Eternal, Infernal, Internal Dialogue

Sometimes—too often—my brain wages war on me. 

It goes a little something like this:

Me: Today’s writing went well. Some good scenes.

Brain: Let's be real. Today’s writing was amateurish and cliched. You won’t be able to use any of it.

Me: Maybe parts of it need work, but the section with Callie and her mother made me smile. I did a solid job developing their relationship.

Brain: It was shallow and trite. The humor fell flat.

Me: Hmmm. You could be right. But at least my first book was decent. I actually finished writing a novel. I’ll bet you never believed I could.

Brain: Nothing distinctive about your silly book. The plot plods along, the characters are dull, and the language is unremarkable.

Me: That’s not what my husband said. Or my daughters. They said they enjoyed it. My husband even said, “It was like I was reading a real book.”

Brain: Do I even need to dignify that with a response? What else would your family say?

Me: But the editor who read it said it was one of the best early drafts he's seen in a long time. Though now I'm remembering he added that it wasn’t perfect…

Brain: He was too polite to elaborate about exactly how “imperfect” it is. Perfection and your book exist in separate galaxies. No amount of revision can save it. Face it, you’re wasting your time. This writing thing is not for you. You might as well go watch another Dateline rerun. 

Me: I guess you're right. You’re my brain, after all. Why would you lie to me?

But it does. It frequently spins positive into negative, reality into disaster.

The lies my brain tells me are not unique to my pursuits as a writer; I’ve experienced similar exchanges in my head for as long as I can remember. In my mind, I was never a good enough student, or teacher, or mother, or wife. This mental tug-of-war can be as debilitating as any disease, and it has a name.


On the surface, perfectionism doesn’t sound like something I should fear or fight. I mean, what’s the problem with striving for perfection? 

Sorry to break it to you, but the problem is you’ll never achieve it. It doesn’t exist—not in real life.

My brain tells me that for my life to have any value, I must do more, more, more, better, better, better. It plays these messages on a loop I am often not even conscious of, beating against my psyche like persistent waves eroding the rocky shoreline.

Remember Terminator? The plot of the movie revolves around androids created by humans to enhance their lives. Ultimately, though, the robots take over and declare war on their creators. My brain is like that—a useful tool when it lives under my control. But when I sit back and allow the brain to take over, destruction reigns.

So how do I win this war? To quote another favorite movie, War Games, “the only winning move is not to play.” With mindfulness, I become aware of the messages my brain is sending me and refuse to allow them to shape me. I replace those lies with a sense of gentleness towards myself, a calm acceptance that I am exactly who I need to be at this given moment. My value becomes attached to who I am, not what I achieve.

Easier said than done, yes. Sometimes I still trek down the dark and fearsome path my brain lays before me. It takes vigilance and awareness to realize when I’ve headed that direction, along with the determination to choose a different trail. I find I get better at it with every passing year. Patience and persistence are required, especially since these patterns have been with me for many decades. My brain craves continuity and resists change. 

When I was a kid, my mother used to say, “Your reach should always exceed your grasp.”

That sounded so wise, like such an honorable pursuit that I dedicated my life to the phrase. But now I understand it leads to a life of constant dissatisfaction and exhaustion. Of self-doubt and even, eventually, self-disgust.

What if, instead, I set an achievable goal? What if I can relax and allow myself to grasp it? 

That is not to say I shouldn’t push myself. If I don’t, I’m likely to give in to a sense of inertia and procrastination. I need goals. But those goals don’t have to be disproportionate to my ability and desire to achieve them. And I can nudge myself towards their completion instead of thrusting myself towards them with a violent intensity that leaves me wrung out—and destined to fail.

I’ll never be Shakespeare. Or Stephen King. Or JK Rowling. And if I examine my true aspirations rather than the ones my brain tries to convince me I should have, I don’t even want to be them.

These days, it’s enough to be me.

Lori HerbstComment