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Toltec Wisdom for Writers: The Second Agreement

A few months ago, I started dipping into Toltec spiritual practice to see what it might offer writers. Last week, I posted about some of what I found, based largely on the writings of Don Miguel Ruiz, the leading proponent of Toltec spirituality, and today I’m continuing that thread.

In 2010, psychologist John A. Johnson, wrote an article in Psychology Today that questions whether Ruiz’s principles actually stem from the thousand-year old spiritual wisdom of central Mexico. He points out that the ideas presented in Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements are very similar to concepts used by modern humanistic psychologists and cognitive-behavioral psychologists. It could be added that they are also similar to ideas found in zen, yoga, and a host of other spiritual paths. And yet, Johnson goes on to say that, regardless of where the “four agreements” came from, they’re worth paying attention to.

I agree. Not only do I think that the four agreements are useful to spiritual seekers—or anyone just trying to get through life relatively peacefully—but I think they have special and unique relevance to writers. In my last post, I applied the first of the four agreements--“Be impeccable with your word”-- to the writing life. Let’s look at the second:

Don’t Take Anything Personally

“Nothing others do is because of you,” explains Michelle Laub on the Human Potential Unlimited website. “What others say and do is a projection of their own dream.” Take it personally, and you will suffer. Realize it is coming out of them and has nothing to do with you, and their words and actions cannot hurt you.

Out of this simple principle comes two important lessons for writers.

1. A lot of criticism you will get is meaningless.

People will criticize your writing because of personal taste, a desire to sound knowledgeable, their own insecurities, or a lack of understanding of your work. Even professionals—teachers, editors, agents, and others—evaluate work from their own likes and dislikes and more-or-less educated guessing about whether the work will sell. They get it wrong often.

2. Constructive criticism—the kind that can really help you become a better writer—is  helpful only if you don’t take it personally.

If your teacher or editor tells you your novel bogs down in the middle, you might feel wounded, disappointed, annoyed, or angry. You might wonder why you took such a stupid class or hired an editor who clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. All of those reactions come from taking the criticism personally.

It’s only when you’re able to remove your ego from the scene and step away from the emotion that you can actually evaluate whether the criticism has a sound basis. Instead of feeling hurt, you might say. “I never realized this before. I’m glad someone caught it.” You might feel grateful for the advice and happy for the opportunity to increase your skills. Or you might say, “I think my teacher is wrong about this partcular thing. I don’t agree with this criticism”—but when you say it, it’s from a space of clarity and insight, not from defensiveness or anger.

Writers who get upset by criticism (and its cruel brother, Rejection) are usually the ones who fall by the wayside before they attain success. Learning not to take criticism personally will save you a lot of heartache, prevent you from feeling depleted by the difficulties of the writing life, and keep you on track when the going gets tough.

2 Comment count
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Very helpful!

Thank you for your helpful post. Your words are great to keep in mind.


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Glad you like it, Eva. 

Glad you like it, Eva.