The book Burnout, by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, was a timely read for me a couple months ago. It explores stress in a modern woman’s life and healthy ways to deal with it. (It also explores how patriarchy has been one long gaslighting — but that’s a rant for another time.)
The thing is, stress isn’t just something that happens to us, or even a response to things happening to us. Not since humans stopped living in fear of saber-toothed tigers, at least. Stress is a state we live in perpetually. When we don’t recognize that and take the necessary action to cycle through it (instead of living trapped inside it), it causes physical, mental and emotional problems.
One of the kickers for me reading that book was that stressors don’t always come from outside circumstances. We experience stress from our own psyche. The authors called it the “madwoman in the attic” — the part of our psyche that developed to bridge the gap between what we are and what the world expects us to be. The Madwoman is also known as the inner critic and imposter syndrome. She’s the part of us that doubts ourselves, gives unhelpful critiques, sees cruelty when people try to give us feedback — and oddly enough, she developed for a reason. We live in a world with some very, very broken systems, and the Madwoman is an alert system to let us know when we’re confronted with one of those systems (when who we are is not matching up with what others expect of us).
The authors recommend the same tactic for managing the Madwoman as creativity experts recommend for dealing with the inner critic: Name her so you can see her as separate from you.
My Madwoman is named Barbie, and she’s just the worst. She tells me I’m not as smart as I think I am. She tells me that I’m past my prime. She tells me that I’m lazy, that I’ll never seriously make it as an author, that I’m not doing enough to save the planet, that I’m not spending enough time with my kids … She really is the worst. But she serves her purpose. She raises a fuss when something matters to me.
Mostly I’ve responded to Barbie with anger. I have one life to live, how dare she try to make me doubt myself as I pursue my goals! How dare she tell me I don’t look as good as I did in my 20s — I’ve had three kids and I look darn good! I’ve accomplished things most people could only dream of, how dare she tell me I’m lazy! I’m doing the best I can — I am enough — I kick butt and take names … HOW DARE SHE!
The problem is, she keeps piping up. She doesn’t go away and hide when I yell at her. In fact, sometimes she comes back fiercer.
The only thing that gets her to shut up is when I tell her Thanks, but I’m good. I don’t need your help here.
A few months back, a friend of mine sent my one-page proposal for The Dimmer Switch (the book I’m writing on reflection) to her big-name agent. The agent came back and said while she loved the idea, it was too close to what a couple of her current authors were writing about, and she passed on it. I was happy that she hadn’t shot down the idea entirely, and it spurred me to pursue other agents for that project … for about a week.
Then Barbie started having opinions.
The book proposal has been languishing on my hard drive for months. It’s time to put Barbie in her place.
Right now I’m brainstorming on how I can turn some of that material into smaller books, like Women in Time and Space.
Barbie gets really quiet when I take action and keep going instead of letting stumbling blocks become brick walls.