How do you stop being loyal to your suffering?

Reading time: About 5 minutes

If writing is making you miserable, don’t be loyal to your suffering! Here’s what to do instead….

Are you one of those writers who expects writing to be difficult, challenging, boring and — most alarmingly — unsuccessful?

I’ve worked with people like that and I’ll never forget the client, a grad student working on her PhD dissertation, who came to me with the following news: She had been speaking with someone — I no longer remember if it was a supervisor, a friend or perhaps even a therapist — who told her she should be careful not to become “too loyal to her suffering.”

I was electrified when I heard that expression, loyal to your suffering. Loyalty is an admirable trait, of course. And suffering is something most of us want to avoid. What could that evocative and seemingly contradictory phrase mean?

So, I did what most 21st century writers would do — I googled it. This took me to a single blog post by noted meditation teacher Jack Kornfield. Here is, in part, what he said:

When you learn to navigate your difficulties with compassion and grace, you will also discover that joy will return. Yes, life is trouble, as Zorba declares, and yet your difficulties and sorrows do not define you. They do not limit who you are. Sometimes, during periods when your struggles overwhelm you or last for a long time, you can mistake them for your life. You become used to difficulty, you become loyal to your suffering. You don’t know who you would be without it. But your difficulties are not the end of the story, they are one part of it—they are part of your path to great love and understanding, a part of the dance of humanity.

If you are struggling with being too loyal to your suffering as a writer, one of the key solutions is to improve your self-awareness. According to noted psychologist Daniel Goleman, the ability to monitor our own emotions and thoughts is essential to understanding ourselves better, and reducing suffering. People who are self-aware don’t just react passively. Instead, they tend to act consciously and have a more positive outlook on life. 

Here are nine ways you can improve your self-awareness and reduce your loyalty to your own suffering:

  1. Reduce the times you awfulize or catastrophize:  Do you say things to yourself like, “my dissertation is never going to be accepted,” or “my boss always hates everything I write?” or “it’s pointless to try to freelance in today’s digital world where editors never respond to my pitches?” Anytime you use the words I’ve italicized above (linguists call them “absolutes”) you are likely exaggerating and creating more pain for yourself.   
  2. Embrace change: Change is the one constant in this world. Every year, snow and rain give way to sunshine. Leaves grow on trees and then they fall. Or, if you’re in a tropical climate, there is always a rainy season and a dry one. Sometimes change is good (we may be happy about a promotion, for example), other times, change is annoying or hurtful (we may be unhappy with a new boss.) But fighting change is as pointless as fighting the seasons. 
  3. Finesse your self-talk: Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has shown that people who speak to themselves as another person (in my case, by using the word “Daphne,” or “you”) perform better than people who use the word “I.” When people talk to themselves this way, “it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback,” says Ethan Kross, associate professor of psychology and director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Michigan. In fact, Olympic athletes do this all the time. They say things to themselves like, “Come on!” or “Let’s go,” or “You can do this!” This type of voice allows you to address yourself as an apparent “outsider” which increases the value of the message.
  4. Act ‘as if’: Even though you might have doubts about your writing ability now, pretending as though you don’t have any such doubts should be enough to help you crank out that first draft. This is the key to my crappy first draft strategy. By putting your feelings of judgement on hold, you’re able to persuade your brain to write. And to achieve this tip, remember that you really need to stop editing while you write.
  5. Learn from others: Reading books or well-informed posts on the internet is a great way to increase your self-awareness. Here are some of my favourite authors on the subject: Carol Dweck, Daniel Goleman, Martin Seligman, Jim Collins, Tara Bracht.
  6. Create new habits: To write a rough draft, you should not have to tie yourself to your chair. (That’s being way too loyal to your suffering.) Instead, consider locking your cellphone in a drawer and giving yourself a challenge to write for somewhere between five and 15 minutes. Have a noisy timer operating in the background. It will keep you focused and let you know that the time will eventually end. Writing should not be a contest of willpower; instead, it should be a habit that you do every day, like brushing your teeth.
  7. Give yourself enough time to ‘play’: Many troubled writers I work with want to give themselves goals that are way too big and intimidating. I’m the strange writing coach who’s usually trying to talk people down from the ledge: No, don’t try to write for an hour each day, I say. Instead, try for 15 minutes. That’s enough! Writers who don’t allow themselves enough time for seeing friends, getting exercise, being in nature and enjoying entertainment like movies and yes, even Netflix, are doing themselves a huge disservice. They’re essentially making the job of writing harder for themselves.
  8. Remember that whatever you do, you’re still a valuable human being: Instead of tying your self-worth to your productivity, understand that you are a human being with many fine attributes. Your family members likely appreciate your sense of humour, your concern, your quirky or interesting hobbies, your helpfulness. They don’t care so much about what you do for work. Spend some time with them and learn to value ALL of you, not just the working part. 
  9. Help someone else: While whatever pain you may be experiencing as a writer is unique to you, all human beings experience both joy and suffering. Showing kindness to someone else can help reduce your own suffering. Your helpfulness needn’t be related to writing – you could help a young overwhelmed mom in your neighborhood, a struggling student who needs a mentor, or an elderly person who’s lonely. 

Instead of bestowing loyalty to your suffering, pick a more worthwhile recipient. Perhaps it could be your creative self? Then, let whatever necessary suffering there is in your life take care of itself.


Need some help developing a writing routine? Consider applying to my Get It Done program. I’ll be holding a no charge intro webinar about it on March 20/20 and all you need to do is email me to hold a spot. If you already know you want to apply, go here, scroll to the very end and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.


My video podcast last week gave practical advice on how to stop editing while you write. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


Are you too loyal to your suffering? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy! 

Scroll to Top