Guest blogger: Authors for Mental Health – Lucy McLaren

Welcoming Lucy McLaren to Off the Beaten Track today to wrap up the Authors for Mental Health blog series. Lucy is a fantasy author and professional counsellor, who is passionate about writing stories that include a realistic representation and exploration of mental health issues. Her debut novel, Awakening: The Commune’s Curse Book 1, releases on 1st May 2022 with Santa Fe Writers Project.

Over to Lucy…

How to implement positive mental health practice in your writing routine

As a writer and counsellor, I am really interested in the ways in which we can implement and explore mental health both within our stories and our lives. Writing is arguably a challenging pursuit, especially if you’re submitting your work out to various people and publications. The inevitable rejections that will come rolling in are bound to have an impact on anyone, no matter how thick their skin. In this post, I’ve collated some tips and advice that may help if you’re a fellow writer (or even if you’re not; this can really be catered to anyone) who sometimes finds yourself struggling with aspects of your mental health.

Comparison to others

This one can be tough, especially if you’re part of the many writing communities on the various social media platforms. Being part of these communities can be incredibly helpful, allowing you to find like-minded individuals, friends and readers who will support you in your journey. But with this comes the other writers sharing their journeys too—both their rejections and their successes. If you see a fellow author has a success, you’re likely to feel pleased for them, of course, but it can also lead to feelings of frustration, stress or anxiety. Research has found that social networking sites can negatively impact upon mental well-being because of the resulting feelings of envy that come from social comparisons (Krasnova et al, 2013; Lee, 2020).

So what can we do to counter this inherent urge many of us have to compare ourselves to others? Hagan (2015) suggests that rather than comparing ourselves to others, we could try comparing ourselves to our past selves, otherwise known as temporal comparison (Stuart, 1977). Utilising this method allows us to set goals for ourselves and see how far we’ve come, which can be really helpful for a writer. Perhaps you could compare a first draft of work to the current version, noticing the improvements in your craft. Perhaps you have written more short stories, received positive feedback from beta readers or met some great writer friends online. Whatever you may find through your temporal comparison, it is bound to be a more positive experience for your mental health because you are focused inwardly and not on comparing yourself to other people and their experiences, which will never be the same as your own. You will be able to keep focusing on what you want to achieve in your writing, realigning where necessary, and taking the little steps towards your bigger goals.

You might find doing the following will assist you in keeping on track (and away from those pesky comparisons):

  1. Keep a journal noting down your hopes and dreams for your writing.
  2. Note down whenever you accomplish a certain goal such as meeting a word count or completing a story.
  3. Remind yourself of the positives such as feedback from otherwise and what you enjoy about writing.

Imposter syndrome—how can we counter it?

I’m not sure I was really aware of how imposter syndrome (Clance & Imes, 1978) strikes until I became a writer. It impacts upon people from all walks of life and in all sorts of situations, but for me it’s really taken hold since I’ve taken on the official title of “author”—and this is a sentiment I have seen repeated by others in the writing community.

In a nutshell, imposter syndrome involves “a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud” (Dalla-Camina, 2018). This resounds with me and, I’m sure, with many other authors. In a profession that rejection is so intrinsically a part of, perhaps it is difficult to avoid feelings of self-doubt. If you’re persistently feeling inadequate and questioning your abilities, however, it can be difficult to keep going—to keep writing, keep submitting, keep reaching for your goals. Here’s a list of suggestions for how you can help yourself overcome such feelings:

  1. Recognise the persistent negative thinking. You could start by noting down whenever you notice a negative thought popping into your head. This is often the first step I note to counselling clients—if they are able to tell me about and recognise a negative voice in their heads that is repeatedly telling them bad things about themselves, that is the first move towards gaining self-awareness, and with self-awareness comes the ability to  change.
  2. If you’re struggling with being able to pinpoint the negative thoughts, utilise tools such as mindfulness. I have personally found the Headspace app to be very effective, but I’m sure there are many options to choose from. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of mindful breathing and relaxing to feel calmer and better able to sort through your thoughts. That may allow you to begin to notice certain patterns of thinking.
  3. Keep a gratitude journal. Being able to reflect on the positive aspects of your writing, and to keep reminding yourself of them, will help to combat those self-doubts. And the more you focus on gratitude, the easier it will become to keep reminding yourself. If you feel the imposter syndrome type worries sneaking in, bring up that gratitude journal and re-read over it.
  4. Notice whether there are any particular triggers to your negative thoughts and self-doubts. It might be that earlier tendency of comparing yourself to others I covered, or something totally separate. Whatever it is, if you notice a pattern then you are more likely to feel prepared to cope as and when you encounter those triggers in future.

Be kind to yourself

This is a piece of advice I give out far more than I implement—and I know it. What is so difficult about being kind to ourselves? I’ve asked counselling clients before whether they would speak to a friend the same way they speak to themselves… at the same time fully recognising the fact that this is an aspect of myself I should confront far more than I do. But I’m going to tell you what I tell my counselling clients: we are all human, we all have tough days, and we all deserve kindness. Self-care is the first step towards feeling that kindness we deserve, and if the earlier sections of this post have resonated with you then I’d argue that you need some self-care, too.

Self-care can look different for everyone. It might be having a bath, going for a walk, sitting in the garden, doing yoga… whatever it is for you, make a concerted effort to do a little something for yourself as regularly as you are able. Schedule it in your diary, if that’ll help. Step away from your laptop, phone, or tablet, and give yourself a breather. Your writing will be there when you get back, and you might just feel better for taking time away from it. From personal experience, I can say that I feel reinvigorated in my writing whenever I allow my mind time to unwind and my thoughts time to calm down.

Writer or not, we are all human and being kind to ourselves is a great step towards improving our mental health.

References

Albert, S. (1977). ‘Temporal comparison theory’. Psychological Review, 84(6), 485–503.

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). ‘The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention’. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247.

Dalla-Camina, M. (2018) ‘The Reality of Imposter Syndrome‘.

Hagan, E. (2015) ‘3 Reasons to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others‘.

Krasnova, H., Wenninger, H., Widjaja, T., & Buxmann, P. (2013). Envy on Facebook: a hidden threat to users’ life satisfaction? Proceedings of the 11th international conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik. Universität Leipzig, Germany.

Lee, J. K. (2020) The effects of social comparison orientation on psychological well-being in social networking sites: Serial mediation of perceived social support and self-esteem. Curr Psychol. 2020 Oct 14 : 1–13.

Vaish, A., Grossman, T., and Woodward, A. (2008) Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychol Bull. 2008 May; 134(3): 383–403.

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