I don’t claim to be an expert in mental health by any means. All I can give you is my perspective on the things that have affected me over the years and hope it helps you in some way.
These last couple of months have been… challenging. For reasons I’m not yet prepared to go into.
But it has made me think about what I’ve learned over the years from doing martial arts and from writing, and from all the other things I’ve done through my life.
I was raised on the old mindset of ‘being perfect/excellent at something the first time you try equates to being valuable/lovable.’ It comes from when parents praise kids for their birth-traits (beauty, speed, strength, intelligence etc) rather than their learned traits (determination, focus, hard work, willingness to fail and learn). Or parents who constantly criticise their kids for NOT being perfect the first time.
So my self-worth came from being good at things the first time. Which creates a nasty self-esteem loop. If you’re not good at something the first time, then you’re a failure as a person and not lovable.
(NOTE: I recommend a book called ‘Mindset’ by Dr Carol S Dweck to understand how this affects you and your kids)
But, because I have a genius-level older brother to compare myself to, I also had to work my arse off to BE good at anything the first time. And that habit of working hard and learning builds over time and becomes habit, making the next skill you try easier because you’ve already learned to control your body, or your mind. I just didn’t realise that’s what I was doing, until much later in life.
In the dojo, we get a LOT of people who start and think they will be instinctively brilliant at martial arts. And sometimes they are – to a point. But there is ALWAYS a moment (in any skill) where you hit a wall. Where your natural gifts are no longer enough for things to come easily. Where you actually have to fail, learn, and work to get better; to improve.
That’s the point where most people raised in the wrong mindset give up. And all the excuses come out.
They’re tired. Martial arts hurts. They have to work late. The traffic was too heavy and they couldn’t get to class. Someone in the dojo wasn’t nice to them. Someone in the dojo told them what to do and they didn’t want to hear it.
You hear them all.
But really, it boils down to insecurity. A fear that you weren’t good enough the first time you tried, therefore you’re inherently flawed and will never be good enough.
Which leads to anxiety. What do people think of me?
If we could take anxiety about what other people think away from humans, the world would be a vastly better place.
There would be no need for the dominance games that go with tribal/troupe living. No need for the constant belitting of others in an attempt to make yourself feel better. None of the nagging twist in the guts, the whisper in your ear, the checking to see how others are responding.
Writing is no different. You write and put your work out there. If you’re smart, you’ll do some learning and test the waters with beta readers before you publish, but many people don’t. And in this age of self-publishing, it means you can get some nasty trolling from people who are horribly insecure and desperate to pull others down.
What people say about you is a mirror of their own insecurities and fears.
This is where mindset makes a huge difference. Every time you fuck up (or someone says you have), it’s an opportunity to learn, to accept that you’re not perfect – AND to accept that it’s OK to not be perfect. You’ll never please everyone. Nor should you try.
Getting back up again off the dojo mat. That’s where the toughness comes in. Coming back to the dojo after you’re bruised, exhausted, in tears, and feeling like you’ll never get it right. That’s where the mindset comes in.
It’s really easy to hide at home and try to avoid the trolls, the negativity, the potential of failure.
But every time you get out of the house; get back up off the mat; go to a workshop to learn how to be a better writer; put pen back to paper again in spite of criticism… that’s where mental toughness and health is.
And it builds. It gets easier.
Your brain knows you can get up again, because you’ve done it before. The neural pathways exist now. And the more you use those pathways – by getting up, ignoring the trolls, writing anyway, learning more – the easier those pathways become to tread.
Until the pathways of mental toughness become wider and stronger than the ones of anxiety and fear.
Anything worth doing will only come with failure and learning. You just have to choose the right path each time to get to the destination you really want.
But it takes time. And effort.
And which path to take is a decision. Your decision.
Not an easy one every time. Believe, I know.
And it's ok to ask for help, too.
This month has been all about passing on what I know. Mostly at work because I’m trying to step back. And it made me realise that passing on knowledge is a survival skill. On an evolutionary level it helps our offspring to survive, and on a personal level it helps us to survive.
How? We’re a troupe/tribal animal. We need other humans to help us survive on a physical level. So the more people who know the important information about hunting, gathering, making fire etc, the more of our troupe (including us) are likely to live.
But we also need to feel valued, respected, even admired – some more than others. Because that ensures us a place by the fire, food to eat, comfort and succor when we’re unwell. Being a font of wisdom helps us gain that respect and in turn gives us all the feels. So our mental health is (at least a bit) dependant on being accepted, admired, respected in our troupe and in our family.
But it’s a double-edged sword. When, exactly, are we Qualified to pass on our knowledge. When do we know enough to make sharing valid? We’ve all met people who know a little and come across like they know it all – we lose respect for them when their lack of skill shows through.
In the dojo we see this a lot. White belts, having newly learnt how to twist people into human origami, are eager to share with anyone who is dumb enough to put their hand out. Even brown belts tell everyone they are a brown belt and eagerly demonstrate the latest skills.
But in a good dojo, you’ll find the higher the blackbelt, the less likely they are to tell you what their belt colour is or demonstrate without good reason. They don’t need anyone’s validation.
I still remember when my Sensei handed over my shiny new blackbelt, embroidered with my name in kanji. He bowed and said with a wry smile, “Now you can begin to learn.” And I understood what he meant. I felt humbled by the sheer weight of what I DIDN’T know. The subtlety of the art I still didn’t understand. The skill of the higher belts. Their willingness to both help and let me learn for myself.
I also recall a blackbelt who, after doing something unbelievably arrogant, was stripped of his belt. He had the choice of leaving the dojo or starting all over again. I respect deeply that he started again. Re-did every grading until he got back to blackbelt. It took him two years. He became a much better person. Shut up more. Put aside his ego.
Both his character and his skill have now been proven beyond a doubt.
In writing it’s a lot harder to tell who you should respect; who is worth listening to. Anyone can put up a website and call themselves a ‘best-selling author’, or an ‘editor’. Anyone can spout advice on writing, story structure, character arcs. As a new author it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of advice – some conflicting, some useful.
And, as a new author, it’s very easy to get sucked into the desire to pass on what you’ve learned to someone who might be just a couple of steps behind you.
That’s whitebelt thinking. Please try hard not to. Remember there are better places they can learn from. Editors registered with a valid organisation and with qualifications and experience. Authors with mega-best-selling books (not just #1 on a niche Amazon category in a small country). Entire Writers Centres giving high-quality workshops. Writers Conferences all over the place.
You don’t need your ego validated. Focus your time on learning more, on improving your own writing. Try to refrain from teaching others until you’re at least a brown belt – until you have a couple of well-respected novels or short story collections out there in the world. Until you’ve been recognised by others in the industry as having the skills to engage and excite readers.
I’m only saying this because I made this mistake, myself. Tried to help others – very well-meaning, as we all are – earlier than I should have. We’ve all muddled along ok, but I could have done better. Could have given them better advice. Definitely could have shut up more.
Like martial arts, writing should not be about ego and having people look up to you. For me, personally, both are about doing something you’re passionate about; becoming a stronger, better person; living a richer, fuller life. Then, when you’ve mastered your art… that’s when you pass on what you know to those who want to hear it.
It might not be that way for you, of course. Your choice.
But for me, writing is not about gaining admiration. It’s about learning and growing and turning that into stories about life.
And I'm only beginning to learn.
I live in Australia - which tells you I have a sense of humour. We're a self-deprecating people, we Aussies. My aim is to, one day, vanish in a blinding flash of enlightenment. In the mean time, I'm doing my best to learn as many