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Not Writing? Have You Ego-Trapped Yourself?

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If you’re in a non-writing phase and frustrated, several recent Writer Unboxed posts might speak to your lack of production. They address the seasonal nature of writing careers, the need to respect creative limitations, and how to cope when life gets in the way.

This is all well and good. I support this advice one hundred percent.

But what if, as per Kelsey Allagood’s recent post, some part of you knows fatigue and overwhelm aren’t your issue? What if somehow, despite a calendar that could be cleared and an express desire to write, your efforts can best be described as lackluster? What if encouragement doesn’t help but only deepens your shame and guilt?

Part of you knows you’ve been pulled into a self-destructive and self-sabotaging loop, yet you can’t figure out how to stop.

I’ve been here. It was a nasty experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Thankfully, I worked myself out of it and learned some Jedi mind tricks that have thus far prevented a recurrence. Knock wood.

But recently I stumbled across an evolutionary psychology podcast that might have spared me a good amount of suffering. It explained:

  1. the psychological dynamic at work, dubbed the Ego Trap by Dr. Doug Lisle
  2. why certain circumstances turn self-sabotage into a very sensible strategy, and
  3. potential methods to escape it, or avoid entrapment altogether.

Today, I’d like to paraphrase Dr. Lisle’s theory, then describe how I see it applying to the writing world.

So This Hunter Walks Onto a Plain…

Let’s begin with a story set back in the Stone Age, when evolution shaped humanity’s current brain structure.

Imagine you are an able-bodied male and you’ve just reached the age of sexual maturity. You’re familiar with hunting implements and tactics, and you’ve participated in endless hunting parties with the other men of the village. Until now, between your size and talents, you have served in a supportive role.

Then one day, your spear flies true. You bring down the biggest, baddest beastie of them all.

Tradition demands that your contribution be honored. During tonight’s feast, you are served first, even before the village potentate. And your portion is enormous. Easily the biggest of your life.

Further, your social situation has improved. When you look around the fire, meat juices dribbling down your chin, men eye you with hitherto unfamiliar respect. And a whole cadre of previously inaccessible females are suddenly willing to flirt.

Why the change? Well, from an evolutionary perspective, today’s success signifies you might carry valuable genes their offspring can inherit, and that you’ll be a capable provider to your family and your community.

The Hijacked Brain

Evolutionary psychology says that your brain is an unsentimental cost-benefit calculator. In any given situation at any given time, it looks at available options and chooses the path which optimizes for survival and reproduction. (NOT for happiness, you’ll note, though sometimes happiness and evolutionary priorities can coexist.)

Q: So when the next hunting opportunity arises, how should you react?

A: That depends.

If you are confident in your hunting abilities, you’ll likely be eager to replicate your impressive performance. You’ll do this despite the risks of being trampled or gored because the extended mating and trading opportunities are too substantial to pass up.

If you’re less confident, you’ll be slower to pick up your spear—and perhaps more cautious in its use—but you’ll probably still abide by social norms and participate in the hunt.

But what if part of you thinks your success wasn’t earned? What if you tripped as your spear left your hand, or past athletic efforts indicate that you aren’t that coordinated or talented? Some part of you attributes your success to sheer dumb luck, and you hold little hope of a spontaneous recurrence.

What’s the smart response then?

From a happiness perspective, we should probably go on the hunt while acknowledging our limitations, and help out as we’re able. Then we can work on our self-actualization elsewhere, perhaps in an arena that proves useful to the village, like inventing a more effective spear.

From the evolutionary perspective, however, the only calculus that makes sense is to hang onto your unearned status for as long as possible, using that “stolen” time to gain extra survival resources or impregnate another high-quality female.

That’s why we carry genetic programing that will quietly suggest a delaying strategy. Be exposed for your mediocrity another day, it will urge you. Funnily enough, circumstances will often conspire to assist. (Important: It’s not necessary for this to be a conscious decision. In fact, it often isn’t.)

For example, the night before the next hunt and while puffed up with pride, elation and booze, you’ll show off your dancing skills for a young maiden. Unfortunately, you wrench your knee during the performance and are forced to stay back.

Or riddled with anxiety over the upcoming reckoning, your appetite turns ravenous. You overeat or you dig into a store of dodgy food, meaning that when it’s time to set out the next morning, you’re too busy puking out your guts.

Even if you manage to attend the hunt, your ill health explains your subpar results.

Or perhaps you’ll hang back, leaving the killing blow to a younger hunter. After all, you’re a mentor now! The keen lad deserves an opportunity to shine…

This is ego-trapping. This is the process of self-handicapping and self-sabotage that delays a public reckoning around unearned status. It is an evolutionarily sound strategy, and it often comes at the expense of personal fulfillment.

Once alert to the mechanism of ego-trapping, you’ll see it everywhere.

In the middle-school jock who acts out in the music room with his saxophone, honking and squealing rather than settling into any real effort.

In the friend who ardently pursues a line of professional study, then fails to set her alarm the night before the exam.

One of my favorite literary examples comes from Pride and Prejudice, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh says, “There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”

In Writing, the Ego Trap Can Look Like This:

  • When we keep ourselves so busy with other pursuits that we can’t find time to write. This might include efforts that earn us status in the writing community, such as taking non-stop writing classes and participating with great alacrity.
  • We blow off a reasonable deadline by waiting until the last minute to write, then put together a suboptimal offering.
  • Even if we finish a manuscript, we never settle on an agent or send it off for critique.
  • If we overcome all the above and get to the point of publication, we can violate the publisher’s ethics clause, so they yank our book at the last possible moment. (Evolution says it’s better to be thought an unreliable a**hole than be confirmed an untalented one.)

Situations That Enable Ego-Trapping:

  • You’ve been granted unfair status by being related to someone who rightfully earned theirs, the assumption being you’ve inherited their talented DNA. (E.g. Your name is Toni Morrison II)
  • Someone somewhere publicly labeled you as gifted or talented, so that anything short of a triumphal bestseller will be seen as a Great Disappointment. For instance, I’ve seen promising writers become paralyzed after well-intentioned praise by writing teachers. (Important: if someone is ego-trapped, compliments often backfire by upping the stakes of public status loss, causing them to double-down on self-sabotage.)
  • Your last publication was met with substantial success, but you believe its reception was due to factors beyond your control such as its topic being usually timely.
  • You’ve been writing the same book for many years, so an assumption has built (in you or in those who support you emotionally, financially or otherwise) that this story must be a Very Big Deal.

Digging Ourselves Out from Under

How do you prevent yourself from becoming ego-trapped, and if you’re already there, how do you extricate yourself?

First, as much as possible, diminish the public nature of potential failure, and therefore the public stakes. For example, you might:

  • Give yourself permission to write under a pseudonym. You can always change your mind later. (This is the only way I’m able to persuade myself to finish novels. Weirdly, once they are done, I’m fine to claim them and their reception, however it works out.)
  • Beyond a few trusted people who won’t gush over your efforts, don’t tell people you are writing. Yes, this runs contrary to conventional advice about building a platform, but if you are susceptible to being ego-trapped, it’s more important to protect the muse than to build hype. You can work on publicity later, once you’re convinced you have a solid story to promote.
  • If the cat’s already out of the bag, work to lower expectations. When people inquire about your writing, exemplify modesty. (“It’s something I do for fun and fulfillment. If it turns into anything more, I’ll be shocked and thrilled.”)
  • When appropriate, educate them about the realistic probability of external success. (This recent post by Jim Dempsey provides harsh numerical truth about what you can expect in conventional or indie publishing realms.)

Surround yourself with the right people. Namely, those who can provide traditional “attagirl” encouragement when required, but who intuitively understand the Ego Trap, and that effusive or generous compliments will likely backfire. For me, these are people who tell me truthfully and kindly when my writing is substandard, thus protecting me from public humiliation. They also acknowledge the writing path is hard, and that one’s best efforts are no guarantee of success.

Redefine success for yourself, making it about effort and enjoyment rather than outcome. In other words, internalize it.

In terms of productivity, it’s important to keep your expectations of yourself so low that they border on the insulting—e.g. “I will be successful if I write 10 words a day for three days a week”—the hope being that love for the process or project will take over and maybe lead you to write 50.

While we’re on the subject of joy, approach your efforts with a sense of curiosity and/or playfulness.  (“I wonder what would happen if I messed with this idea on the sly…”) When you’re reaping immediate rewards via the writing process, external validation feels less important.

Lastly, detach from the outcome by depersonalizing and diluting it.

Professional athletes make the best models of this process. They’ve clearly been coached by sports psychologists to avoid ego-entrapment. Watch them; during any post-game or post-performance commentary, they will attribute the results to a combination of personal effort, group support, and circumstances that lie outside their control.

For example, imagine your favorite athlete has just started writing fiction, and the press gets wind of it. They’d likely say something like this: “Yeah, it’s true that I’m noodling around on a story. But they say it takes ten years for the average writer to get published, so let’s just see how it goes.”

And when the news breaks that they sold their novel for a bazillion dollars: “Yeah, I’m grateful to the fantastic team at Penguin for taking a chance on me. But it’s a competitive market and a lot of work lies ahead of us.”

In the run-up to publication, when the publicity machine is working overtime: “Yeah, it’s exciting that people are interested in reading my story. Me and my team worked hard to prepare. Guess we’ll see if it all comes together for the greater public.”

If the book is a runaway success: “Yeah, we went out and gave it our all and it just came together for us. I’m absolutely humbled by the book’s reception.”

On the sophomore book’s publication: “We gave it our best effort and I truly hope people will enjoy it. But every story’s reception is different so we’ll see how it works out.”

If the book’s sales were dismal and they are asked about their writing plans: “Yeah, we went out and gave it our best but it just didn’t gel this time. Going forward, we’ll be looking at feedback and deciding on next steps.”

Now over to you, Unboxeders. Have you been ego-trapped in your writing? If so, what allowed you to free yourself?

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