The Creative Life: How to Overcome Self-doubt

I’m excited to be relaunching my Dreamlight Fugitive blog in addition to my main blog, Beyond the Dream! My first new post is about something that affects everyone in any creative field: the arch-enemy of creative expression…self doubt!

Illustration by Jack Spellman (jackspellmanart.com)

Yesterday, having finally finished my new novel after a year and a half of work (and the rest! But that’s another story!), I was clobbered over the head by an attack of self doubt. I’d just ordered proofing copies yet I found myself going back and picking away at random sentences, trying to find better ways of stringing the words together in order to reach that most elusive of writerly goals: the ‘perfect sentence’!

One thing led to another and I soon started to question the entire book. What if it wasn’t ready to be put out into the world? Feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction quickly turned to feelings of anxiety and dread. What if I was in fact one of the worst writers ever to pick up a pen or hammer away at a keyboard? I’m safe at the moment, but the moment the book is published it’s a target and as the one-stars reviews come flooding in, I’ll be revealed as the terrible hack I am! I even very briefly considered binning the entire book and starting again from scratch.

That’s how self-doubt works! It’s a vicious, pernicious and potentially crippling little monster. It hides away in the darkest recesses of the mind and is prone to jumping out at inopportune moments and letting rip with its penchant for woeful catastrophising. It’s something that every artist and writer must learn to live with and it does get easier with time.

Most of the time I have it under control. But coming to the end of a project, when you are actually taking the steps to releasing that work into the world, makes the self-doubt monster terribly antsy. Stirring from its slumber like a cat that was only really half-asleep the whole time, you know the meltdown is inevitable.

crazy

“You’re thinking of publishing THAT? Are you crazy?! It needs at least another year of work. The critics are gonna tear it to shreds!”

Now, a little self-doubt is healthy. It gives us a certain objectivity about our work, which is useful in the editing stage (and throughout, really). It becomes harmful however when it degenerates into an overwrought, mud-slinging, anxiety-ridden neurotic monster, determined to convince us that nothing we do is good enough and that we’d be better off setting it aside and slumping onto the sofa and firing up Netflix. So pervasive and persuasive is the self-doubt monster, it’s almost certainly destroyed countless artists’ careers before they’ve even had the chance to get in the game. Left unchecked, this inner censor will not only hinder your creativity, it will completely destroy it and leave you a blubbering and, above all, blocked wreck!

The self-doubt monster is actually pretty easy to deal with it however. And here’s how.

First of all, take the ‘self’ out of self-doubt. It has nothing to do with who you are. It’s simply a thought and that thought’s corresponding emotion. It’s actually completely impersonal. We all get it — everyone, in every walk of life! It’s certainly not unique to us. Self-doubt is basically fear. It’s a defence mechanism designed to somehow keep us safe, even if it is a little misinformed and ultimately wholly counterproductive. Depersonalising it immediately takes the sting out of it.

Secondly, once I’ve depersonalised it, I personify it. This might make me sound utterly crazy, but I find it helpful to give it a name and form. I call my self-doubt monster Fred. Fearful Fred. He looks like a big, fat and slightly ungainly grey caterpillar. Most the time he just wiggles about in the recesses of my mind, doing whatever it is caterpillars do. Occasionally however, something gets Fred riled and he gets all worked out and inflates in size, becoming a gargantuan blob full of his own hot air. This happened last night when I somehow convinced myself I was the worst writer in human history.

I isolated the emotion in my body (it seemed to be around my belly, or solar plexus) and I decided to have a chat with Fred (as the personification of my self-doubt). He was beside himself with fear, anxiety and dread. So I made him a cup of tea, sat him down and explained that I’m grateful he’s so diligent in looking out for me, but there was no need for such stress and worry. Yeah, it’s always a little scary releasing a new piece of work into the world, as it probably is for a baby bird being pushed out of its nest in the hopes it will fly for the first time. But I reminded myself the importance of keeping everything in perspective.

I wrote an article last year about the power of karma yoga. Karma yoga isn’t a sequence of physical postures as you might expect, but a mindset with which we approach life. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, we have the right to act, but the fruit of those actions is not up to us. So the karma yoga attitude — which is the greatest antidote to stress that I know — is simply to do our best and let go of the results. Once an arrow has been fired it’s no longer up to us whether it hits the intended target. Chances are we’ve done our best to ensure that it does, but it’s now under the control of a set of natural laws and dynamics that are completely outwith our sphere of influence. All we can do is relax, take it easy and endeavour to take whatever comes with good grace.

The self-doubt monster can be an implacable and relentless foe to any creative person. It’s probably cost me years of my life. I’m certain I’d have more than one novel published by now if I hadn’t spent years under the sway of Fred, bless his heart. Now I’ve learned to master my mind and emotions a little bit more. This doesn’t mean that self-doubt and other self-limiting thoughts vanish forever. But it does mean that when they come up I can put them in their place and simply get on with things. As the Tao Te Ching says:

Mastering others is strength; mastering ourselves is true power.

Self-doubt and anxiety are defence mechanisms generated by the unconscious mind to keep us safe. But we are safe! As artists we follow our calling, we write the stories and paint the pictures that our muse is kind enough to share with us. We learn and grow and improve our skills all the time. We make mistakes, but mistakes are an essential part of the learning curve. Never be afraid to make mistakes! And never allow yourself to be held prisoner to the tyranny of other people’s opinions. Some people will love what you do, and some people won’t. Some people are fair in their criticism and some people are jerks with clear psychological deficiencies (I now refrain from reading comments sections on youtube and other websites because of this!).

Learn to wrestle with your self-doubt monster. Or make it a cup of tea as I do. Usually once I’ve had a firm but loving chat with Fred, I imagine sending him off on an all-expenses paid vacation to Tenerife where he can just relax in the sun all day drinking Pina Colada while I get on with what I have to do.

Self-doubt is ignorance masquerading as truth. Don’t let it cripple you. Take charge of it and educate it. You’re doing fine, let it know that and these lagging parts of the mind will eventually catch up. When we no longer give fear or doubt power over us, when we educate them and put them into perspective, we give ourselves the greatest gift of all. Freedom! And freedom is the ultimate goal of all creative — and moreover, all human — endeavour! So dance with your doubts and allow yourself to be free.

This fantastic song and video by one of my favourite artists, Bat For Lashes, is about just that. This was the song that Natasha Khan wrote after a long spell of creative block, and it’s very much about learning to tame and dance with the monsters of self-doubt, despair and fear. Enjoy.

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