Sylvia Path said, “The enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” And let me tell you. She’s right. Why else would I have spent ten years writing and rewriting the same novel, but never actually finishing it or coming close to the end? Oh, I told myself I just didn’t have it right. Or that I was too busy with school. But here was the truth: I didn’t finish it because every time I started to write the endless thought would occur.
This isn’t good enough. I’m not good enough.
Thoughts are powerful, because our thoughts become reality. In his book, Feeling Good, Dr. David Burns discusses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is an evidence-based (meaning, there is a lot of studies that support that it works) therapy for treating many mood disorders. The concept behind this therapy is this: “We feel the way we think. We become the way we feel.”
As someone who struggles with moderate depression, I understand the way that your mind can mess with you. If I allow negative thoughts to take control, I spiral quickly until the idea of doing anything but lying in my warm bed seems horrific. Sometimes, we truly are our own greatest enemies, and in order to succeed at anything, we have to engage in a battle with our own self-doubt.
But don’t be discouraged. The principle of CBT is that we have the power to change our moods, our habits, and even our lives by gaining control of our thoughts. Here are some strategies on how to armor up against self-doubt.
Become aware of your thoughts.
The first step is to become self-aware, which can can be difficult. These thoughts can be so automatic and engrained you don’t recognize it. But if you end up staring at an empty page, wanting to write, but somehow not managing to put your fingers to work—that’s self-doubt. Or if you spend all day after receiving criticism depressed and hating yourself—that’s self-doubt. If you’re always unsatisfied with what you write—yep, you guessed it. Self-doubt.
Recognize what a negative thought looks like. Dr. Burns characterizes different types and patterns of negative thoughts.
ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING is basically black and white thinking = “That critique from my beta reader was harsh. I must be a bad writer.”
OVERGENERALIZATION means taking a bad event and believing that this bad event is destined to continue = “He didn’t like my book. Therefore, NO ONE will like my book.”
MENTAL FILTER means focusing on the negative, and not acknowledging the positive.
There are many more listed, but not enough time to go over them. If you want to read more, you’ll have to add another book to that giant TBR of yours.
Separate how you feel from reality. Here’s the blunt truth. Your emotions are lying to you. Fear, depression, self-doubt—they are all liars. Too often we think: “If I feel this way, it must be true.” That’s not the case at all. Your feelings are valid, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for feeling down. But you can’t accept it as the reality of the situation.
Spend time in reflection. Since we are separating how we feel from reality requires us to reflect on why we are feeling this way. When a negative feeling consumes you, stop and ask yourself some questions. Why am I feeling this way? Was there a particular thought that triggered this?
Journal. Journaling can be cathartic and help you put words to what you are feeling. It will also allow you to recognize patterns, i.e. I feel like a failure whenever my mother in law comes to town. This will help you identify what thoughts are going through your head. If you’re like me, and journaling isn’t your thing, you can try an ‘emotional/brain dump’ where you just write what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way.
Develop a plan on what to do when thoughts arise.
Once you have an understanding of the battleground in your head, it’s time to strategize. Here’s some ideas:
Try the 3 to 1 approach. This is a scientifically based strategy for giving feedback. For every one negative critique, you are supposed to give three positives. You can do this for yourself. If you recognize a negative thought, quickly respond by thinking of three positive things that you like about yourself. And believe them.
Surround yourself with positivity whether for you this means beautiful scenery, inspiring quotes on the bathroom mirror, or staying away from those toxic people who make you hate yourself.
Stop it in its tracks. A girl on the internet once said that she would pretend that her negative thoughts were being said by someone she disliked ( a political figure who shall not be named). That way, when she heard the mental negative, she could quickly yell back: “Shut up!” This worked well for her. I’ve tried it a few times myself, and I don’t know if it’s making my negative thoughts NOT sound like myself, or simply being able to yell, but it is very relieving.
Find support. Spend time with the people you trust to build you up and that you can be honest with about your needs. Be prepared to ask bluntly. I sometimes tell my best friend “I need you to tell me I’m an amazing writer right now”. And she does. It keeps me from spiraling.
Let go of perfection.
You must accept that perfection doesn’t exist. Margaret Atwood said, “If I waited for perfection, I’d never write a word.” It’s hard to believe that the literary goddess that is Margaret Atwood wouldn’t just magically spew perfection. But even she has to work hard and revise to get it to her level. If she’s not perfect, why must you be?
Redefine your definition of success. When going back to writing, I had to redefine my definition of success. Before the goal was ‘to write a best-selling novel’. Wow. Talk about pressure. But when I came back, I set a new goal. “Just write. And keep writing.” It didn’t have to be perfect or even good. I just had to finish the draft and then work on making it better.
Fall in love with a vision—not a product. What I mean is that instead of being in love with the draft in front of you, be in love with the vision that you’re headed toward. A product can let you down because it doesn’t meet your expectations, but a vision is something in the distance that you steadily move forward. With each revision, you get closer to what you want.
Set small achievable goals. Instead of setting huge goals that are impossible to meet and hating yourself, stick with easy goals. For example: “I’m going to write 500 words today.” You did it! See how great you are! Now, celebrate that victory. You’re a writer!
Any feedback is a good thing. When self-doubt is already beating you up, getting ‘negative’ feedback can be really difficult. But if we redefine how we view feedback, we can soften the blow. When I get critique, I remind myself that it’s a good thing that they said this, because it pointed out a problem with my book. And now I can fix it and make it better. But in order to do this, there is one final step.
Separate yourself from your work. This is the spiral I’m tempted to go one when self-doubt is beating me. ‘I can’t get this part right’ or ‘Someone didn’t like my book’ progresses to ‘therefore, I must be a bad writer’. It’s okay to get it wrong. It’s okay to have to take multiple drafts and revisions to get it right. EVERYONE does that. You have to separate the product before you with who you are as a writer. You know what makes you a good writer? You keep writing.
Practice radical self-love.
I say practice for a reason. Loving yourself doesn’t come easy. People aren’t taught to love themselves. We are taught to compare and to focus on our faults. Talking kindly to yourself, interrupting this cycle of negative thought is going to take practice. Sometimes, I fail miserably at it. That’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Let yourself feel your feelings, but just ever let them defeat you. Choose to love yourself every day, every minute, every second.
Become your biggest fan. Because the whole world could believe in you, but if you don’t believe in yourself, it’ll ever be enough anyway.
If like me, you find yourself so overwhelmed by the self-loathing in your head to the point you are truly depressed, please seek help. There are so many options to you, and sometimes, when your head is so out of balance, you need a helping hand to pull yourself out of that pit. It’s okay to ask for help.
I hope you have found these tips and tricks helpful. Remember, self-doubt is a liar. And this is the truth.
Oh, and by the way, I finally finished writing that book. I hope you do too.
Keep writing fearlessly, darlings.
Recommended resources for dealing with shame and self-doubt:
Daring Greatly – Brene Brown (or really ANYTHING by Brene Brown)
Brene Brown: A Call to Courage – Netflix special (if you can’t read the book, this is a good place)
Brene Brown podcast – “Unlocking Us”
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns, M.D.
Follow C.A. Campbell on Instagram: @cacampbellwriter