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Monday, March 13, 2023

Dealing with Self-Doubt as a Writer

Dealing with self-doubt can be an important skill to learn as a writer. While doubt often feels like a negative experience, it's actually arguably a natural, healthy one. Once you properly understand doubt, the trick is to keep it from becoming toxically unbalanced.

Quite a while ago at this point, a follower asked me a question that related to self-doubt. 

Now, I'm certainly not a psychologist or a therapist or anything like that. But I've certainly been plagued by self-doubt as much as probably any writer--and when I was starting out, likely even more.

I definitely don't know everything on the subject, and if you are dealing with legit trauma, you'll probably want to go to a professional. 

With that said, I think my views on it may be useful to some people. (They are also useful for me to revisit.) And I know there will be some people who disagree with what I say--and that's okay. No one has to agree with me on everything.

But maybe you will learn something new.

Because we all deal with self-doubt on occasion. 

And if you are a person who literally never experiences self-doubt, while many would likely envy you, I personally would be a little worried for you, for reasons that will make sense by the end of this article.

You see, contrary to what our culture seems to want us to believe, experiencing some form of self-doubt is a natural--and I'd even argue--healthy thing.

It only truly becomes a problem when it is so unbalanced, that it becomes toxic, that you let it stop you from doing anything, from living the life of your dreams.

If you can't tell yet . . . my take on this topic will likely be atypical.

But I do think it will be helpful.

First, however, I want to lay out some important groundwork. . . .

2 Types of Thoughts: Passing vs. Intentional

Every once in a while, I hear a writer (or other professional) get asked, "Did you ever think of quitting?"

What seems like a simple question, is actually, rather complicated.

Because realistically, the thought of quitting should naturally pass through everyone's minds. The question is how long it stayed there and how seriously that person thought of it.

So, the questioner is actually asking: "Did you ever seriously consider quitting?"

You see, we all have at least two types of thoughts: passing thoughts and intentional thoughts.

Passing thoughts are thoughts that naturally pass through your head--they may come up because of your current environment or circumstances, because of your biological needs, because of your personal tendencies, or because of whatever problem you are mentally trying to work out. For example, I may be at self-check-out and notice a man bagging his items without scanning them. A passing thought that would probably naturally come up is, That guy is stealing.

Might be true. Might not be true.

But it's natural for that to pass through my mind.

Intentional thoughts are different. They are thoughts we intend to think. They are thoughts we have more control over. I may choose to think about food because I'm a chef, and I like to come up with new recipes (not really). Or I may choose to think about the next scene I want to write because I love writing (really). Or, I may choose to either refute the idea this guy at self-check-out is stealing, reinforce the idea, or consider both sides of the argument.

Often passing thoughts lead to intentional thoughts.

That guy is stealing, may lead me to intentionally be on the lookout for signs that he is.

But it's also possible that intentional thoughts lead to passing thoughts.

For example, if I'm trying to intentionally solve a problem I'm having with a friend, I might have the passing thought of She'll never forgive me.

That may or may not be true. Depending on the situation and relationship, it may be completely probable or completely improbable.

If you don't know the difference between passing and intentional thoughts, it can lead you toward some misconceptions. When I've mentioned this to people, on more than one occasion, someone has said, "I used to think I was a terrible person, because of my passing thoughts." In reality, it's your intentional thoughts and what you choose to do with the passing thoughts that matter most.

I think some of us are more predisposed or are in environments to have certain passing thoughts more than other people. And I also think it's not always easy to discern which category every thought fits into. Thoughts are weird.

But some types of passing thoughts are natural for any healthy human mind.

And that includes thoughts of doubt.

This leads me to my next foundational topic . . .

Befriend Your Negative Feelings--They're Natural

As I observe the world around me, I notice that many people's problems come from them not wanting to experience negative feelings. (And I'm probably no exception.)

On the one hand, this is completely understandable and good--not wanting to feel fear will motivate you to avoid life-threatening danger. On the other hand, this is rather ridiculous because real life entails experiencing negative feelings regardless of what you do. I mean, even someone who literally does nothing will have bad things happen to them, or will have to experience boredom, or may have to live with the pains of what could have been.

Yet so many people try to run from negative feelings.

So many people are so terrified of experiencing negative feelings that they will go to great lengths and take bizarre, illogical paths to avoid them.

However, contrary to how they make you feel, negative feelings aren't always bad.

In fact, they are often very natural.

Now, this isn't to say we need to run amok and make a huge point to experience negative feelings--use common sense.

But rather than try to eradicate negative feelings altogether, it's often actually more beneficial and more effective (in my opinion) to learn to live and work with them. Befriend your negative feelings. (At least at first--it's great if you can let them go when they aren't serving you.)

Sometimes trying to eradicate negative feelings is, actually, the same thing as trying to run away from them . . . because some types of negative feelings and logical processes will never go away--and they shouldn't. And if you have a problem with them, then maybe it's because you're trying to uproot them altogether. (Remember--doubt only truly becomes a problem when it is so unbalanced, it's toxic.)

Depending on the situation, that can lead you on a dangerous path. 

Imagine brainwashing yourself to the point that you literally no longer felt any doubt.

Imagine the terrible problems and situations you might get yourself into. What if you spent all your savings on lottery tickets because there was no question in your mind that you wouldn't win--it never even crossed your mind (passing thought)? What if you wreaked havoc on your relationships because you were always 100% sure the other person would immediately agree with you, or do whatever you wanted, or feel exactly as you felt about something? What if you quit your job because you never had a moment of doubt that you could feed your kids while living your life as a beach bum?

Doubt is good.

Doubt is logical.

Doubt is a natural, healthy part of our thought processes.

It allows us to foresee problems, live in reality, and prepare for negative outcomes.

This is why if you never experience doubt--about writing or otherwise--I'd be worried about you.

Rather than try to run away from doubt--which will lead us to do nothing--or try to eradicate doubt--which will lead to frustration (or worse things if you are somehow successful)--it's best to learn to live with and manage doubt.

The point isn't to get rid of it completely.

The point is to live with it.

The point is to manage it and keep it from becoming unbalanced and toxic.

With that in mind, let's talk about some common writing doubts that naturally come up.

Common Writing Doubts

If you are a writer and are interrupted by the following doubts, guess what? You are probably normal!

Because, at least some of these will likely naturally come up in any healthy, functioning human brain--at least as passing thoughts.

Here are some sets of doubts that most of us deal with:

Doubts about Mortality

Am I wasting my time/life with writing? Is there something better I should be doing? Is there something more meaningful I should be doing that will help more people? If this doesn't pan out, will I have wasted years? My life?

Doubts about Skills and Status

What if I'm not a "real" writer? What if I'm a terrible one? What if my story is dreadful? What if I'll never be great?

Doubts about Outcomes and Reception

What if no one wants to read my story? What if people judge me for it? What if my loved ones hate it? Then hate me? What if I make no money at this? What if others don't support me? What if I'm a disappointment to them?

Doubt's job is to prepare us for negative outcomes.

When passing thoughts of doubt come up, it's just doubt doing its job.

It's nothing to be scared of.

We just want to keep it in check.

In Dramatica Theory (you didn't think I'd be throwing out storytelling theory today, did you?), archetypes are determined by the natural functions of the human brain. The archetype that represents doubt is called "The Skeptic." If the voice of skepticism isn't expressed in a story, something will feel off to the audience, because a natural thought process is missing in the piece. If a character doesn't voice doubt, the audience will--this often manifests as the audience losing their willing suspension of disbelief.

But The Skeptic is balanced out by "The Sidekick," an archetype that represents and voices confidence. The Sidekick is a loyalist who is completely faithful to who or what they believe in. Their job is to be supportive.

We all have passing doubt. But if we don't balance it out with The Sidekick--faith and confidence--we'll find ourselves sinking and swirling in a vortex of despair. We'll find ourselves toxically unbalanced.

Tell Yourself a Better Lie

The Skeptic and The Sidekick are complete opposites, but they do have one thing in common: They are used to predict outcomes.

The Skeptic expresses what could go wrong.

The Sidekick expresses what could go right.

Doubt prepares us for negative outcomes.

Faith prepares us for positive outcomes.

When you are dealing with self-doubt, often you are dealing with perceived negative outcomes.

And while they maybe could happen, they haven't happened yet, so aren't necessarily real.

There is an online therapist I like to listen to named Marisa Peer, who created what's called "Rapid Transformational Therapy." She has worked as a therapist for highly successful people. When an actor in Hollywood was having a mental breakdown, she'd be called in to address the issue so that moviemakers could keep filming (they have expensive deadlines to meet after all).

I like a lot of Peer's approaches and perspectives. One of the things I've heard her explain multiple times that I find interesting, is that she says a lot of our expressions of toxic self-doubt are actually lies.

Think about it.

You may tell yourself, "Well, I'm not a real writer," even after you've spent days, months, or years writing. (Imposter syndrome, anyone?)

Or you may say, "No one will buy this book. Everyone will think it's terrible." But you don't know for sure if that is true. You don't know if that's reality.

Or you may say, "I am just sitting here wasting my life!" But that may not be correct. It may be that you write something as impactful as Harry Potter.

And yet when I say something like that, The Skeptic naturally comes in and says, "No way. Never gonna happen. Do you know how many people haven't written something that had that impact?"

The Skeptic is just doing its job.

But guess what? The Sidekick can "lie" just as effectively.

So, as Peer suggests, tell yourself a better lie.

Instead of intentionally thinking and dwelling on, "I'm not a real writer," intentionally think and dwell on, "I'm an amazing writer! People line up clear down the street just to get a book signed."

That may not be true. But neither is the statement, "I'm not a real writer." If you write, you are a real writer.

If you are going to be "lying" to yourself anyway, you might as well tell yourself a better lie. One that actually serves you. 😉

Don't mistake me--I'm not saying we should live in a non-reality. Remember what I've been saying much of this time: Doubt is a natural, important part of the human mind.

I'm not saying you need to throw it clear out the window.

But if it's toxically unbalanced, you need to counter it by utilizing your Sidekick thought processes. "Everyone loves this book." "This is gonna be a bestseller." "I'm one of the best writers." "I work harder on and utilize my time the best with this book."

You will go further and be more successful with the voice of The Sidekick in your mind. If you believe in yourself and are moving forward, you can improve. If you don't have any faith or confidence at all, you'll never do anything or go anywhere. 

So don't hate The Skeptic, but don't neglect The Sidekick.

The more The Skeptic threatens to overwhelm you, the more you need to call upon and utilize The Sidekick (generally speaking).

As Marisa Peer also talks about, your mind often believes what you tell it to. You can imagine a fresh, crisp, juicy lemon, and your mouth will start watering. (As fiction writers, we know this, I mean . . . we're trying to create an experience for the reader all the time.) If you intentionally think with The Sidekick, your body and behavior will generally follow (or at least improve).

You can be shaking in your boots about an upcoming task, but if you tell yourself, "I'm an amazing X, and everything I touch turns to gold," you'll feel (and act) more capable.

Of course (you know me), there are always exceptions, such as if you literally have a chemical imbalance beyond your control. Or some of us really are fighting figurative dragons in our lives right now, which makes it all more difficult. Generally speaking, though, I think it can help nearly everyone (and maybe even, to some degree, the person with the imbalance or dragons).

A lot of doubts and insecurities are rooted in the belief that you aren't enough. Start saying and trying to believe you are enough, just the way you currently are, and you may be surprised by what follows.

How I Personally Deal with Overwhelming Self-Doubt

Probably like most of you, I've had experiences with overwhelming self-doubt--the kind of stuff that cripples you and makes you want to crawl into bed with the lights off. I could go into some anecdotes, but I don't really see the point.

If we don't want to eradicate doubt, how do we manage it? We feed The Sidekick and reign in The Skeptic.

Here are some things I do to personally do that:

Intentionally Think Positive Thoughts

Doubt will naturally come in as a passing thought, and that's okay. And it's even okay to intentionally consider it. But if it isn't helping or serving me, I need to intentionally think good thoughts as I feed myself lots of positive self-talk. 

Some people reading this will roll their eyes at this, but one of the phrases I've been saying to myself lately, is "Everything I touch turns to gold." Not magically--I have to put in that effort--but it's the idea that I have the capacity to turn anything I cross into metaphorical gold. Everything will become better because of what I do. Is it true? Well, is telling the opposite to myself true? (No.) Whether or not I actually better everything that comes my way, I will likely come closer to bettering it, by thinking I can. 

Another phrase that is helpful for me, that I learned from a dear neighbor is, "I can do hard things." And because coping is a big deal, I sometimes add "while coping constructively" (not destructively).

If it's helpful to you, maybe come up with a few go-to phrases you can intentionally think when self-doubt threatens to overwhelm you.

Guided Meditations

Meditation is a great way to calm a fearful, doubtful mind. But because my writer brain always has a gazillion things it enjoys thinking about, when the going gets tough, I do my best meditations with some guidance. Honest Guys on Youtube is my favorite (and they even have fantasy-themed meditations, like The Hobbit 😉.) I also like Jason Stephenson. Beyond those, there are a few popular apps to consider, like Calm and Headspace (but I like Honest Guys and Jason more).

And I know I said I wasn't gonna get anecdotal, but I guess I lied. I'll keep it short though. I once had to regularly teach a Sunday School class that I was terrified to teach--I was the second youngest person in the class and probably the second least experienced. I couldn't eat anything within two hours before church because I got so nervous. For a long time, every Sunday I taught, I'd find a relevant guided meditation (like one for fear or about confidence) from Honest Guys and do that in the morning, and it would work wonders in calming me. 

Recording Kind Words

Giving yourself positive self-talk is great, because no one can take that away from you. But when I'm really fearful or have toxic doubt, it's sometimes equally helpful to recall kind words and good things other people have said to or about me. These days, it's easy to write them in your phone and pull them out whenever The Skeptic threatens to overcome you. When I feel like I need more than positive self-talk, I have the positive words and compliments of others to help bolster me. And back when I was young, and lacking much experience, when I felt like I couldn't fully rely on myself or my own judgment, I had real words from those outside of me.

Along those lines, just recalling positive memories and experiences can help me balance out the negativity washing over me.

Prayer and Spiritual Guidance

As you probably guessed from my anecdote, I'm a spiritual and religious person. Turning to God in prayer, as well as turning to the scriptures, definitely helps me. Many programs for those who are struggling in life, perhaps with addictions, talk about how exercising belief in a higher power can lead to more success. I know not everyone believes in such things, but this is what works for me. Even if you don't believe in a God god, turning to some kind of higher power may be helpful to you.

Replenish Your Motivation (and Yourself)

When dealing with doubt, it's helpful for me to recall why I started this writing journey and what I hope to get out of it. I do this by looking at the past and remembering the (good) reasons why I'm presently here (as well as maybe reflecting on how far I've come). But I also look to the future and imagine what success appears and feels like.

Now, I have the tendency to burn myself out--or at least, get mighty close to it--and the closer I get to doing that, the more I have to consciously bolster The Sidekick. If I'm being honest, fatigue often leads to me feeling more insecure. So sometimes the best thing I can do is take time to recharge and refill my creative well. Watching one of my favorite shows is one of the quickest ways to do that for me. Listening to some of my favorite music and treating myself to a delicious meal helps too. Getting proper sleep and exercise can be key also. 

It's harder to bolster The Sidekick when you are burned out or unwell.

In closing, there is one more thing I think is important to acknowledge. Assuming you aren't irrationally unbalanced, doubt is more likely to be an issue in areas where you have little experience. The less experience you have with something, the more doubt will naturally be invited in. Why? Cause you haven't done X enough times yet to grow confident in what you are doing. But that relates to another article and another article.

It's normal and healthy to have doubt, but hopefully this post has helped you come up with ways to manage yours. It should never go away completely. But it also shouldn't overwhelm you to the point you're crippled. 

As much as you hear your inner Skeptic, it's just as important (and in some situations, more important) to hear your inner Sidekick. Make sure you give it time and space to speak.

And if all else fails, don't let doubt stop you from living your dreams. While it's not fun, even if you are plagued by immense self-doubt, you can still choose to move forward in spite of it. You can still take the next steps on your journey. Good feelings aren't a strict prerequisite to doing that.

So go forth and live your best life.


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