Low self-esteem is something that you always know is there, in the back of your mind, but that you don’t often try to actively work on, mostly because it feels like such an uphill battle. Writers with low self-esteem are usually aware that they have the problem, but conquering it seems impossible. This is because low self-esteem is often something the writer has already struggled with for years, and also because there are no quick and easy answers.
The thing writers with low self-esteem hear the most often in the way of advice is, “Be more confident!” Or, “Love yourself!” This advice is pretty much worthless, because low self-esteem is not something you can just determine to get over, and then fight your way over it. It’s not something you can wish away or decide that you’re not going to struggle with anymore. Low self-esteem is insidious, shape-shifting, and for most writers who have it, a constant condition of life.
Low self-esteem, otherwise known as self-deprecation, takes root in a person when they are constantly criticized as children, or they were neglected to the point that they decided they were worthless to their parents. The key thing to know about self-deprecation is that it’s not just a side affect of feeling worthless as a kid, it’s also a protective mechanism the personality uses to prevent further emotional damage.
And this is why it’s so hard for writers with low self-esteem (self-deprecation) to receive any sort of compliment on their writing.
For people with self-deprecation, compliments and praise are triggering. One of the survival strategies people with self-deprecation use to protect themselves is to set the bar low when it comes to the expectations other people have of them, and this is because people with self-deprecation live in terror of disappointing others by making mistakes, giving a poor performance, or failing in some other way. If they disappoint others then the love will be withdrawn and they will be rejected. It’s better to warn people that they’ll probably mess up or that they aren’t good at something, so when they do fail (which they believe they will, because they have such severe low self-esteem) then person will expect it, and at least they won’t be rejected on top of it.
So, making sure the bar is set low in terms of the expectations of others, is actually a strategy people with self-deprecation use to protect themselves from rejection.
What happens when the person is a writer is that they end up in a war with themselves when it comes to receiving compliments and praise for their work. On the one hand, the praise feels good, because praise feels good to all of us, and people with self-deprecation badly need to hear that they are not, in reality, total failures. But it also feels extremely triggering, because it feels like an expectation is now being put in place that their writing will always be this good and they are never going to fail as a writer again. This feels like an enormous amount of pressure for writers with self-deprecation and if it goes far enough, it can also trigger a horrible case of imposter syndrome. Someone has praised their work and recognized them as a “good” writer, but they know they truth, they are a “bad” writer and a failure, and as soon as that truth is exposed, the love and approval will be withdrawn and they will be rejected.
This is a really sticky issue for writers to work through, because there are so many moving pieces to the problem. However, it is possible to cut through all the layers and use a simple approach to begin to loosen the grip self-deprecation has on the writer.
The important thing to remember is that writers with self-deprecation feel safe when they stay small. Staying small (or altogether invisible) completely avoids all the discomfort of what to do with heightened expectations from others and the risk of disappointing others when they try something and fail. If they stay small and/or invisible, not only do others not place high expectations on them, but others usually don’t even notice they are there.
Working with this one key thing in mind, the first step for writers with self-deprecation is to start showing up in a bigger way in the world. This will feel VERY uncomfortable at first, but it must be done if we ever want to get out of the grip of self-deprecation. Showing up in a bigger way means putting our writing out there, where other people can find it, and sitting with the uncomfortable feelings this brings on until they pass through. It’s perfectly okay to stay invisible for the moment by using an anonymous blog or pen name, as long as the writing itself is not hidden. The more writers with self-deprecation practice with putting their writing out into the world, and accepting the discomfort that follows, the more comfortable they will ultimately be with throwing off the invisibility cloak and showing up in the world in a bigger way.
As with all personal growth work, this is not an overnight process. It’s a series of baby steps that build up over time to help you grow into a more conscious person who is willing to take more risks, in writing and in life. It’s a muscle you exercise regularly as you watch it grow stronger. You will still have bad days and days where you feel like a total failure and if anyone ever really found out what a worthless person you are no one would ever love you again. That’s pretty normal for writers with self-deprecation. So don’t despair. Just keep showing up, keep doing the work, step by tiny step, and you’ll get there.
Lauren Sapala is the author of The INFJ Writer and The INFJ Revolution. She is also currently offering a free copy of her book on creative marketing for INFJ and INFP writers to anyone who signs up for her newsletter. SIGN UP HERE to get your free copy of Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers.