Have you ever heard of “shitty first drafts?”
In my previous life, I worked as a middle and high school English teacher. As a teacher, I was fascinated with the process of writing, not just the end product. I loved creating an environment in my classroom where teenagers felt excited to express themselves and create. At a time of life that’s hormonally erratic and socially precarious, writing was a vehicle for my students to put words to their thoughts, values and experiences. Through writing, they could make meaning of the chaos. Sharing in the writing process was a way to validate my students’ thinking while helping express themselves with clarity and in their own unique voices.
My students had very different drafting styles. Some did most of their drafting in their heads, and so their first written drafts came out cohesively and organized. Most students though (and I fall into this category myself), needed to write shitty first drafts.
In her influential book on the writing process, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and let it romp all over the place, knowing that…you can shape it later. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.”
For writers young and old, the process of expression can be very sloppy and zig-zaggy. What’s important in the writing classroom is allowing space for students to get their thoughts out in a safe environment so they can get to a place of clear and accurate expression.
My friend Daniel and shitty first drafts.
I’ve learned a lot about listening from my friend Daniel. He is an architect, which means that he helps create concrete form out of his clients’ (often) vague visions. The process frequently involves melding the visions of a couple, which may or may not align.
Similar to what I attempted in my classroom, Daniel does with his clients: creates a safe environment to explore ideas. No matter if their ideas are outlandish or impractical, he continues to draw out the clients’ dreams, creating a space where he honors all ideas, even if they initially appear contradictory or financially impossible. What I love about Daniel, and I know this from having been his client as well, is that he’s not an eye-roller. He creates a space where it’s okay to share a shitty first draft, or even two conflicting shitty first drafts. He looks for what’s of value in the mess, knowing that the messy process is a necessary and important part of the creation.
Expressing your own truths can be a lot like writing a shitty first draft and it can be scary.
It is an act of vulnerability to express our true selves. It requires courage to put ourselves out there. Why? Because we are pushing against a boundary we’ve never pushed up against before. We are breaking some rule that we have for ourselves. (And remember, this year, we vowed to break some rules, right?) We might be asking for help, exposing a part of ourselves that’s always been hidden, telling someone you’re in love, or that you messed up, or have a crazy idea that might work. It’s scary because we might be told we’re wrong or asking too much. We might be told we are full of shit, disappointing or needy. Even in healthy relationships, being vulnerable enough to say what you feel and think requires tremendous courage.
Speaking our truth is also frightening because we are afraid to make waves. Mind you, we are not always afraid of the same waves. But in order to create something new, to get our truths out there, we do create waves of changes. It’s inevitable. And because people are generally resistant to change, there is no guarantee that the waves we create are going to go well initially. Don’t despair. As I tell my clients all the time, “Creating peace is not the same thing as keeping the peace.” Often, we need to create a mess to get to a different place.There’s discomfort in creating something new.
So, why I am talking about this as a nutritionist and health coach?
Emotional stress is the #1 reason behind hormone imbalances. I see it in my practice all the time. A person can be doing all the “right” things: eating well, exercising, but something is off: digestion, sleep, energy, anxiety, depression, aches and pains. Time and again, emotional stress is the culprit when a person with excellent intentions for self-care just cannot stick to what she knows she needs to do to feel better.
When my clients and I dig a little deeper, often the emotional stress of feeling stuck or shoving down their truths surfaces. We are afraid to speak up and ask for something different in our lives. I’m not a trained psychologist, but it is not difficult to see how deeply people damage their own health because they are not speaking their own truths. Instead, they’re shoving them, which ultimately creates a stress that slowly wreaks havoc.
The world needs you and your truth
At a time in our country where fear and anxiety are at an all-time high, it is all hands on deck.
It is time to create something new out of this chaos. Thus, there’s never been more of a need to express our truth and hear others’. But considering the personal risks and fear, we must seek out and create a climate of safety and healing in our circles of influence. This is radically hard, but necessary work if we want to create something new. And we can. We start with ourselves and the people in front of us.
Remember: fear drives people to protect themselves. Fear causes beliefs to become more entrenched and intractable. Edmund Burke, an 18th century Irish statesman said, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” Our work is tending to the environment which ultimately makes real change and healing possible.
How do we do this?
May I humbly propose:
10 Steps to help create a safe environment expressing your own truth:
- Have a “mountain top” vision. Keep healing and the highest good for all involved as your goal. For example, if I have to set a boundary with a controlling or critical boss, I need to trust that my boundary setting will ultimately result in my boss’s growth and healing as well. I’m looking for a win-win.
- If you need to, practice first speaking your truth with your safest people. Build some skills. Find how empowering it is to say what you need and think. Then move to more difficult communication.
- Set an appropriate stage for what you have to say. For example, in difficult communication with my husband, I often preface what I have to share by saying, “I have something that I want to talk about and I’m just hoping you’ll listen and give yourself time to process it before you respond.”
- Give yourself permission to communicate in first draft. It may come out sloppy, or you may cry, or it might not totally make sense, and that’s okay. You may just be a shitty first drafter. Trust that a gem of truth will emerge from the mess. Often times, I will preface what I have to say with, “This is my first draft thinking, so I may not totally agree with what comes out of my mouth once it’s out.” Give yourself room for imperfect expression.
- Be impeccable with your word. This seems contradictory to shitty first drafting, but speak your truth without disparaging, blaming or doing harm. I may adamantly disagree with someone’s behavior, but I can discuss it without damaging the other person. For example, I may need my brother to respond to my emails (this is really a problem), but I don’t have to say that he’s lazy or rude (he’s not) when I ask for what I need. Don’t use your tongue as a weapon.
- Don’t be intimidated by someone who is not a shitty first drafter. Have you ever tried to speak your truth with an attorney? Their job is to poke holes in arguments and to cohesively and quickly build their own case. That’s their training. Their skills can undermine true communication. If you’re communicating with someone like this, you may need to ask that she listen rather than respond. You can still be a shitty first drafter. It’s just a different style of communicating.
- Know that if someone tells you to “get over it,” “relax,” or “you’re making a big deal out of nothing,” they are not hearing you. These responses are invalidating and not at all in line with true communication. Telling someone to “relax” or “get over it” is the same thing as telling a person to shut up. It’s not nice. You will “get over it” when you’ve processed your thoughts and feelings thoroughly.
- Be your own biggest support. Don’t disparage yourself if communication doesn’t go well. It’s your responsibility to communicate your truth. You have no control over how it will be received. Which leads me to…
- Allow for a tantrum. I think of my kids when they were little. When I set a boundary for them, typically, they would throw a tantrum. Then eventually, if I was consistent, they would fall in line. I would remind myself, “Their job is to resist. My job is to insist.” It’s part of the process of creating something new. Expect resistance or fall-out.
- You may have to say what your truth is more than once over time. Stand by what you need. People forget. People test boundaries. Don’t take it personally. Just stay calm, don’t react, and stand by your truth.
So, how might we create a safe environment for others to speak their truths?
7 easy (actually kind of hard) steps to creating a safe environment for others:
- Make it your priority to understand, not to correct. In my classroom, if I whipped out a red pen while my students were first drafting, I would stymie creativity and never really hear what they had to say.
- Ask questions. Again, with the goal of understanding, not with the goal of pointing out flaws in someone else’s thinking. Try something like these: “That’s interesting. What makes you feel that way?” “Tell me more about your thinking about that.”
- Repeat back what you heard. This is important because so often our communication is loaded and we stop hearing accurately. “So what I hear you saying is…did I get that right?”
- Validate validate validate. Channel my friend Dan. Look the person in the eye. Say “I hear you.” No eye rolling. Even if you disagree.
- Allow for first draft expression. Often times, we don’t really know what we feel until it starts to come out of our mouths. Let someone’s expression be messy. The messiness may come in the form of anger, obstinance, and generalizations. Stay with them. The goal is to get to understanding. The goal is healing.
- If you feel tweaked, take a deep breath, and reassure yourself of your own safety.
- Know when it’s time to exit a conversation. If a person is only interested in hearing themselves talk or is being abusive, protect yourself by leaving the conversation. Say a prayer for both of your healing and get the heck out.
As Americans, we’ve got a mess on our hands and it’s incumbent on all of us to be excellent citizens. As my friend and mentor Beth Grant recently wrote, “We have the tools to create real change. We do this by creating a reality that contains what we want for ourselves and others.”
Let’s roll up our sleeves and work with tender care on our shitty first drafts. Let’s treat others’ shitty drafts with the same tender care.
We can create something new together.
Keep the faith, my friends.
Sending love to you all,