The Tale of a Writer's Overactive "I" Function

merry2e's picture

A Writer’s Tale of the Overactive “I” Function

As I sat down to write my final paper for Neurobiology and Behavior, my mind once again goes completely blank. The sensory input streaming in is almost too much to process. I stare at the white screen and all I hear is the faint hum from the computer and the ticking from the Wizard of Oz clock that haunts me from across the room, counting down the time until my next deadline. Somatic symptoms are abundant as my heart begins to race and my hands begin to shake. I want to shout, “I can’t write one more word!” Yes, my overactive “I” function has decided to have a temper tantrum and get in the way again. The inner conversation sounds like this:

First Voice: “That topic is boring, a lot of other people have written about it much better than I ever could.”

Second Voice: “You need to come up with something unique. You are a Bryn Mawr student and a McBride. McBride Scholars are ‘unique’.”

Third Voice: “Maybe you are just not good enough.”

Fourth Voice: “Don’t Panic! You can do it. You have life experience. That counts for something, doesn’t it?”

Fifth Voice: “Ok. So what are we writing about?”

By the time the fifth voice enters the conversation (and really they are all they same voice, my “I” in complete hyper-overdrive), I have already entered into what is known as writer’s block. I cannot think of a word to put down on the paper and my overly conscious self has won again. Writer’s block, a well known phenomenon to musicians, authors, and those in the world of academia can be a haunting and a self destructive dilemma. What causes writer’s block? What was causing my severe anxiety every time I sat down to write a paper? Was it simply self-doubt? Or did the collegiate atmosphere I was in contribute to the disabling effects I was feeling? These were just a couple of the questions I pondered as I started wandering the web for answers to the problem. I had been questioning my entire first year as a McBride Scholar at Bryn Mawr looking for the turning point into the dark abyss of writer’s oblivion when I realized the “why” of what was happening did not matter so much. The immediate problem was “how” to get out of the situation. If I could just settle my “I” function down a bit then maybe I could get to work.

The field of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), with Albert Ellis known as the founding grandfather and one of the most influential psychotherapists in U.S. history, has become an umbrella term for many different modes of behavioral therapies that developed in the mid to late twentieth century (1). Ellis developed Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) in 1955, a type of therapy that falls under CBT. At that time, the diversion from Freudian psychoanalysis to REBT did not happen easily and Ellis was chastised for his unusual therapeutic techniques. Instead of the armchair/couch psychoanalytic based therapy that most clinicians were following at the time, Ellis insisted the role of the therapist was to help the client understand that their irrational beliefs can lead to emotional pain and to actively participate in changing these thoughts by action. REBT assumes that emotional reactions to a situation are triggered by conscious or unconscious evaluations and interpretations. In turn, the client feels anxious because they convince themselves that they cannot do something or they are going to fail, or whatever they negative, irrational belief may be (2).

The first step in REBT is for the therapist to recognize the irrational beliefs that are having a

negative impact in the client’s life and then to begin challenging these negative beliefs.  In the case

 of my writer’s block, I decided to write a list of all the things that went on in my head when I was

writing, before and after I would turn in a paper. The end result always went back to the same two

beliefs: “I SHOULD have done something different, because it wasn’t good enough” or “If I spent

more time I COULD have done a lot better, it wasn’t good enough.” I was convinced the inner critic

had to be squashed for I knew it was blocking my ability to express myself. Ellis believes there are

four distinctive tactics the inner critic uses in the thought process in order to make the client feel or

act in a negative way. These include:

1.      Awfulising: using words like awful, terrible, horrible to describe a situation. “It’s the worse thing that could happen,” “That would be the end of the world.”

2.      Can’t-stand-it-itis: viewing an event or experience as unbearable. “I can’t stand it.” “I’ll die if I get rejected.”

3.      Demanding: using “Shoulds” or “musts”, what Ellis coined “musturbating.” “I should not have done that.”

4.      People-Rating: labeling or rating your total self. “I’m stupid, hopeless, useless, and worthless” (2).

Not only was my inner critic awfulising, shoulding, musturbating, and labeling to keep me from performing, the inner critic was pervasive, creeping into other aspects of my life than just the writer’s block. 

Another one of Ellis’s developments in REBT are the “12 Irrational Ideas that Cause and Sustain Neurosis.” On the list I came across an idea that completely resonated with how I was feeling and how many other women at BMC I have engaged with expressed they were feeling, also.  The eighth irrational belief states, “The idea that we should be thoroughly competent, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects -- instead of the idea that we would better do rather than always need to do well and accept ourself as a quite imperfect creature, who has general human limitations and specific fallibilities” (2).  At this point, I decided to look at every academic challenge “as growth in my intelligence” instead of “I was stupid” or “not good enough” for not knowing. This seemed to help for a short while with the writer’s block until I decided to go out of my comfort zone and take a very challenging writing course.

While studying colorblindness in relation to culture as disability, I began to realize the implicit effects culture can have on how the “I” function reacts in certain situations. In particular, the culture of Bryn Mawr College, with a diverse, affirming, and accepting community of students from a host of different experiences and backgrounds, does have a “culture as disability” aspect. As part of the honor code, students do not discuss grades though perfection and competition are extremely encouraged in many aspects of life on campus. In my opinion grades in themselves are not representative of person’s true intelligence and experience or how they will succeed. Thus, grading not only limits ones ability to progress but can instill negative irrational beliefs enhancing the inner critics voice, especially in the young. The more I began to tell myself I was not a grade, the easier it became for me to write and break out of the limiting effects of the writer’s block, though I still had some neural pathway work to do that CBT or understanding the effects of culture would not deal with.

Disregarding the mind-body connection and the somatic symptoms I was experiencing when I needed to write was not helping my cause so I needed to turn to other means of resolving my dilemma. As a very young child, I experienced several traumatic situations and my body learned to deal with threatening situations, as we all do, by activating the flight or fight response. The limbic system, located in the center of the brain between the brain stem and cerebral cortex regulates survival behaviors and expressions of emotion, also influencing memory processing (3).  The limbic system and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) work in conjunction with one another. The ANS has two branches, the sympathetic branch (SNS) and the parasympathetic branch (PNS) and under normal circumstances these functions are in balance with one another (3).  During a threatening situation, the limbic system sends hormones to the SNS to prepare for the flight or fight response. The body kicks in and responds to the situation and then releases cortisol to end the fight or flight response.  The entire system is called the HPA axis. 

In the case of some people who experience repeated trauma, their bodies and brains develop a new pattern and cannot be turned off by the HPA axis and can suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety or a host of medical complications from stress. Later in adulthood, someone who experiences a perceived threat (I am not going to be able to write, I am not good enough, I am going to get in trouble if I do not finish, etc. the irrational beliefs) they can be aroused and experience similar activation of fight or flight response symptoms.  When I would sit down to my computer to write, I would constantly be looking at the clock across the room.  I would begin to shake, sweat and feel sick. Because I had been in therapy at this point for a considerable length of time, I knew that watching the clock and counting numbers was associated with negative memories. I decided immediately to remove the clock from the wall. Instead of filling my head with irrational beliefs and coming down on myself for not finishing what I thought I needed to do in a day, I began to write a list of all the many things I did accomplish. When I stopped counting the minutes, my anxiety diminished allowing my brain to focus on the task.

Through my experience of writer’s block, I learned different types of therapies can change behaviors depending on the person, what their personal situation is, and the root cause of the issue. Just as my bathing salts are different than my best friend’s or my daughters, so are my life experiences. As I finish my last writing assignment for my first year as a McBride at Bryn Mawr College I still experience the anxiety all students face when handing in a paper.  What I know now about myself and what I am slowing changing in my body and my neural pathways is that I am not perfect nor do I want to be. I am a work in progress. One that cannot be graded nor can there be a timed deadline on my intelligence or knowledge. I continue to try and get it “a little more right” every day or “a little less wrong” according to Professor Grobstein. My overactive “I” function still tries to step in and take over and sometimes I let it and sometimes I don’t. It just depends on which “I” I feel like dealing with. 

 Works Cited

(1)   Albert Ellis, Wikipedia.

(2)   Albert Ellis Information: The Official Site of Dr. Ellis Albert.

(3)   Rothschild, Babette. The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. New York: Norton, 2000.    


Paul Grobstein's picture

Writer's block and the I-function

Nice story and with significance well beyond writer's block, I suspect. See Re-imagining the Sacred Self and comments following it ... I-function as "its own friend and its own worst enemy"?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.