I’m an unsuccessful writer, how can I escape this feeling of despair?

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The question I am a nearly 40-year-old woman and I’ve recently realised that I have no idea what would make me happy. I’m married with children and a good career. We’re financially comfortable. I have nothing to complain about. Yet beneath the surface, I feel a sort of numb despair at life. I find no joy in anything. I dislike my job and feel disconnected from my family. I sleep poorly, which doesn’t help; sometimes at night I get so angry with myself for not being able to achieve this basic human function that I wish I would just die.

The one thing I’ve always wanted in life is to be a writer. I’ve had three books brought out by a large publisher, but they were unsuccessful. So, although people say I should be proud, I see myself as a failure. I keep telling myself not to give up, but increasingly it’s hard to find a reason to keep trying. I just cling to my old dream out of habit, and because it’s a vanishing spark of hope in an otherwise grey landscape.

How do I learn to take pleasure in what I have, and stop feeling so empty?

Philippa’s answer “A vanishing spark of hope in an otherwise grey landscape.” I love what a clear picture your metaphor painted. I’m not surprised you are a writer. I don’t think your mental health can afford for you to stop being a writer. Big publishing houses don’t just take anyone – you’d have to be effective for them to take you on – but you’ve got this internal voice telling you that you are a writing failure and, really, that voice is not as helpful as it thinks it is.

Where is it from, this voice of yours? Who does it remind you of? A parent who was too scared of failure that they never attempted anything? An overly critical teacher? Somebody or something who told you external success is everything and doing something merely because it works for you, is nothing? Who, or whatever it was, has got under your skin. They might be trying to help, but they need telling quite firmly by you that they really need to quieten down because they are doing the opposite of helping.

Your task is to recognise this inner critic. You won’t be able to silence it, it will keep on piping up, but you can observe it, separate it from you and show it to a small sound-proof cell – and shut it in. It will find a key to get out now and again, but you just say to it, “Oh hello, you’re back, not today, thank you.” Don’t have dialogue with it, or engage with it. This internal critic can stop telling you off for insomnia as well. A kinder inner voice will aid sleep.

Instead, direct your energy into your creativity. Wanting to do something – liking it, enjoying it – is reason enough to invest your time in it. You don’t have to be good at it as well. Judging yourself as either good or bad is really not the point; the point is to do what you have always wanted to do. It can be so freeing to recognise this.

Feelings! They feel like such a nuisance when they are not the ones you want to have. But it is a good thing you have them because they can help to steer your life towards self-actualisation – to being who you can be.

Because you are feeling “numb despair” you know something must change. Let’s see what else that could be. The following sentence troubled me a bit: “How do I learn to take pleasure in what I have and stop feeling so empty?” It sounds that, rather than listening to how you feel, you are trying to silence yourself. When we silence our feelings they tend to come back stronger in order to be heard, so they can come back as depression – it sounds as though you may be suffering from this already. In the future you can take pleasure in what you have, but not while you have forbidden yourself to keep on doing the one thing in life you’ve always wanted to do.

When you recommit to your writing self I’ve an inkling you will feel less depressed and will be able to reconnect with other aspects of your life, like your family. Your job sounds fabulous on paper, “a good career”, but you don’t enjoy it. If you can afford to maybe do less of it and more of what your whole body is telling you to do, I believe it would not only be better for you, but better for those around you, too.

Like the other people in your life, I don’t see you as a failure, but if you see yourself as one and cannot silence the inner critic on that, then change your attitude to failure. It is OK to fail. It is necessary to fail. The person that never failed, never made anything.

You told me about that spark that’s left in a grey landscape. Come on, let’s fan that spark, let’s give it some oxygen.

Yehudi Menuhin said: “Anything that one wants to do really, and one loves doing, one must do every day. It should be as easy and as natural as flying is to a bird. And you can’t imagine a bird saying well, I’m tired today, I’m not to going to fly.”

Fly, please, fly.

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