From Writer Unboxed:
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:
- the psychological dynamic at work, dubbed the Ego Trap by Dr. Doug Lisle
- why certain circumstances turn self-sabotage into a very sensible strategy, and
- 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.)
Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed