I’ve followed Colleen for a while now, and love her blog and all of her posts. They have become a highlight of my monday and #MondayBlogs. Today, she guest posts on my site. Enjoy! I know you will learn something. I did.
I’ve interviewed over 100 authors over the past two years, and I’ve learned one thing we all have in common:
From short-story writers to novelists, thriller escapers to romance weavers to fantasy spinners to literary thinkers, self-published to traditionally published, newbies to old hats, it doesn’t matter.
Just about every writer had a story to tell about how the self-doubt demon had threatened to open its giant mouth and swallow her whole.
“I become plagued with self-doubt,” says women’s fiction writer Linda K. Sienkiewicz. “I fear I’m wasting my time, kidding myself when I say I’m a writer, flogging a dead horse. Oh, those horrible negative voices in my head!”
“I wage a constant battle with self-doubt,” says USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Bernard. “I often think of it as an iron ball chained to my leg, slowing me down. It makes everything more difficult. Promotion is harder, bouncing back from rejection is harder. I wonder what the writing life would be like without it?”
Jennifer admits she may never know, and I imagine the same could be said for most writers (and other creative artists). Though we can beat it back, self-doubt is like a mosquito in the middle of the night. No matter how many times you swat at it, it just keeps buzzing in your ear and biting your skin.
And it’s got teeth, very sharp, dangerous teeth. If we allow it to get too close, it can shred our confidence, sap our motivation, and gradually tear down our desire to create at all.
“And if I’ve learned one thing,” said animated movie Frozen director and screenwriter Jennifer Lee during a University of New Hampshire commencement speech in 2014, “it’s that self-doubt is one of the most destructive forces….Self-doubt is consuming and cruel and my hope is today that we can all collectively agree to ban it.”
Unfortunately, if we think we can somehow live life without it, we’re going to be disappointed. I’ve learned through lots of interviews with creative people that it’s a common companion, no matter how successful you get.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to let it mess with us. Below are three signs that self-doubt is trying to destroy your creative world—and what you can do to stop it.
1. Your work isn’t fun anymore.
You’re dreading, or worse, avoiding your writing time. You slog through the pages like you’re walking through a four-foot drift. When people ask you how it’s going, you change the subject, roll your eyes, or shrug your shoulders.
“Okay,” you say, and let it go at that.
Something’s wrong, but you’re not sure what. Could be that you’re tired—not enough sleep or too much stress in your life. Maybe you’ve been eating a lousy diet or you’ve avoided your exercise.
But beware, because this could be the work of the self-doubt demon. It lurks around at the edges of your subconscious mind, feeding you destructive messages about how your work is going nowhere, and is a complete waste of time.
In other words, it’s a huge killjoy.
If you’ve noticed that you just can’t get excited about your work these days, take a moment to think back. Maybe some event preceded how you feel. A rejection, critical review, or even an offhand comment from a friend. Maybe someone said something about how much money you make (or don’t) as a writer, or you came to the realization that your book just hasn’t sold well.
Maybe it was your own thought that started it all. “I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s been five years and I haven’t gotten as far as I hoped.”
Somewhere along the way, a seed was planted, and self-doubt grew.
Once you discover what started it all, write it down. (If you can’t remember, just write down your main doubting thought.) Seeing the cause or even just the thought in black-and-white can help it feel less powerful.
Next, ask yourself if you’ve been here before. Has this type of statement or event (like a rejection) triggered this feeling in you in the past? Do you remember attaching a lot of significance to a similar opinion or event in your life? If so, did you overcome it?
If you’re still writing, the answer is “yes.”
Realize that self-doubt is habitual. Finding evidence of similar feelings in the past can help you realize that this is just a pattern, and that you don’t have to give it so much power or significance. The more you see evidence of that, the less pressure and heaviness you’ll feel, which will help you more quickly get back to the fun of creating.
2. You’re not showing anyone your work.
You say that it’s not ready yet, but when you go to work on your manuscript, you know you’re tinkering. It’s time, but you keep finding reasons to wait.
Reasons to hide.
One of the biggest mistakes I made in my writing career was failing to submit often enough. It was only when I finally got ticked off at my lack of progress that I splurged on submissions. Shortly after that, I got my first novel publishing contract.
Looking back, I know that I feared rejection. I kept thinking if I could make the submission perfect, maybe I could avoid the pain, but that’s not how it works.
I know now that it’s better for your overall career to keep writing—move on to the next project, and the next—while getting your old work out there. Even if you don’t get it published, you’ll learn something, either through editor/agent comments or just by gaining some space from your work, and moving onto the next project.
Most likely, if you’re not sharing your work, self-doubt has a hold on you.
Create a submission schedule. Send your story or poem or novel out to five places at a time (journals, magazines, editors, agents, your choice). If and when they come back, send them out to five more. Then move on to your next project.
Ignore the doubt. Just do the work. Gradually, the doubt will fade on its own, or it won’t, but you won’t be allowing it to slow your progress.
3. You’re comfortable where you are.
On the surface, everything looks good.
You’re writing. You’re producing material. Maybe you’re publishing and selling your stuff. You’re blogging and interacting with other writers. You’re content.
Sounds good, right? So what does this have to do with self-doubt?
Content means comfortable. And comfortable means stagnation.
“My personal research,” says life coach Ibukunolu, “revealed that unsuccessful people are often stagnant; they hate change, in fact majority of them vehemently fight change because of fear of the unknown. On the other hand, the same research revealed that successful people are constantly evolving, constantly creating, constantly exploring, constantly improving, and constantly moving forward; they love change, in fact they thrive on risks and uncertainties.”
Have you gotten too comfortable? Do you have a hard time remembering the last time you were nervous, or worried about your work? That spells “SAFE” in big red letters, and safe likely means you doubt your ability to go any further.
There’s nothing wrong with resting for awhile at a certain level of achievement, but if you stop there for too long, you’ll soon start to go backwards.
“Once you stop learning, you start dying,” Albert Einstein said.
That’s right. Make some space in your life.
Give yourself at least thirty minutes a day for at least a week when you have NOTHING on your calendar.
Boredom has been shown in studies to encourage creativity, and you need new, creative ideas to challenge yourself. In one 2014 study, for instance, the group of participants that were most bored scored the highest on tests of creativity.
During that 30 minutes, jot down ideas for your next project—something that’s beyond anything you’ve done so far. Maybe a novel if you’ve written mostly short stories. Maybe a self-published book if you’re traditionally published. Maybe a speaking event, online workshop, or new video feature on your blog.
There are two benefits to this approach. One, you’ll have a week’s worth of new ideas by the time you’re done. Surely one of these will excite you enough to get you to take action.
Two, that excitement will help shadow any self-doubt you feel about being able to stretch yourself. Finding a project you can sink your teeth into—and that you feel, instinctively, is the next step you need to take—can motivate you to move beyond any doubts you have to give it a try.
Don’t Believe What Self-Doubt Tells You
These are just a few of the ways that self-doubt shows its ugly head in our lives. There are many others.
Your best bet is to stay alert. When you catch those destructive thoughts sneaking in, try to step back from them. Realize that they come up for a number of reasons, but the least likely one is that they’re true.
Instead, it could be an ingrained thinking pattern, stress, exhaustion, how you were raised, or just the fact that you’re a sensitive, creative person.
Whatever self-doubt is telling you, don’t bother arguing with it. Take meaningful action that will help you get excited about your work again, because when you’re working and actually involved in (instead of just thinking about) the creative process, that’s usually when you feel most confident.
Have you struggled with self-doubt? How did you get past it? Please share your thoughts.
Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, “Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?” Creativity Research Journal, May 8, 2014; 26(2): 165-173, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400419.2014.901073.
Colleen M. Story writes imaginative fiction and is also a health writer, instructor, and motivational speaker specializing in creativity, productivity, and personal wellness. She is the founder of Writing and Wellness, a motivational site for writers and other creatives. Her latest novel, Loreena’s Gift, was released with Dzanc Books April 12, 2016. Her fantasy novel, Rise of the Sidenah, is a North American Book Awards winner, and New Apple Book Awards Official Selection (Young Adult). Find more at her website, or follow her on Twitter.