Dr. Anna Charbonneau

Therapy for people living with stress, depression, and medical conditions

On feeling stuck, procrastination, perfection, and erasers.

by Dr. Anna Charbonneau | Tags: emotion coping, stress

I have, you may have noticed, taken a break from writing for nearly eight weeks. When I imagined a writer taking a break, I imagined maybe a fun road trip, a breeze-ruffling-your-hair-carefree-with-open-road-ahead kind of road trip. Light as a feather. My reality of this break has been the opposite. I have been wrestling with a crushing paralysis. Every single day for the past eight weeks I have woken up and thought to myself, “I will write today.” And every single day I have concluded the day with not a single word written. It has been an agonizing struggle.

On Being Stuck

In the past few weeks, I have done everything except write. I’ve read so many books. I’ve read books on writing better. I unearthed an ancient hardcover edition of Carl Jung’s autobiography. I took a time traveling trip back into 1960’s psychology and dug up a copy of Psycho-Cybernetics. I read the Art of Peace, from the founder of Aikido. I read the God Theory by Stephen Haisch, an astrophysicist and philosopher, on the nature of the universe. I read all of Brene Brown’s books and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve applied for jobs. I’ve gardened. I’ve watched the whole season of Stranger Things on Netflix. I’ve balanced my checkbook. I’ve talked ad nauseum about my feeling of stuckness with everyone I’m close to. In short, I’ve done everything except to sit down and write.

Why?

As I ruminate on my complete lack of writing over the past few days, this one image keeps appearing in my mind. The image is of a pink rubber eraser erasing a whole page followed by the clean feeling of exhaling and blowing away the eraser bits.

Every time I close my eyes, I keep seeing eraser bits being cleared off a newly blank page.

Did you ever experience that in your childhood? Make a mistake with your pencil? Fantastic, you get you use your other tool. The eraser. The glorious freedom of having a pencil and an eraser.

I remember my mother recounting a story from my first day of kindergarten. She picked me up and asked, “How was your day, Anna?” I beamed up and her and replied, “It was great! I learned that it’s okay to make mistakes!” The joy of erasing is one of my favorite tactile memories of early childhood. The yellow pencil and the pink rubber eraser. Not the tiny, fairly useless eraser on top of the pencil, but the big separate pink eraser. You know which one I mean? The one that took up most of the space in your hand. The eraser you could really grab on to and wipe out a whole page if you needed to. At the beginning of each school year, I cherished that perfectly new beautiful eraser. Can you ever really get your paper perfectly clean? No. But that’s okay. A pencil and an eraser can let you try and try and try until you get something you like.

But somehow as I aged, I lost this joy. I remember distinctly the first day of fifth grade. The teacher insisted that we use pencils. “Pencils?” I thought to myself, incredulous. “Are you kidding me? Pencils!? I am old enough to use pen.” The teacher patiently explained, “If you make a mistake, you can just erase pencil.” I silently stewed and thought to myself coldly, with a righteous indignation unique to adolescents, “I don’t make mistakes.”

I still laugh at the gravity of that serious fifth grader in recounting this but I also know that is still a very active part of me: fear of making mistakes. Somehow the idea took root in my heart that to be an adult is to never make mistakes.

Two Ways to Look at Being Stuck

Critical Judgement

There are two ways to think about how I’ve spent the last two months. Objectively, I could say I’ve failed. I have met nearly none of the writing goals I set out to accomplish this summer. I had a goal to write and publish a newsletter every two weeks this summer. I did that for two months and then abandoned that project. I had a goal to publish my second book by September, and here I am on the first day of fall, with a first draft languishing in my computer. I picked up that draft last week, immediately had an overwhelming slew of critical thoughts, and put it back down again without writing a single word. Nothing.

I can, in my worst frame of mind, judge myself as a total failure.

What feeling do you imagine this act of harsh critical judgement would bring? If you’d guess an exquisite shame, heavy guilt, and a feeling of complete immobility, you would be right.

Curiosity

On the other hand, I can wonder what there is to learn from this. What is happening, I have been wondering every day. What is happening here? Why can’t I write? Or, maybe, why do I refuse to write?

An alternate approach to judging myself as a failure is to be open and curious about my experiences of being stuck.

These questions, I think, are more of that curious approach. The questions of why and what is happening come with confusion, of course, but also a sense of lightness. Curiosity. I have been ruminating on the what and why of my inability to just sit down and write. And for the past few days, my mind continually returns to this image. An eraser moving over a page and a breeze brushing the page clean.

A Path to Unsticking

This morning I sat down and decided to simply write about that image. I set aside my internal demands to work on important things, like my book, and just set out to write. When I began this essay, I truly had not a single clue as to why that image kept returning. And through writing, now, it seems perfectly clear. Is it clear yet to you? It’s about perfectionism.

I realize I am wrestling down that righteous fifth grader mentality that coldly assures, “I don’t make mistakes.” Because what is that really communicating?

  • I must be perfect.
  • Mistakes are unacceptable.
  • Perfection is necessary.

And what are those thoughts? Those thoughts are lies that have been keeping me feeling trapped. A fear of making mistakes is, when it comes right down to it, a fear of living. And fear is immobilizing. Embracing the messy mistakes with a lightness of heart allows you to really engage freely, without all of that needless fear and anxiety.

What is this eraser image and the clean, light feeling it brings? It’s a reminder to myself of the joy that comes with writing freely. The joy that comes with the eraser. If you don’t like something, just erase, brush away the old bits, and start anew.

It’s okay to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes! Mistakes can be joyful too, because making anything (even a mistake) means you’re putting in effort. It means you’re experimenting. It means you’re engaging in your life. And it means you’re living. Really living in the messy, joyful, humbling, exasperating, and really real world.

We Are Works In Progress

A few hours later, now that I am done writing the first draft, it seems so painfully obvious. Of course it’s fear and perfectionism have been keeping me stuck. But let’s be clear: we are all works in progress.

I have had the experience of clients saying the same thing after a session,

“Oh my God, it is SO obvious. Why didn’t I realize this already?” Usually this is accompanied by a little bit of shame or embarrassment and a little bit of awe.

But honestly, why? Because we’re humans that’s why. If you keep everything all bottled up in your head, there is no space to see it for what it is. Taking time to reflect in a judgement free space (therapy, your own writing, or talk to your own nonjudgmental friends), is a way to get some distance. To see things differently. And when you can see a situation differently, it’s possible to find a new path out of your situation. Until then it’s all too easy to stay stuck.

Curiosity Requires Courage

On the one hand, it feels very exposing and vulnerable to write this. But on the other hand, are we really doing each other any service by pretending we’re perfect and never struggle? No. We’re not. I’m a psychologist and I still struggle with much of this. My hope is that through acknowledging this struggle, I can much better empathize with people who are struggling. And through talking about it more openly, that maybe this will help someone else get unstuck.

Curiosity does require courage. Courage to look inward without judgement and accept what’s there. When you can see something (like fear) and acknowledge it, it loses it’s power over you. Denial and silence empower those negative feelings. Curiosity and acceptance allow you to just see those tough feeling for what they are and move around them.

Getting Unstuck

So what’s next? I had very serious expectations about finishing my next book. But for now, I will just embrace the joyful process of making and see what happens.

Life is not a series of demands you are expected to meet without mistakes. Life is an adventure just waiting to be lived.

So reflect. Create a safe space to look at what's been happening. And then jump back in. Make a mess. Embrace mistakes.