Preserving Your Sanity While Writing

Over two decades of writing about mental health, I’ve found a gem in an approach called Constructive Living. This is not so much a type of therapy as a way to view the relationships between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Constructive Living (CL for short) has helped me so much during the sometimes lonely and frustrating experience of writing that I want to share it with you.

CL is the brainchild of David K. Reynolds, who synthesized several approaches to meditation and psychotherapy.

Reduced to its core, CL says that health springs from a balance between reflection and action. When troubled by negative feelings, we can apply four core principles to achieve this balance:

Feel your feelings. Since we cannot directly control our feelings, the wisest possible response is to simply accept them as they are. This is easier to do once we reflect on the true nature of feelings — fluid, complex, morally neutral, and often illogical. Feelings are not good or bad, right or wrong — they simply are. Moreover, most feelings will fade on their own if we simply accept them and let them pass without fanfare.

Think about your purpose. When in emotional turmoil, we can often benefit from a subtle but significant mental shift. Instead of dwelling on feelings of resistance to writing, we can ask: What is my purpose? What do I intend to do with my manuscript today? This moves us from a realm where we have little control (feelings) to one where we have a great deal of control (behavior).

Do what’s needed. Even when feeling down, we can still take constructive action: When sad, we can still make phone calls. When angry, we can still go to the library. When uninspired, we can still write. Once we move into the stream of action, our feelings will often cease to be a problem.

I’ve reduced these principles to a three-word mantra that’s steadied me during many emotional tremors: feel, think, do.

A bonus principle from CL is: Focus your attention. There’s a saying: “Self-centeredness is suffering.” When I’m feeling sad or angry, my attention is usually on myself — often on how other people are failing to give me exactly what I want. This line of thought serves little purpose but to increase my negative mood.

Refocusing my attention is one way to restore perspective and re-enter the world outside my head. Instead of dwelling on others’ faults, I can review my next action list for tasks that need doing: papers to be filed. Books to read. Mail to be sorted. Drafts to finish. Going further, I can focus on creating new ways to improve my work process and create value for readers.

The preceding summary hardly does justice to CL, and I urge you to learn more on your own. Especially useful is a short book by Reynolds called simply Constructive Living. More recent and more detailed is A Handbook of Constructive Living. Either of these will lead you to more of Reynolds’ work.

Photo by Vincepal, Flickr Creative Commons

4 thoughts on “Preserving Your Sanity While Writing”

  1. Thanks much, Mike. I remember that Michael Toms interview with David Reynolds. Yes, CL was ahead of its time, and some of the newer mindfulness-based therapies echo those core CL principles…. And, I am glad to learn about those unpublished books.

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  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I read David Reynolds’ “water” books 10-15 years ago after listening to a great interview with him on Michael Toms’ New Dimensions radio series. I may have forgotten many particulars but my mantra became “Accept your feelings. Know your purpose. Do what needs to be done.” As I read and look more at the self-help books that are out there, the wisdom packed into those little books strikes me as very much ahead of its time (if not out of its time).

    David Reynolds has posted many of his unpublished books, which seem to mainly be reflections on other texts through the filter of CL, at his web site: http://www.constructiveliving.org/index.html

    And thank you for your blog. I’ve been a reader of self-help, pop psych, and denser texts for many years, and I enjoy reading your reflections of the field.

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