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I love to write. Some days, a flow state clicks and words stream from my mind to the paper like the tide washing in treasures: seaglass and shells sparkling in the sun. Other days, the tide recedes and I am alone with miles of endless sand and putrid seaweed, distant gulls screeching under leaden skies.

Sometimes, no matter what I do, nothing comes. It can’t be forced.

I have plenty of ideas. I keep a long list of them, jotting down inspiration as I find it throughout the day. Occasionally I find myself turning the light back on after I’ve gone to bed to capture something that appears to me in the somnolence between wakefulness and sleep. It’s not that I don’t have anything to write about. It’s that sometimes, I am blocked.

When I’m blocked I shrink into myself, small and hard, in self-protection.

In my mind I hear this:

Get over yourself. You think people want to hear what you have to say? They don’t. Because you are weird. And you know what’s more? You are a buzzkill. 

My mind screams back:

That’s not true! You’re lying!

The voice smirks, adding:

Yes, you are a weirdo and a buzzkill. No one reads your stuff, because your ideas are triggering, and no one wants to be pushed outside their comfort zone. They are happier to continue as they always have; life is simpler that way. Stop challenging people to think about things they don’t want to. Why do you insist on pulling back the curtain that hides the wizard, trying to expose the inner workings and illusions of the mind?

To which I respond:

A-ha, my friend, that is exactly the point! You, who cause me so much suffering, are yourself an illusion of my mind. Like Dorothy, I want everyone to be able to return home. I want to leave no one stranded in a strange land, at the mercy of an illusion or agenda they don’t understand or may not even be aware of: their mind. I’m tired of suffering, and I want to show others the way out, too.

These are the kind of thoughts that regularly run through my consciousness. It’s an internal fistfight. I’m tired of all the fighting.

My writer’s block, I realize, is actually a bully.

He wears overalls and a five o’clock shadow, and carries a crowbar. He is a compilation of all the voices of all the bullies I’ve encountered in my life, internalized into one scathing, scornful inner dialogue. He takes no prisoners.

How does one write under these conditions? Very intermittently, I’ve found.

I can only write while the bully is on break, out to lunch, gone fishin’. I don’t know what causes him to take these breaks—who knows, maybe he just has to pee—but I take advantage of them when they come. Even when the urge wakes me up at 4:45 A.M. announcing the Muse’s arrival simultaneously with the bully’s departure. Something whispers, “You’d better get out of bed and write this down, because it won’t stick around.”

If my Muse is my purest, cleanest, most unadulterated self, my writer’s block, my bully, is my basest self: pathological and neurotic. It’s all the unhealed parts of me bubbling to the surface to torment me as I claw desperately to the edge of the cliff where my highest self sits in silent contemplation.

My highest self suggests that perhaps the bully has a message for me. Maybe I actually need to turn toward the bully rather than away from him, to fully hear and understand his message, in order for him to fade away and finally leave me alone. Perhaps his message comes from my unconscious mind, where most of our internal beliefs and behavior originate. Our brains, after all, are computers. Examining our unconscious mind can help us figure out what’s driving us and, thanks to neuroplasticity, allow us to change our programming, which changes our lived experience.

Perhaps this bully—like all bullies—isn’t really in control.

A bully’s power is an illusion that depends upon lack of understanding, as well as consent. Meaning, it only works if I buy into it and believe it works (and I only believe it works if I don’t understand how it works). After all it is we who, by accepting and not challenging bullies’ behavior, enable and strengthen them.

When we look more closely at what bullies are and how they work, how they greedily seize and hoard power and depend upon us accepting our feelings of powerlessness, they finally start to lose their strength. They become boring and predictable and, sadly, human. And thus, beatable.

As I examine and gradually expose its lies, these intermittent periods of freedom from my bully become longer and more frequent.

I am not powerless.

I can fight back. I have weapons. The most powerful ones?

Patience. I can outlast you, bully. You will eventually get tired, or bored, and leave. Like a mother with a tantruming toddler, I know this will eventually end.

Meditation. I can sit back and watch what you’re doing, bully, without getting involved in it. I can observe your antics dispassionately, and see them clearly for what they are while I wait for you to leave. Since you feed on attention, you don’t stick around long if I don’t engage.

And, of course, the biggest gun of all—compassion. After much work, I can now recognize that while people in my past have said unhelpful, invalidating, or even hurtful things to me, what others say and do is the result of their own lived experience, their level of self-awareness, and their unique fears. I understand that I’ve taken many things personally in the past and therefore allowed myself to get very hurt. With a lot of self-examination and self-compassion, I now have greater perspective and can release these hurts. I understand finally that the one person I need to validate me is me, and I can readily and happily do this for myself.

The next time the bully appears I will greet him with curiosity and compassion. Welcome, bully! I see you clearly now. Feel free to hang out as long as you like. Relax, my friend, and set down that crowbar; it looks heavy. You won’t need it while you’re here.

Heather Shaff

Heather Shaff is a cyclist, writer, and mom based in Boston. She's fascinated by all things growth, motivation, and learning... and will drop everything for chocolate ice cream.

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