How to Work Through Writing Doubts
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French author Honore de Balzac once wrote, “When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.”
I find this quote to be incredibly powerful in and of itself because it recognizes a key misstep taken in much of the advice surrounding the phenomenon of self-doubt. Rather than being an obstacle to overcome or an enemy to defeat, doubt is simply the reality of a choice: will I place faith in myself or will I place faith in my fear?
The truly wild reality is that neither of these options is wrong, so long as you’re choosing the best option for you. Like doubt, fear is not the enemy. It’s the reality of risk. But what does this all mean for your writing life? How can you move forward when doubt has kept you trapped in stagnation for days, weeks, months, or even years on end? Read on, writer. We’re about to dig in.
Understanding the reality of doubt…
Without desire, there is no doubt. Whether it’s a happy marriage, a promotion at work, a passing grade, or a well-written story, doubt takes root when the bridge between where we’re at and what we want feels too unstable to cross. Therefore, when it comes to facing doubt, your first step is to take a good hard look at the goal or desire you have in mind. Ask:
Why do I want to achieve this goal? What value will it bring into my life?
Does this goal align with my personal values and beliefs?
Does this goal align with the vision I have for the life I want to build?
Am I willing to make sacrifices to achieve this goal?
Do I only want to achieve this goal to please others or fulfill a sense of duty?
If so, would this goal prove detrimental to my physical or emotional wellbeing?
Or, would achieving this goal, though not for myself, align with my values and beliefs?
You may find it helpful to mull over these questions for some time, or even to journal your thoughts and answers for added clarity. If, after answering each of these questions, you feel confident that your goal or desire is one worth pursuing, it’s time to take a look at the doubt or doubts that are weighing you down.
Writer, self-doubt is not the enemy…
Often, the language surrounding self-doubt is combative. You’re tasked to “beat the block,” to “overcome insecurity,” and to “defeat doubt,” phrases I know I’ve frequently used in my own writing and blogging. But the more I study the nature of self-doubt, the more I realize that this approach can be quite harmful to our best efforts to achieve our goals. Why?
Because self-doubt isn’t the enemy; it’s a security check. The very same doubt that kept our ancestors from leaping impossible gaps between cliff faces or attempting to cross swift rivers is the same doubt that asks us to take a step back in our modern age and reevaluate whether we truly want to completely re-write our 80,000-word story to improve its emotional impact.
In this light, doubt is good. A friend, even. Doubt acknowledges the risk involved in pursuing a specific goal and asks whether the reward is worth it. More often than not, doubt has your best interests in mind.
“Um, excuse me,” you say. “Self-doubt has kept me from finishing my manuscript for years now. How in the world can it have my best interests in mind?” I hear you, writer. And this is where our analysis of self-doubt becomes a difficult pill to swallow…
Doubt isn’t holding you back; you are.
Every day, we make thousands of choices. What we eat for breakfast, how we speak to our loved ones, what route we take to work, and which hobbies or responsibilities we’re willing to give up in order to pursue our writing lives. Choice after choice after choice. Including the choices we make in the face of our doubts.
You see, doubt isn’t holding you back from achieving your greatest goals for your writing. Doubt simply presents you with a choice: “Are you willing to assume the risks involved in pursuing this task for the possibility of reaping its reward?” That’s it. That’s doubt.
As hard as it is to hear, the reason you haven’t made time to write, overhauled that problematic plotline, or made a choice regarding which publishing path you’ll pursue is a choice in and of itself. You’ve chosen to let your fear of the risks involved in pursuing this goal outweigh your desire to achieve it.
In some cases, this is a good thing. Just as the fear of drowning kept our ancestors from traversing risky rivers, the fear of, say, fraud and financial loss may keep you from sinking thousands of dollars into a vanity publishing press. Or, to give another example, the fear of lost time and effort may keep you from pursuing a project you don’t love simply because it’s more commercially viable at the moment.
But more often than not, the choice to give in to our fears isn’t rational. Doubt presents us with a risk, and we spook. Unconsciously, we work to rationalize this fear in whatever way we can, typically by feeding ourselves false beliefs:
I don’t have time to write, we say.
— while creating busy work to avoid the effort involved in writing.
Writing would take time away from my kids, we say.
— instead of acknowledging that it’s healthy for children to see their parents pursuing creative endeavors.
I’m not good enough to write that story, we say.
— to avoid digging deep into studying the art and craft of writing fiction.
No one’s going to read this anyway, we say.
— when learning to self-publish and market our work feels overwhelming.
I must be a terrible writer to receive this many rejections, we say.
— instead of reevaluating our manuscript and query letter and trying again.
On the surface, fear is an easy reality in which to live. When we give in to fear, we don’t have to take action. We don’t have to risk the potential failure involved in pursuing a lofty goal. But failure is yet another combative term that misconstrues what doubt and fear are all about. Giving into fear isn’t a personal failing; it’s a natural, near-subconscious choice we make in the face of danger.
So the next time you find yourself living in fear instead of pursuing your goal, don’t beat yourself up. You made a choice that was only natural. And now that you’ve come into full awareness of that fear, you can make a new choice with a clear head and intentional outlook.
Finding confidence in the face of fear…
For some, it may seem that confidence comes naturally. And certainly, there are factors that enable certain individuals to build positive self-esteem more quickly than others. But confidence is just that: built. Brick by brick, choice by choice. Confidence is, by all accounts, an attitude of bravery. A willingness to assume risk in pursuit of valuable personal reward.
We’re often told that the key to self-confidence is positive thinking, and certainly there is some power in this. But more powerful than simply saying I can do this! is acknowledging the risks involved in pursuing our desires and choosing to reframe them.
Confidence says, “I am willing to risk disappointing feedback because I know that constructive criticism is key to improving my work.”
Confidence says, “I am willing to risk losing money on my self-published book because producing a professionally-edited finished work is important to me.”
Confidence says, “I am willing to risk lackluster work because I understand that, like learning an instrument or running a marathon, good writing skills are developed with practice and persistence.
This is how you believe in yourself, how you find the bravery to pursue your writing goals no matter how scary. Not by working to defeat self-doubt, which seeks only to protect you from potential dangers, but by digging deep into the source of your fear and intentionally choosing to move forward despite it.
Learning to cultivate an attitude of bravery…
Bravery is a conscious choice to move forward despite risk. It’s a choice made in full recognition of the value of potential reward, and it’s a choice made in the full knowledge that, even if reward is not achieved, the effort will have been worth the risk. It’s by choosing bravery in the face of fear that we cultivate confidence in our lives.
This confidence, this attitude of bravery, is something we develop over time. As we do, here are a few tips to guide you in your journey:
Tip #1: Reframe failure as an opportunity for growth.
This advice is far from original, but it’s important. In the case that you pursue a goal but fail to reap its reward, it’s all too easy to see this reality as a personal failure. It’s not. Failure is an everyday reality for every single person who pursues reward. You’re never going to skate by without encountering it, no matter how hard you try.
Rather than taking failure personally, see it for what it is: a chance to learn, reevaluate, and grow. A chance to try again with more experience under your belt or to set this goal aside in pursuit of one with more personal value.
Tip #2: Measure your successes and your lessons learned.
It’s all too easy to find ourselves disappointed in where we are rather than celebrating how far we’ve come, and when we do, that’s when fear sets in. Choosing bravery in the face of that fear is powerful, but what if you could avoid confronting that fear in the first place?
There’s nothing more valuable in your pursuit of an attitude of bravery than tracking your progress toward your goals. In creating a physical or digital resource where you can acknowledge both the strides you have made and the lessons you have learned along the way, you create tangible proof of just how brave you’ve already been.
Tip #3: Attitude is a Personal Choice, always.
Emotions come and go. They can be channeled, pent up, pushed down, or released, but their presence isn’t much of a choice. We can choose how we act in their presence, but they’re almost certain to come along whether or not we invited them to the party.
Attitude, however, is very much within our realm of control. It’s a choice we make despite our circumstances. To be grateful in the face of difficulty. To be brave despite our fear. You’re going to face trials as you pursue your writing goals. You’re going to disappoint yourself, and others are going to disappoint you.
No matter the voices that fill up your head—whether it’s your own self-doubt, a family member who doesn’t approve of your writing, or a reviewer who left a scathing critique of your work—remember that bravery is always an option on the table. It’s an attitude you can call upon whenever doubt presents you with risk and danger.
Tip #4: There is strength in numbers.
You’ve chosen to cultivate an attitude of bravery, a phenomenal step toward achieving your writing goals and dreams, but this work isn’t easy. You can certainly face down your fears alone, but there’s relief to be found in sharing that burden with others, even if they can’t carry it for it.
It’s for this reason that the importance of getting involved in the writing community cannot be overstated. You can absolutely find support from friends and family members who aren’t writers themselves, but there’s nothing like the in-the-know encouragement (and commiseration) to be found among fellow writers.
In our modern age, joining the writing community is easy. All you have to do is log into your favorite social media site and get involved. There are writing communities to be found on Youtube, Reddit, Tumblr, and Instagram, and I even host two communities myself on Facebook and Twitter. Come join us!
Writer, this has been a longer article than usual, and I hope you’ve found it helpful. More than anything, what I hope you’ll take away from today’s discussion is this: writing doubts aren’t a personal failing you must overcome. It’s this false belief that has lead so many of us to feel guilt and shame surrounding our work ethics, our attitudes, our skills, and our stories. No more.
Rather than allowing guilt and shame to permeate our writing lives, leading us further into blocks and deepening the resistance we feel to getting started, let’s choose to recognize doubt for what it is: a safety check in the face of risk. Where there is risk, there’s the opportunity for great reward. Reward that is valuable, creatively fulfilling, and worth cultivating confidence to achieve. Don’t you agree?