It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re a writer, you’re probably not in possession of a good fortune. Instead, you are quite likely to possess some degree of self-doubt, low self-esteem, jealousy of and comparison with other more successful writers, and even self-hatred. (Or, alternatively, need to fend these feelings off with aggressive insistence on your own superiority and achievement.)
Yes, there are apparently healthy and wealthy exceptions to this “starving, tortured artist” stereotype. But the modern epidemic of depression and anxiety, combined with a budding writer’s drive towards honesty and introspection, together produce more than enough messed-up wordsmiths to keep the stereotype going.
Writers are probably no more miserable than the rest of the population; they’re just more honest. A good writer tries to represent reality as they encounter it, as opposed to buying into the pervasive social norm of “fake-it-til-you-make-it” happiness.
But are self-doubt; anxiety; compulsive worrying and comparing; inability to feel genuine joy for the success of others; and terrible struggles with perfectionism, motivation, and procrastination really necessary parts of being a writer? Or have we just normalized them to stop ourselves from feeling so bad…
I would argue that much past and present representation of the profession of writing has romanticized a degree of being tortured. Given that these representations were all written by someone, I suspect we’re often encountering writers’ own sincere attempts to justify their own neuroses and difficulties. There are plenty of examples, from the past and the present, to prove that the stressful, emotional rollercoaster of self-doubt and attendant jealousy are not intrinsic to being a writer.
So the question remains to be asked: why do writers (and people, but let’s stay focused) often feel all these crippling emotions? What’s really going on?
I ask this question, not to blame or condemn, but to inquire with genuine curiosity into what it really is that stops myself and others from creating to our full potential. I’m not satisfied with “self-doubt,” “perfectionism,” or “procrastination” as answers anymore. I don’t see Maasai tribeswomen unable to weave due to crippling perfectionism or Balinese elephant-carvers constantly beating themselves up for not being a good enough elephant carver.
What’s causing all our creative difficulty and pain? What’s really stopping us from writing?
Well, I have a potential answer for you, but you’re probably not going to like it. I didn’t.
I remember once reading about the Dalai Lama being asked about the Western phenomenon of self-hatred. He was puzzled, asking “self-hatred — what is that?” After a long discussion in Tibetan with his translators, he checked whether those in the room — all experienced Western meditation teachers — encountered this feeling in themselves and their students. All nodded. He was shocked, asking, “How could you think of yourself that way?”
Upon reflection, he speculated that self-hatred might stem from an excess of self-absorption, conceit, or arrogance — in other words, too much emotional involvement with our ideas about ourselves, whether these be good or bad, rather than appreciation of the fundamental okayness of our reality (we’re breathing, our heart is beating, we exist full stop — good job!).
I was troubled by the Dalai Lama’s conclusion. At that time in my life, I felt anxious, lacking in confidence, and completely creatively frustrated. How could I be conceited or arrogant?
It wasn’t until I started examining the beliefs underlying my feelings of self-doubt that I started to understand where the Dalai Lama was coming from. The self-hatred comes from a mean voice in our heads, so what was that voice in my head actually saying?
A lot of the time it was whispering things like, “You should have [insert unrealistic expectation] by now,” or “If you were any good you would have already [insert unrealistic achievement].”
I was about twenty-seven, and my mean voice was telling me that by that time in my life I really should have published a novel (or several), be earning a living from writing, be a go-to source for quality opinions (ha!), and have poetry regularly accepted by major magazines. And should also be a really nice person who looked basically great all the time. Et cetera.
I wasn’t simply suffering from excessive self-doubt; I was suffering from a self-inflicted mean attitude based on the fact that I wasn’t fulfilling my own completely inflated expectations. I wasn’t working towards these things as goals, but because of my education and upbringing, they were the things I’d come to expect ought to have happened by this point.
Unrealistic expectations are themselves arrogant — Friedrich Nietzsche described the “arrogant man” as “he who desires to appear more than he is or passes for.” These expectations are a denial of the wonderful reality of ourselves for the sake of an idea about how things should be. Or as author Cheryl Strayed writes (in her collected advice column, Tiny Beautiful Things) to an anonymous writer struggling with jealousy: “There are many people who wouldn’t dream of becoming a writer, let alone landing a six-figure book deal by the age of thirty. You’re not one of them.”
Arrogance is just an inflated idea of what our abilities and achievements should be. Arrogance is thinking that I should have published a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel at 26. Arrogance is thinking I should be super rich by now because I’m obviously awesome, so when is someone going to offer me that book deal? Arrogance is what stopped me from working on those goals because whatever I did wasn’t going to be good enough to meet my own inflated expectations.
Arrogance and entitlement just don’t sound as benignly unfortunate as perfectionism or self-doubt, do they? Think about it — which kind of suffering are we more likely to empathize with: the insecure person crying because they think you’re better than them, or the insecure person brashly bragging about their achievements?
Unfortunately, self-doubt and bragging are both expressions of the same basic feeling of “I should be better,” but the former is far more acceptable and less threatening because it puts the listener up and the speaker down. And because we’re probably insecure too, we tend to prefer to hear someone putting themselves below us rather than above us. I’m afraid to say that the cure for both expressions is the same: getting over ourselves.
The thing is, behind all the struggles detailed above lies the biggest hurdle to every writer: our own mental ideas about ourselves. We tend to have a fixed idea of ourselves and how we are or should be, which we use as a filter to decide which bits of reality we let in and which bits we ignore. And the thing is, every self-image has two faces — extreme self-doubt (I’m worse than everybody; I’m a total loser) and total arrogance (I’m absolutely superior; everyone else is an idiot).
So our brain is always trying to work out where we stand because our idea of ourselves doesn’t really stand anywhere at all — it’s an idea, not a reality — and as a result, it constantly feels rather wobbly. In other words, insecure.
The blunt truth is that I don’t actually doubt myself. My mental patterns just expect the practically impossible and then produce bad feelings when it’s not given to me instantly.
Rather than constantly discussing, writing about, and analyzing the symptoms of these expectations, I wanted to face the painful reality of my own privilege-inflated ideas about myself. Were my ideas about what I should be achieving realistic? No. Were they used to constantly make myself feel lacking and not good enough? Yes. Why?
I’ve been given a lot of things in my lovely middle-class Western life that I neither deserved nor earned but was simply lucky enough to receive. Intelligence. Parental support. Education. Safety. Freedom from violence and worrying about food. Health. Freedom to pursue any career I wanted. All these things are wonderful, but I’m sorry to say these privileges created a fairly oversized sense of entitlement in me.
I really did at some level think that nice things happened because I deserved them, and therefore expected that I could just keep being my awesome and deserving self, and all those nice things like publishing a novel or being a full-time writer would just keep on happening.
Well, they didn’t. I waited and waited, feeling more and more crippled by self-doubt, never suspecting that it stemmed from my own arrogant expectations. I was like a hungry little baby bird, waiting for mummy bird to fly back to the nest with a nice well-chewed book deal for me. Except that… I’m not a helpless baby bird; I’m a fully-grown adult with all her mental faculties.
It was time to call out my perfectionism, procrastination, depressed feelings, and excessive caring about what others thought for what they were: symptoms of an inflated sense of entitlement — in other words, the arrogance to think I should be so much more.
Sigh. I write this lightly now, but such things are not pretty to see. It was so much easier to keep blaming others, feeling like a victim, waiting for the “right” moment, reading instead of writing, doing infinite research, thinking about how great my novel would be once it was written (one day), and eliciting pity by complaining about my fairly predictable ensuing troubled mental states.
I found that the key to getting more honest with myself was to get a bit more radically neutral. We’re so steeped in the habits of judgment, guilt, and shame that we’re completely guarded against uncomfortable truths that don’t fit our idea of ourselves — like that we might be a wee bit entitled, rather than inexplicably hard done by. Unless we’re very neutral, such uncomfortable truths come with too heavy a FAILURE label attached to even be admitted into conscious thought.
Reality had to knock really, really loudly on my door before I would admit I might be even a teensy little bit responsible for the frustrated, cramped state I’d found myself in.
So why go here? Why bother finding the unrealistic expectations and inflated sense of entitlement lurking behind the self-doubt?
Well, for me there are two reasons. Firstly, as a writer, there are great benefits to being more honest. It’s more readable, other people can relate, it lets others know they’re not the only crazy ones, and it frees up our energy to create.
To write well, I need to know myself in all my messy glory. I need to love the whole jumbled reality that is me, not just a carefully manicured image that conceals a deep dark basement of unacceptable things. It takes too much energy to hide from myself and others, and I need that energy to write. Revealing ourselves fully is also more generous and compelling to others.
Secondly, we all have important work to do in the world, and there are real forces holding us back. To be generous to the life that is so generous to us, we need to find these forces and overcome them. We need to take back responsibility for what we can change; to do so, we have to dig past the blame and defensive despair to see how we are actually involved in creating our own jealousy, low self-worth, and other crippling feelings.
We need to face the root of the problem, which is our underlying need to be someone other than who we are — “he who desires to appear more than he is or passes for” — for this is arrogance. It’s not our fault, but we do have responsibility.
Responsibility implies the ability to respond: once we really see how our own inflated ideals, privileged sense of entitlement, or unrealistic expectations are contributing to our dilemmas, we are empowered to transcend them and finally start creating what we need to create.
Finding that my ideas about who I should be and what I deserved were full of very boringly typical Millennial perceptions has been fairly crushing, but I welcome such revelations in all their ego-deflating cringe-worthiness. The discovery reveals the root of all those symptoms of perfectionism, doubt, self-involvement, and anxiety, and therefore empowers me to cure them.
So, how do we get over ourselves? Well, first off, we can recognize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with us. There isn’t actually anything to do — we don’t really need to get over ourselves per se, just our ideas about ourselves. If we can recognize that reality is completely and perfectly functioning in us, as us, then the mind can relax a little from the constant demand to be someone better, smarter, richer, prettier, more successful, etc.
Believe it or not, we’re fine how we are. Just like a tree or a lizard, we’re one more piece of the weird jigsaw puzzle called life, regardless of whether we feel awesome or totally rubbish.
The more we can embrace the flawed, interesting, beautiful, suffering human that we actually are right now, the more we can ease off on the judgments about how we should be. We need to learn to be receptive to what is, rather than just always beating ourselves up regarding what is not.
So we don’t need to try and directly attack our ideas about ourselves — that’s just going to open up new cans of judgmental worms (i.e., “Oh no, now I’m a failed writer and an arrogant jerk!”).
We simply need to gradually build a relationship with the wonder that we are, as a blooming, breathing, part of nature. Then all ideas about how we should be — positive or negative — can be placed in context as the harmless mental activity they are, rather than ruling our lives. (The good news is this frees us up to gradually and non-neurotically work towards all those things we were feeling bad for not having achieved!)
To do so, it helps to have people who recognize you as the unique and lovely creature that you are — in other words, who accept and love you.
And to gradually come to share their perspective towards you, one helpful tool is simple breathing and movement. Our ability to receive is perhaps best encapsulated in our inbreath — many of us do not breath deeply as a result of the stress of expectations, creating a toxic cycle.
I highly recommend a simple daily practice of moving and breathing as a way to reconnect the mind with actual life, rather than its ideas about how things should be. There are some great easy “seven minutes a day” examples available on this YouTube channel.
So what is really stopping us writing? Self-involvement, aka the constant filtering of reality through our self-concept. The biggest hurdle for every writer has always been themselves — or rather, their idea of themselves, which is inevitably not big enough to encompass reality and so is always some degree of insecure and repressive.
But not to worry, because here we are regardless — reality is always right here, prior to all and any ideas about it.
If any of this rings true for you, fear not: it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. In fact, it doesn’t mean anything at all! Uncovering uncomfortable facts about some of our subconscious methods of operating is not proof that we’re a fuckup. It just shows that somewhere along the way, we picked up a few not-so-useful ideas from the social context we were raised in.
To feel greater freedom and express ourselves more fully and freely as writers, we need to identify these ideas and let them go. Then we can stand in our own ground as the already-perfectly creative beings that we are.
I wish anyone who has survived reading this far without getting unworkably defensive great heart in their own radically neutral explorations into their own dark basements. May you be unflustered in the face of all kinds of dismaying realities, feeling them fully and thereby setting yourself free, and may you use your freedom to write what the world needs to read!
Rosalind Atkinson works as a freelance writer and editor. A great fan of an elegant sentence or a tasty word, she has authored academic pieces on William Blake, and articles for Greenpeace, elephant journal, Overland, and the Vessel Magazine, among others. She escaped academia with a Masters in English Literature, and has done time as a blogwriter, a research assistant, a baker, a costume illustrator for film, and a (kinda seasick) sailor around the Pacific and Subantarctic. She lives in a converted cowshed in the lush far north of New Zealand, where she writes, saves for an old-school printing press, and marvels at how clever and awesome nature is.