The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Writer’s Block
Writer’s block comes in many different forms, but two of the most common types are procrastination and perfectionism. All writers struggle with one or both at some time during their writing life, but some writers struggle more than most, to the point where one or both of these conditions feels utterly paralyzing and the writer never finishes (or even starts) any creative project, ever.
For the writers who struggle with severe procrastination, or severe perfectionism, they also experience a sickening feeling of shame that accompanies the writer’s block that’s causing them so much trouble. They assume that they’re not motivated enough, or that they need to try harder, or “just get over it.” However, if the procrastination or perfectionism is of the severe type (and not just experienced occasionally or fleetingly), then the roots of the block go much deeper than most writers suspect.
I’ve worked with hundreds of writers who have severe procrastination and/or perfectionism and what I’ve found in nearly every case is that these writers also have deep, unprocessed trauma in their childhood that they are still working through. Sometimes the trauma is largely unacknowledged, the writer themselves being almost entirely unaware of it or the impact it’s having on their adult life, and sometimes it’s something they are actively in therapy to work on and move past. Whatever place they’re at with it though, the writer rarely sees the connection between this past, unprocessed trauma and how it’s causing the severe procrastination and/or perfectionism in their writing life.
When you are a person who grew up in a chaotic, negative, and/or dangerous household, one of the first things you learn is to not trust anyone, and to not ever show vulnerability. This is not a choice so much as it’s a survival skill to make it through a childhood where the caregivers are abusers, addicts, mentally or emotionally unavailable, or struggling with unprocessed trauma of their own and so unable to act as a responsible, loving parent. Masking all signs of vulnerability becomes your default mode, and so every facet of your behavior is geared toward this goal, in order to keep you safe.
Keeping you “safe” usually equals keeping you invisible to others, your needs hidden, eliminating all possible risk and uncertainty, and blocking outside connections with the world. To a child growing up in a chaotic household, this makes a lot of sense and is usually the only option available to get through it.
However, there’s this weird thing that comes into play with people who came out of traumatic childhoods. A lot of us end up being called to be writers. This makes sense too. Because of our upbringing, we became vigilant observers of human nature and interested in all the different, complex psychological angles that go into making up certain personalities. We also had to use our imaginations and intuition quite a bit to escape our reality as children. All of these factors combine into an adult who has the makings to be a fantastic writer.
But then, when we start trying to write our book or make our stories a reality in any form, we get stuck. That’s when severe procrastination and perfectionism rear their ugly heads and we feel frozen and like we can’t possibly take even one step forward.
This is because the act of writing demands us to be vulnerable. When we write down our stories with the thought of someday releasing them into the world, we can’t escape the fact that this means we won’t be able to stay invisible. We won’t be able to hide our true selves any longer. And that’s when our inner alarm system is triggered and all that old trauma comes to the surface. Without even being fully conscious of it, we start freaking out on a deep level, and that protector part of us that kept us invisible and safe as children comes out again and self-sabotages the entire writing process, with the single-minded purpose of keeping us “safe” and restoring our inner equilibrium.
So, we procrastinate. We find a million other things to do other than work on our novel. Or, we do start the novel but we work and re-work every single sentence to the point where all the joy and creativity is sucked out of the process and we’re left feeling like we’re processing dry, dead material that isn’t going anywhere. We’re frustrated and sad, and we may even feel angry with ourselves that things have come to this kind of a pass again, but on a deeper, subconscious level, we feel safe. We have self-sabotaged the process, and we are in no danger of actually being seen, heard, or becoming vulnerable.
This is a pattern that is nearly impossible for a writer to break if they don’t know what’s really going on with themselves below the surface. In order to shift and move into a new way of being that includes the actual possibility of finishing a creative work and putting it out there into the world, the writer has to go deep down and look at the root. It’s necessary to see and acknowledge the unprocessed trauma before we can get free of it.
The good news is that seeing and acknowledging are half the battle, and usually when the writer begins to excavate the past they also begin to see that they can let go of so much of the shame they’ve carried about it that’s been weighing them down for so long. As loving observers of their own history and wounds, they can begin to extend kindness and compassion toward themselves as children, and themselves as writers now.
This is not something you have to do on your own. Enlist the support of a good therapist, or a community of people who are similarly interested in healing. Read the memoirs of writers who have gone through experiences much like your own. Most of all, speak up and talk about what you’ve gone through, and you’ll find that so many others have walked your same path, and would love to extend a helping hand to you.
Lauren Sapala is the author of The INFJ Writer, The INFJ Revolution, and the creator of YOU Are a Writer, a online video course for writers who struggle with severe procrastination and perfectionism. She is also currently offering a free copy of her book on creative marketing for INFJ and INFP writers to anyone who signs up for her newsletter. SIGN UP HERE to get your free copy of Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers.