Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Self-Talk and Self-Sabotage

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 14, 2009

If you’ve read The War of Art, you know that the thematic core of the book is the concept of Resistance. Resistance with a capital R, which the book defines as “an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”

Resistance is what keeps an entrepreneur from making the cold calls he knows he has to, to get his business rolling. It’s the force that keeps an aspiring painter away from her studio, or makes a writer back off from the blank page. Resistance stops us from going to the gym, from meditating, from donating our time to a cause we believe in.

That’s what Resistance is. But how do we experience it? What form does it take? How does Resistance manifest itself in our lives?

Resistance comes as a voice in our heads

The voice tells us not to work today and it gives us a reason. Our daughter’s dance recital starts at seven; this headache is killing us; the boss wants us to organize the Penske file.

This is not self-talk, it’s self-sabotage.

The difference between self-talk and self-sabotage

Self-talk is positive. It’s the coach or best friend in our heads. Self-talk sounds like this:

“Okay, that’s enough screwing around … let’s go! Crank ‘er up, buddy.”

Self-talk is our #1 self psyching up our #2. In movie terms, it’s our producer kicking our writer’s butt. On the football field, it’s forty-five bouncing, helmet-banging maniacs gathering in a circle. shouting, “One, two, three … Dominate!”

Self-talk can be Gandhi, it can be Patton; it can be Julia Child. “A slice of blueberry cheesecake tonight if you finish Act Two.” Self-talk is the opposite of self-sabotage.

Self-talk is an act of the will

Self-talk is consciously generated. Its aim is to overcome inertia, to push through Resistance. Self-talk is an act of will. It costs effort. It hurts.

Self-talk is masculine in the sense that it’s the Act of Thrust seeking to generate a response from the fertile Creative Field.

That field is our lazy-ass selves. “Put down that bottle, turn off that TV, get your sorry butt into that studio.” Self-talk is the starter that gets our engine going.

A definition of sabotage

Sabotage comes from the French word “sabot,” which means wooden shoe. When industrialization began stealing jobs from workers in Europe, the factory hands used to take off their sabots and chuck them into the gears of the machinery.

Resistance is when we, as artists and entrepreneurs, throw our own shoes into our own machinery.

My personal rule of thumb

I hear the same voices in my head that you do. We all hear them. The trick to doing our work is to listen to the good voice and tell the bad voice to go to hell.

In my opinion, the bad voice isn’t even us. It fools us. Because we hear it in our heads, we mistake it for our own legitimate thought. But it’s not. That voice isn’t us. It’s Resistance.

Once we make that critical distinction, we cease being amateurs. We become professionals.

When we can hear the voice in our heads that’s trying to distract us, deter us, derail us, and recognize it as Resistance–then it loses its power over us. We can see through it. We’re not going to believe its bullshit.

What do we do? We dismiss it. We refuse to grant it legitimacy.

That doesn’t mean we don’t go to our daughter’s recital. Hey, we’re not robots. But when we go, we resolve to carve out an extra hour sometime tomorrow or the next day and save those sixty minutes for our work.

Now that’s self-talk.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

14 Responses to “Self-Talk and Self-Sabotage”

  1. Paul S.
    October 14, 2009 at 3:20 am

    You split the bull’s eye, dead on. Thank you, Sir.

  2. October 14, 2009 at 7:46 am

    So that’s what I’ve been listening to all this time!

    Thank you for this post. My self-talk insists that I turn off computer now and take a refreshing and exercising walk and then come back and Write.

    The other one says, “No!” You can do it tomorrow.

    Going out now, see you later!

  3. October 14, 2009 at 9:33 am

    So consoled by Elizabeth Gilbert saying the voice in her head kept saying “This sucks! This sucks! This sucks!” as she wrote Eat, Pray, Love

  4. October 14, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    The War of Art changed my writing life (at age 60). Thanks so much for your insight. It’s all so simple – not easy – but simple.

    Thanks for your amazing insight!

  5. October 14, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Mr. Pressfield,

    It is very easy to act against Resistance once you have detected it. The big issue is being capable of identifying when SHE is working. That is, I’m afraid, the problem for most of the people (me first). Bless they that have found their inner voice and noticed the differences between it and the voice of resistance.

  6. Johnmark7
    October 15, 2009 at 1:42 am

    This is true but also nonsensical.

    I love going to work. I always have. Especially when I have hope my creative work will pay. But since I’ve become a complete failure, it takes everything to twist my arm to produce work that nobody values except for me.

    When successful people complain about producing work, the problem of avoidance and procrastination, the likely reason is that they’re doing it because it is work and not pleasure.

    Oftentimes, a man reaches an age when he is the master of his trade or craft, and everything after that is all work and mostly a kind of bore. It’s repeating himself. And the scale of work is rather shallow.

    For example, Pressfield can’t produce work as good as Shakespeare, and he’s given up trying, so where does that leave him? At a lower level where he’s not doing anything both challenging and exciting in terms of learning and developing.

    I don’t mean this as an insult to Stephen, but as something he’d recognize as true. He doesn’t write as well as Shakespeare, and he’s probably doesn’t want to. It’s not what he’s chasing.

    My point, though, is that if you’re not striving for the greatest level of excellence, you will find your work damn boring and a slog.

    And if you do reach the highest level of excellence at some point, where do you go from there? Again, you start repeating yourself, and that’s a bore even if you’re Bach or Shakespeare.

  7. October 15, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Totally agree – have been self-talking for ages as a means of over coming that ‘resistance’ but never really thought too much about the process til now – was doing so well until I got to the Julia Childs bit and now I can’t get her voice out of my head (Julie & Julia ads are all over the place here at the moment) – now every time I try to self-talk, it comes out as Julie Childs and I just crack myself up…!

    Seriously, though, where we talk about soldiers needing to be able to self-lead as a fundamental skill to deal with complexity (unlike the good old Fulda Gap where it was justa case of ‘follow someone else’), discussions like this are valuable to start capturing some of the things that we may have been doing instinctively – as above, I’ve had an ongoing internal monologue for years as a means of motivating myself or pushing myself that last mile but would have had trouble articulating the technique to anyone else til now…

  8. PG Moore
    October 15, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Your article is very motivating. You hit the nail on the head. You have made me aware that I am a slave of Resistance much of the time. I have fooled myself into thinking that I can keep putting things off and they’ll still get done. Resistance is a cruel taskmaster.

    I was on a roll, quickly reading point after point, until I came across this sentence: We’re not going to believe its bullshit. After that I was totally distracted. I wondered, why would someone who writes as colorfully as you have to resort to the word “bullshit?” As wonderful as your writing is, I know you could have found a less distracting way to make your final point.

    I always find it disappointing after becoming engrossed in a ‘read’ to be slapped in the face with language that is, in my opinion, base and coarse (usually writers excuse their use of such words as staying true to the character. Who were you being true to? There is no one who would have been distracted or rattle if you’d continued to use clean speech).

    But, I do thank you for putting it near the end so that I could read the entire thing even though I did become wary. Your article was engrossing. Very. Thank you for the motivation. But, maybe you can re-write that last line of that paragraph. : )

    Warmest,
    Pgmoore

  9. October 16, 2009 at 4:06 am

    I am One who is extremely grateful for your putting into words, publishing, and giving a name to Resistance. I am over 50 years of age and have been walking around with “mist perception” (a phrase I like to use indicating that a haze has been surrounding me, causing my inner vision to be extremely unclear).
    I AM an artist, who has been living an extremely dualistic life. I have been trying to force myself into a box simply because life (Resistance) dictated I had to conform to the viewpoint of another. Since reading “War of Art” I am FREE and living life as the artist I am~and I will never look back.
    Thank you hardly seems an adequate expression of my appreciation, but I will say it anyway
    *Thank you*

  10. October 18, 2009 at 2:41 am

    Yesterday I experimented by keeping a 3×5 card by the computer with the heading of “resistance.” Every time I was tempted to quit writing, I jotted down what was trying to make me resist writing.

    At the end of my writing time, the card said:
    Resistance
    cats, raw food diet, Clayton i-house, camping, clean house, horoscope, facebook, new book in mail, band bookings

    Writing down the distractions helped me resist them.
    Greta

  11. November 7, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Thanks Steven, This is just what I need to be reading this afternoon as my self-talk wrestles with my self-sabotage despite how I’ve learned that my resistance, especially when it comes to writing, is an excellent clue for me that what I’m resisting will likely turn out to be the the most important thing I could be doing.