Self-Doubt: The Writer’s Constant Companion

Every writer experiences self-doubt countless times. It crops up when we’re writing our first draft, revising our tenth draft, pitching our work to an agent, even showing up at a book signing. Whether you’re Stephen King or a writer who just discovered their calling last week, you’ll still experience self-doubt. Why does this happen to us?

Because every time you move out of your comfort zone doubt creeps in.

When self-doubt shows up it clamps its steely fingers around our ribcage, worms its way into our stomach and makes our guts boil, and then settles down into the back of our brain where it heckles us for the next hour or two.

Not surprisingly, the usual strategy for dealing with self-doubt is to push it away. Obviously, it makes us feel physically horrible, and badly about ourselves. We immediately register aversion—we don’t like this thing and we want it away from us.

So we instinctively try to create distance. We distract ourselves, vent our frustration on something else, and shove it far, far down into our deeps where we don’t have to look at it.

These are our protective mechanisms kicking into high gear, and it’s totally understandable. It’s the normal unconscious human reaction.

But if we choose to remain unconscious, we are giving our self-doubt a free pass to run the show. And it will keep running you on its destructive program. If you give away your power to self-doubt, sooner or later it will start calling the shots. It will convince you to give up on that first draft, not even attempt to revise the second, and not even think about approaching an agent.

When we resist self-doubt, we give our power to it. We automatically assume that it knows what’s best for us.

However, we can shift the way we deal with self-doubt from unconscious resistance to conscious observation. When we move into purely observing, we bring in detachment and give ourselves space to change perspective.

There is a Buddhist exercise that helps people handle their fears by asking them to invite the fear in for tea. We can do the same thing with self-doubt (which is a form of fear). Whenever your self-doubt about writing shows up, use your writer’s imagination and invite it in for tea. Give your self-doubt a comfy chair and the option of cream and sugar. Ask your self-doubt what’s been going on, what’s happening, what’s new?

Most importantly, ask your self-doubt why it’s choosing to show up now, and what can you learn about yourself from observing it?

The key is to treat your self-doubt like it’s about four years old. Yes, of course it has value and things to teach you, and a certain innocent way of looking at the world that is interesting, but the fact remains that a four-year-old does not get to run your life. For obvious reasons. Most four-year-olds may think they have really good ideas, but eating cake every day for breakfast just isn’t going to work in the long run.

Just like giving up on your first draft because you’re scared isn’t going to work either.

When it comes to your self-doubt, YOU are the parent in this situation. You are the one who knows the score and how things work. You make the rules.

Cake for breakfast is a special treat. And that first draft is meant to be finished.

Invite your self-doubt in for tea, listen to what it has to say and then carry on with your plans anyway.

If you enjoyed this article you might want to check out:

How to Measure Your Own Magic

Why You Should Stop Listening to Other Writers

Fear Is Not Our Natural State

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  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 20 August, 2014 at 10:13 am

    Thank you, I’ve just a mean fortnight of self-doubt – at the proofreading stage. If I hadn’t already registered my novel with Nielsen and various other bodies, and invited people to a November launch, it would have gone into a deep dark drawer. I really can see what is wrong with it, and several writer and other friends have also told me at various stages (though not always the same problems). However today one proofreader has complained that she keeps forgetting to to her task because she is so carried away with the story… and I’m on Cloud 9. Oh to be less susceptible… I will try to remember that I’m dealing with a 4 year old.

  • Reply Kathy Palm 20 August, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    Self-doubt has been creeping around more than usual lately. Possibly because I sent out a ms and I entered pitchwars. It likes to tell me I haven’t got a chance. Maybe it would like a piece of cake.

  • Reply Michelle Mueller 21 August, 2014 at 5:20 am

    Excellent post, as always. And well-timed, too. I’m about to send my short story out to literary journals again (the fourth round, I think). It’s got a lot of rejections to its name, and though I don’t normally dwell on it (I’ve come to expect it), it’s hard not to remember that fact when I’m prepping it for submission. Of course, I vacillate between “It will get published eventually” and “OMG, it’s not meant to see the light of day.” But I remind myself that I’ve got nothing to lose by at least getting it out there. The most they can do is say no.

    My rough drafts though . . . oi, that’s another subject entirely.

  • Reply Jon Simmonds 22 August, 2014 at 6:24 am

    Oh come now Lauren, I’m not averse to giving cake for breakfast 7 days a week a try… 😉

  • Reply RasmaR 22 August, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Self-doubt has often almost made me not post some of my best poetic works. I write up a poem and at the moment I consider it not to be publishable. However I haven’t posted anything in awhile so I decide to go ahead. If no one like this one they’ll like the next one. Then I discover that it had become among my best poetry and everyone like it. So I try never to self-doubt but instead to be absolutely confident.

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