When You Can’t Bring Yourself To Do Writing

One of my clients had a beautiful, near-finished book that wasn’t getting done.

Every day he’d have the document open on his laptop. Every day he’d answer emails, read, surf the net and do anything else but write.

The more he was under pressure from himself and his university to finish the book, the less he was able to make progress. The less he was able to make progress, the more his confidence about his ideas and his writing plummeted. And the more that happened, the more he retreated into himself.

The feeling was of being immobilized.

He knew he ‘should’ be writing but couldn’t bring himself to do it. And his not writing fuelled a spiralling story of shame and blame. 

Pulled away from writing

If this is recognizable, know that you’re not alone in the academic world.

Many people who went into academia for the love of writing (or partially for this) also experience avoidance or agitation in relation to it. And this can come to weigh really heavily, as it did for my client.

I find it helpful to approach such situations by journeying with the nervous system – and by ‘journeying’ I mean both observing and siding with this part of our biology.

This often works, first, to create understanding and, second, to interrupt a negative spiral and make writing more doable again.

Journeying with the nervous system

Your autonomic nervous system regulates involuntary body processes, including heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and digestion – processes that keep you alive.

It also constantly scans the environment for cues of danger and safety. Based on what it picks up, it looks after your survival by alternating between three autonomic states:

1. The ventral vagal state of safety & connection

2. The sympathetic state of fight or flight

3. The dorsal vagal state of withdrawal or immobilization

As humans, like other mammals, we thrive in a state of safety and connection: our ‘home’ is in the ventral vagal state.

When our system senses danger and a need for self-protection it shifts – and this goes on beyond, and before, our conscious assessment of a situation. It takes us into fight or flight, and then, if this is not enough, into withdrawal or immobilization.

When it senses enough cues of safety, our system takes us back ‘home’ to the ventral vagal state.

Writing and cues of danger

If working on your writing brings up an agitated energy of fight/flight, or the sensation that you want to hide or can’t move, your nervous system has concluded that writing isn’t safe.

And fair enough.

For one thing, like all creative work, it’s inherently uncertain.

The novelist Elizabeth Gilbert talks about her writing as ‘fear, creativity and I going on a road trip together’: that edge of unfamiliarity possibly equalling danger is always there. The same things that make academic work exciting – stepping on unfamiliar ground, making discoveries or new kinds of sense, developing alternative ways of thinking – can tip your system into self-protection.

There’s also this:

Universities are not structured to make faculty feel safe and secure. Universities function consistently with a clear and objective evaluative model in which ideas and papers are continuously scrutinized. Evaluative models, when chronic, shift physiological state to support defense. The physiological states that support defense are incompatible with those that support creativity and expansive theories.

Those words are from Stephen Porges, an expert in autonomic physiology and advocate for more nervous-system-friendly ways of designing our institutions and interactions.

What Porges describes matches the common experience that being scrutinized and evaluated on your writing makes it harder to do. In a state of fight/flight, withdrawal or immobilization, your system has other priorities than allowing ideas and words to flow.

For these and other reasons, academic writing is an *interesting* situation for your nervous system. And feeling pulled away from writing makes perfect sense.

Journeying back to safety & connection

Simply resting in that point of ‘this makes perfect sense’ can already provide some relief.

And there’s more that’s hopeful about this perspective:

While your nervous system takes you into a self-protective mode when it senses the need, it doesn’t intend for you to stay there. It scans for the way ‘home’, back to safety & connection.

This is the journey my client went on.

In our work together, he found that feeling immobilized did not mean that an experience of safety & connection with writing was no longer available to him.

His imagination and his body knew how to get back there. So, over a number of coaching sessions, we followed that trail.

It really felt like a journeying ‘home’, as my client gradually remembered and returned to that place where writing feels good – the place from which he’d started his academic career.

The external pressures to finish his book didn’t disappear. But my client found a way to be with his own writing that did not require defending against these pressures.

Writing became writing again, a creative and intellectual labour he’d always enjoyed and felt ownership over. Once he could get back there, it wasn’t long before he finished his book.

A short practice for inviting a bit more safety

Here’s a practice you can try at times when you can’t bring yourself to do writing. I often use versions of this with clients and myself:

  1. Let go of all effort to get to your writing for a moment. Imagine what might be going on with your nervous system. Has my nervous system taken me into a state of self-protection? Are there signs that this might be the case? Don’t make any meaning out of this, the point is just to check and notice.
  2. If the answer is yes, see if you can bring some kind curiosity to what is happening. Does it feel like fight or flight, immobilization or withdrawal? Specifically, what bodily sensations do I notice, and where in my body are these located? {Curiosity is a quality that promotes a return to the state of safety & connection, so you’re already preparing a shift here.}
  3. Take one or two actions to make yourself a little more comfortable here and now. Think small and easy to arrange: a hot or cold drink, a blanket, some stretching or movement or touch, some breathing, some tidying of your space, a pleasant smell, etc. {For the body, comfort and safety are related. So again, you’re creating cues of safety here.}

Now gently turn to your writing, as if to check with your nervous system if enough safety has been provided to work on it for a bit.

If you’re good to go, go gently and compassionately. If not, what’s another small thing you can do to increase comfort and safety just a bit?

You’ll have noticed my emphasis on small, incremental moves here. And this is a process of tinkering, to discover what works experientially.

The bottom line: safety is a creative and intellectual priority

My client hadn’t lost his access to a state of being in which writing is doable and enjoyable. Neither have you.

Journeying with your nervous system means bringing awareness and kindness to a situation that is challenging, and then inviting more safety into it.

You can’t go wrong by treating safety as a creative and intellectual priority.

with love,

Catelijne

PS: If you’re interested in getting coached by me to help improve your writing life, consider scheduling a free exploratory session.

Sources: This understanding of the nervous system comes from Polyvagal Theory, the work of Stephen Porges. The quote from Porges above is in The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe, 2017, p. 42. I’m also indebted to clinician Deb Dana’s audio-programme Befriending Your Nervous System: Looking Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory (an intro is here); my language of ‘journeying’ with the nervous system is a variation on her ‘befriending’. Elizabeth Gilbert on going on a road trip with creativity and fear is in the book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, 2015, pp. 24-26.

Image credit: Daria Nepriakhina at Unsplash

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Catelijne Coopmans

Catelijne Coopmans

Life coach, interdisciplinary scholar, advocate for inspired paths in and beyond academia.

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for calling forth authentic strength and unapologetic expression in your practices of writing and  living.

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