family member]. You don’t matter to me, and I’m the only one who can hear you. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.”

    N.V. – “….”

    Now I’m sure a professional shrink could have a field day with that, but between an exchange like that and using my own (unsupported) ego to combat a crippling sense of self-doubt, it works for me.

    Please understand, Ms. Taichert, I wouldn’t suggest trying this way but as a last resort, because it’s made me falsely confident and horribly bitter. But I do still make it through each day, so…. Meh, I dunno. Grain of salt, and all that.

  8. Jen

    Have you read “The Courage to Write” by Ralph Keyes? That’s what I dig out time and again when the voice gets too loud.

  9. Jake Nantz

    Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the worst part is this: I can at least laugh at myself and be self-deprecating and somewhat humorous (I hope) right now. But if I ever do anything worthy of meeting the voice’s approval and stroking that unsupported and narcissitic ego–say get something published, for example–I’ll be damn near unbearable.

  10. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Tom,I think you’re right about the Muses and their darker side.

    Sometimes they feel akin to the Furies.

    I like your response to yourself, but wonder about that “failure” thing to which you refer. Though I never feel like I’m doing enough, I have been careful to flood myself with messages that focus on my larger accomplishments. It may sound weird, but it’s the day-to-day, hour-to-hour voice that is the most unproductive.

  11. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Dusty,I know what you mean about NOT writing; it’s the worst thing you can do. And, it has to be “creative” writing for me; nonfiction just doesn’t do the trick.

    Like you, I just keep going. But I’m sick and tired of feeding myself such negative messages and, if I can, I’d like to muzzle at least some of them.

  12. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Jake,I read both of your comments before responding and I’m glad I did.

    Your approach is fascinating and I’m glad it works for you much of the time. For me, that conversation would be giving the NV more power than I want to.

    I know I do respond and that’s part of the problem. It’s kind of like when some proselytizer comes to the door; do I answer or put a big sign outside saying that he or she is not welcome?

    I’m interested in learning how to do the latter. I don’t even want to have to answer the door in the first place.

    AND, may you have the challenge of having to deal with the mega-ego when you get published . . . that’s my wish for you today.

  13. Louise Ure

    Remember when Ken Bruen wrote about his daughter, Grace, writing diary entries before they happened? “My Dad took me to McDonalds today and I got an ice cream.” Wish fulfillment come true.

    I do the opposite. Instead of a to do list at the beginning of a day, I wait until the end and write the list of things I accomplished. Then I title it “To Do” and make myself feel grand.

  14. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Taichert,I thank you so much for your wish for me, but I do want to make one thing totally clear: I already deal with my mega-ego, and he and I are buds. Should something happen that gives him/me reason to be egotistical, I feel absolutely fabulous. It’s everyone around me that suffers, not me. In other words, you guys would be the ones talking amongst yourselves at parties (or virtual ones, like the one Mr. Rhoades had…samshing good time, btw), saying things like, “Wow, he really is in love with himself…I thought it was just a summer thing….” I’ve seen me when something like that happens, and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone who did just that, either.

    For you, I pray for you to discover how to hang that sign out, but I fear it may not be possible. I think that voice is either you, or someone close to you, and will always know how to get in. I think what you put up with before putting them in their place is what you may have to focus on. But if there is a way to shut them out completely, I will say a prayer for you to find it. God bless.

  15. billie

    Pari, it is cognitive tx. I’m not really a cog/beh. type of gal, in my personal work or my work as a therapist, but when I found the Albert Ellis book I was in a very rough time of my life and going to 3x/week psychodynamic psychotherapy. While the tx was certainly, absolutely, helping, it had not touched that inner dialogue. (which, by the way does come from somewhere and often someONE, and that was the focus of my 3x/week tx).

    The beauty of the rational-emotive technique is that it gives the power to the person using it and doesn’t depend on resolving past issues or having access to lots of tx, or whatever else.

    The key is to DO IT. As simple and as hokey as it sounds, if you write out the statements you want to replace the negative ones with, and keep them with you, so you can counter the neg. stuff with something you chose with love and care and intention, and you do it every single time, it will work.

    The caveat is – for most of us, those negative self-thoughts have been there a LONG time. Replacing them to the degree that they become automatic will take some time too. Not as long, by any means. But you have to be relentless, and you have to make it a priority.

    There are few promises I ever make to clients but this is one I make – if you do this, and you do it relentlessly, it will change your life for the better. I did it myself and I have watched many people do it with nothing but success.

    In a way, it’s like you’re re-parenting yourself. And I suspect the fact that it’s a choice and something done (in my case, it absolutely was done) out of self-preservation, it has a huge amount of power.

    I know I sound like a zealot – but I think it’s because no one taught me this in graduate school. I dug it out from a dusty book in a university library at a time when I was sinking fast. And it worked. And I’ve seen it work so many times I can’t believe we don’t teach it in kindergarten.

    Funny aside – as I was typing this my laptop zonked out with a long warning signal beep and went to a black screen. I had to restart everything. But somehow, it went back to the comment screen and miraculously, my comment was intact in the box. I have never had that happen before!

    A little magic for a Monday. 🙂

  16. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Billie,I became a convert to cognitive therapy about 20 years ago when I noticed a behavior I wanted to change and didn’t want to spend months and months trying to figure out its origin.

    I carried a tiny notebook with me and whenever I had certain thoughts, I wrote them down, identified the thinking pattern from which they originated (jumping to conclusions, making assumptions etc) and then wrote down positive, counter responses to them.

    I did it RELENTLESSLY and saw a change quite quickly.

    Sounds like I’m due for a tune-up with this particular issue (it wasn’t one I dealt with back then).

    I’ll still look for Ellis’ book.

  17. billie

    I’m preaching to the choir… 🙂

    It’s basically the same thing you did with your notebook.

    And… I have a very strong feeling that my propensity to find the magic so frequently is because that damned inner voice is not in the way.

    (not to say I don’t have my little demons, I do.. but I have some tricks up my sleeve now and when I make sure to use them, they work)

  18. Jen

    I like “The Courage to Write” because it gives me permission to be anxious (regarding that “should” voice). It lets me know that MANY successful authors have battled the same demons and offers hope without offering empty platitudes.

    If you’re into cognitive therapy, Eric Maisel’s “Write Mind” is super simplistic but a good reminder to keep rewriting the scripts that play in our heads.

  19. Naomi

    You lost me at cognitive. . . .

    I will say this–it is hard for an already published author to write without an external deadline. Terribly hard–for the emotional reasons you sited. This is the time when you show yourself what you are made of. And I don’t mean “doing” stuff to further your career, but mining deep and challenging yourself to explore new territories. It’s incredibly painful and dark and scary. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think that you can get around it, unfortunately.

  20. Tom Barclay

    “Sometimes they feel akin to the Furies,” said Pari.

    Bacchantes, in this case, I think. Or vampires, feeding on our joy. All these archetypes come from shared experiences we’ve had since before the tower of Babel.

    Screw ’em all. I’ll do the next scene when I have the peace of mind to do it, and not a moment before. Gotta bring home the tofu, take out the garbage, clean the litterbox . . .

  21. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Billie,You’ve written many inspirational things, but today’s comment:

    “I have a very strong feeling that my propensity to find the magic so frequently is because that damned inner voice is not in the way.”

    Illustrates why I want to address this in my professional life.

    Thank you.

  22. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Jen,I’ve found the idea of “reframing” useful in the same way that Maisel’s “rescripting” probably is.

    I’m interested in that Courage book, however, because it has brough you such a good perspective.

  23. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Naomi,If what you write is true, I must be made of tough stuff indeed; I haven’t had a single external deadline vis a vis my fiction since day 1.

    As to cognitive . . . I don’t believe we lost you for a minute.

  24. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Tom,Yeah, it comes down to that anyway, no? We do what we can whether the voices nudge or inhibit.

    I’m off to practice my Tae Kwon Do forms for an hour and then I’ll be back to see if anyone else has something to add to this conversation.

    It’s been truly fascinating so far.

  25. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Taichert,(sorry, I know I’m routinely long-winded)Again I am praying the sign will work. Here’s why I’m not too confident, though: you mentioned the proselytizers at the door you were hoping to ignore using a sign. I often equate them with the door-to-door salesmen who sell “cards with discount coupons” or “these wonderful fragrances” of cheap cologne, or whatever.

    Well, I spent one day (fresh out of college, couldn’t find crap) when I was desperate for money ‘training’ with a group of them to do this. It opened my eyes. We were taking a mid-day break and I was wondering what the hell I was doing there.

    Now, I promise I’m not an overly-judgmental person, but this group had the collective intelligence of algae. Dead algae. I knew already that I didn’t belong there, that I could find SOMETHING else, even if it was working this type of job with a different crew, because these kids were the bottom of the barrel and I felt I could do better.

    Anyway, the only girl of the group was recounting how she had managed three sales to a place that didn’t allow soliciting; even had a sign out front that said ‘No Solicitors.’ When she went for sale #4, and the guy balked and told her of the sign, she said she’d lied and told him, “Oh, I just thought it said no smoking,” with a smile. Had I been that guy, I can tell you I would have immediately (right or wrong) responded, “That’s probably why you’re doing what you are instead of doing more with your life…because you can’t read.”

    But it stuck with me that 1)she was so proud of herself for blowing right past that little sign and still getting a few sales, and 2)the ones inside still bought from her, either because they really wanted what she had, or because they were shocked the sign didn’t work and couldn’t say no to her spiel.

    See, I worry you’ll put your sign out, and the NV will blow right past. Then you still have to talk to him, and tell him he needs to learn how to read your sign before he can even be important enough to occupy your time, and until then he should go fuck himself, provided he can find a book with small enough words and detailed enough pictures that he can figure out how. Know what I mean?

    Regardless, I will continue to pray for it to work for you, but if not, I will pray for you to find a way that does.

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    You are not alone. Oh boy, you are SO not alone. But writing is a compulsion. It’s something you have to do. Don’t give up on it!

    Once I’ve got past the start of a book, I usually set monthly targets – realistic ones – rather than daily ones. I tried doing ‘so many words a day’ and if you miss your target just ONCE you’re plunged into despair. With a monthly amount to go at, if you have a bad day and write nothing, you can spread the loss out over the rest of the month. And if you have a really good day, the words-a-day for the rest of the month comes down.

    Then, of course, at the end of the book I make a ruthless pass and cut out all that extra waffle from the days when I was struggling.

    Everyone has their own little tricks and ticks, but that one keeps me on track.

  27. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Jake,#1. Since I’m calling you by your first name, feel free to return the informality.

    #2. You forget I’m almost a black belt. In my noninterior life, when someone blows past the sign, he or she doesn’t get very far. I have no problem being a hardas* when I need to.

    Now, if I could just apply that same attitude to the “voice,” I’d be in great shape.

  28. JT Ellison

    So late today… Yeah. I hear ya. Self-imposed deadlines are hard. Theyre great when you have nothing at stake, but when you need to turn out the books in a timely manner, they suck. I like having a hard stop. Usually.

    When I can’t find my voice, when I can’t get my ass in gear, I read John Connolly. It’s like hours of therapy. Bizarre, but it gets me back on track. The trick is knowing when to throw up my hands, and relax, read, get my head back. Because I’m at that point that if I’m not working I’m feeling guilty.

    It will end. All things do.

  29. R.J. Mangahas

    Pari — I run into that voice a lot and boy does it bug the hell out of me. I really wish there was a way to shut it off (like a switch or something). One of the things that helps me sometimes is to do something like take a walk or ride my bike. I like to think after that the voice will be too tired to open it’s big mouth.

  30. cara

    Great provoker of thought, Patty…you certainly touched a nerve here. I think Naomi said it well about going to the deep dark painful places and hard work…there’s that quote can’t remember by who…writing is sitting down and opening a vein. But for those times there’s the rare time when it flows like melting silver, a perfect word, a glance, a captured essence, And a day of frustration, tearing out hair becomes a perfect paragraph.

  31. Pari Noskin Taichert

    JT,I like the idea of sort of changing the voice by reading writers we love.

    But, when that snotty little voice, the one that demands I do Do DO! and says that NOTHING IS ENOUGH! When that one is active, reading the people I adore makes me feel insufficient rather than talented.

    Welcome to a vicious circle.

    Thank goodness I don’t fall into the depths of despond too frequently.

    Usually the voice I’m talking about is active but not screaming.

  32. Pari Noskin Taichert

    R.J.,Yeah, exercise always helps put things into perspective for me — maybe because of the reason you mention; the voice is just too exhausted to nag for a while.

    I think I’m going to take a strong stab at the cognitive technique though. If I make progress, I’ll write about it in a future blog.

  33. Jake Nantz

    Fair enough. Pari, I have no doubt someone physical that is stupid enough to blow past the sign would receive a series of swift kicks that would be later reported as, “He fell.”

    But, if the voice ignores the sign in the same way, well….I hope he ‘falls.’

  34. Karen

    Pari, terrific post. And such a relief to know I’m not the only one who does this. Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Way” deals with challenging one’s inner dialogue, and when I consistently do so, I notice an enormous change. When I slack off, though, that mean little voice worms her way back in.

    Here’s my favorite little trick. In “Simple Abundance,” the author says, “If the thought brings you no peace, it’s not your authentic self talking.” My authentic self, see, is just wonderful – sweet, generous and kind. I picture the mean self-talk as parasites hanging all over her. So when I remind myself that that mean thoughts aren’t my authentic self, they lose their power and slide right off. Okay, yeah, I might have to remind myself four times in ten minutes, but ahhhh … that feeling of relief when the voice is chased away. Then I can get back to remembering that this writing thing is supposed to be fun.

  35. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Karen,What great imagery. Really effective, I bet.

    You know what I use in a different context? I envision knots on string holding me to things I want to release. Then I see myself untying those knots and with each loosened thread, I feel freer. I wonder if I could apply this to that voice.


  36. billie

    Pari, just got back to this, late, and see you’ve really struck a chord with so many of us.

    Did you all get together and decide to do a sweeps week here on Murderati? 🙂 It’s just one fabulous post after another!

  37. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Billie,You’re too sweet.

    This has been an exceptional week, hasn’t it? Sometimes I’m just so incredibly grateful to have this forum and community within which to grow, share and learn.


  38. Stacey Cochran

    My crippling inner voice is equally insidious. It’s a negative this-career-choice-was-a-total-mistake voice that points to the nearly 11 unpublished novels, over 1,500,000 words, and not one piece of fiction professionally published.

    Some days when I start to write it feels like sheer lunacy.

  39. Pari Noskin Taichert

    “Sheer lunacy”

    Yeah, I know what you mean, Stacey. We all have signposts that we erect, the I’ll-know-I’m-a-success-when ends that rarely are met on our proposed timelines. However, I AM convinced they’ll be met eventually. It’s a matter of hanging in there.



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