We’ve all been there. That paralysing thought that we’re not good enough. It can be fearful and crippling all at the same time. I don’t know about you, but I love reading self-help books or biographies where the author admits to their own failings and mistakes. It makes me feel “normal.”
Occasionally, there are those books where the author never seems to stumble, never falls short of their goals, and this seems so far removed from reality that it’s hard to really believe in their story. There may be some perfect human beings out there—but I doubt it.
So, what is writers’ self-doubt?
It can be a combination of our fears, getting stuck in the comparison trap, or a lack of self-confidence. It’s our inner critic that whispers in our ears, “you’re not good enough,” “your writing isn’t worthy of being published.”
These feelings are normal. And the hard truth is that self-doubt will never completely go away—sorry.
As writers, when we refer to self-doubt, we also need to consider the counterbalance to doubt: the concept of self-efficacy. Bruning et al., describe self-efficacy as the confidence we possess to perform consistently. It’s a willingness to engage and persist in the process of writing even when we are confronted with difficulties or distractions.
The act of writing takes effort and reflects our own unique writing experiences. These experiences can range from self-judgement about our success on tasks to feelings of anxiety and frustration.
As humans, we will never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep on learning, growing wiser, and taking action, even when we don’t feel like it or don’t believe we can.
Ironically, we are happy to encourage other writers, acclaim their talents, and say how proud we are of their work. If you were in a group, I’m sure you would have said these things in the process of giving feedback to someone else.
So, why do we struggle to do the same for ourselves?
Because our inner critic is strong. It’s there waiting to exploit our insecurities.
Self-doubt is a normal part of the writing process and, by acknowledging our insecurities and following some of the strategies below, we can build our self-efficacy, confidence, and belief in ourselves.
“Fake it till you make it” is a common phrase, one that’s meant to inspire us to keep going when we’re feeling unsure. However, if we wait until feelings of confidence take hold before we start to write, then we may be waiting forever.
Overcoming doubt and a lack of self-confidence should not be about “faking,” but about being true to yourself and handling fear in a way that enhances what you are doing, not constantly fighting against it. Actions (that means the writing), come first, feelings later.
There are three core (but not definitive) reasons why we may experience doubt as a writer: excessive expectations (perfectionism), harsh self-judgment, and fear. The following sections will dive into these topics in more depth.
If you’re a perfectionist, you’re fighting a losing battle. Perfectionism is an illusion. When we strive to be “perfect” we are in constant competition with ourselves and with others, which means that we will eventually lose in the long run. It’s also completely exhausting.
So, why do we often hear “I’m a perfectionist” as if this were a badge of honor? Apart from being a clever response to an interview question about your weaknesses, it’s because there is a payoff: that intrinsic drive to push yourself towards excellence, whatever that means for you, be it individual success or a specific writing achievement.
But, perfectionism can just as easily work against your writing efforts. It can prevent you from moving forward. It keeps you stuck in the same place. The anxiety created by being judged, and the worry of failure and rejection can be paralysing. No matter what you succeed at, it will never be good enough in your mind. Which leads to harsh self-judgement.
Most of us know how quickly our minds can judge and criticise us. I even have a name for that little annoying voice—minime. Our minds seem to take every opportunity to wield a big, punishing stick, pointing out our shortcomings and failures in our writing. It’s hard to be kind to yourself when you’re constantly being knocked unconscious by your own hand. That voice seems so loud.
We can’t magically stop our minds from judging, but we can learn to quieten these thoughts—the “I’m not good enough” stories. We can notice when these thoughts are occurring, name them for what they are—just thoughts—and view them as nothing more than words and pictures. We don’t have to tune in to them.
These feelings will come and go, and that is normal. It shouldn’t stop you from taking action. So, pick up that pen and continue writing. Try not to let fear paralyse your efforts.
It’s human nature to like predictability. We are comforted by it. We like knowing what’s happening so we can feel a sense of control. Right? Uncertainty can create fear and anxiety. This fear can be driven by our attempts to avoid failure, and this links to perfectionism.
For example, I know I have to get this article written. I set my alarm so I am up early, ready to get it done. But, I need a coffee first. So I go to the kitchen and make one. I head up to my desk, open the document and stare at the words. Self doubt starts to gnaw at the corners of my mind. It’s just not good enough.
Then I notice my desk is not as tidy as it should be. So I start to reorganize and clean. My top desk draw is also rather messy, so that will need attention. It’s supposed to rain today, so I should get the washing on so it can dry. Perhaps I should just think a little harder about what I want to write. I might take a break and come back to the article later. I need to be sure about what I’m writing.
There is a mixture of self-doubt, fear, procrastination, and perfectionism all wrapped up in this very true anecdote.
Of course, we want to try our best. “Success” often requires some form of sacrifice, whether physical or mental, but that doesn’t mean we have to be “perfect”—as we now know, perfection is unattainable. Instead, let’s focus on something better: getting things done.
Even knowing that life is unpredictable doesn’t help all the time. As writers, it’s easy to say, “you’ve just got to face your fears head on and keep going.” Harder to do, but the choice is actually yours. Remind yourself why you started writing in the first place. Focus on your passion rather than your fears because that’s what actually makes your writing unique and worthwhile.
Failure and fear are not the opposite of success; they are a part of it.
So, how do we move forward in our writing when we are faced with such strong feelings of self-sabotage?
The key is realising that all these reasons are a normal part of being human. It’s also why writers write.
Why do we put ourselves in harm’s way? When you step out of your comfort zone, take a risk, and face a challenge, you will feel fear; you will judge yourself and place unrealistic expectations on yourself.
Because your brain is hard-wired to do this. It wants us to be perfect, to eliminate our flaws and weaknesses, but our reality doesn’t have to cater to what our subconscious mind is telling us.
Perfection doesn’t exist in this world. It’s the stuff of fantasies. It’s not fear that holds us back, it’s our attitude towards it. If we can accept fear, without constantly struggling against it, then we have the ability to take effective action, guided by our own values.
This is where self-efficacy in our writing can move us forward or paralyze us from progressing. Successful problem-solving and reflection on our writing, as well as having a framework, may help.
A Model of Writing Self-efficacy
The model has three focal points. Ideation refers to our cognitive processes, writing conventions focuses on the communication of ideas into writing’s forms and self-regulation is managing, monitoring and evaluating our responses to the writing process.
Genuine confidence is not the absence of fear, it is accepting that fear is normal, and using this energy for our own benefit.
Just as there are reasons why we may doubt ourselves, there are also solutions.
Acknowledge your expectations: Expectations and the standards you set for yourself are important, but don’t be bound by them. Sometimes, even the best laid plans go awry. Be flexible and learn to adapt to suit the conditions—a bit like driving in the rain.
Accept that we will make mistakes: Remember that perfection is an illusion. We will make mistakes, feel fear, screw up, fail, and even think our own writing sucks (it doesn’t). It’s normal. Be kind to yourself and write that really crummy first draft.
Fear is not your enemy: It’s a normal part of our existence. In fact, it kept us safe and alive when large furry beasts wanted to eat us a millenia ago. Use this energy to enhance your writing. Show up anyway. Remember, you always get to choose how you respond.
Stepping out of your comfort zone: It may be challenging, but you can learn new skills and gain the experience you require just by taking small steps, by continuing to write, even when you don’t feel like it. It takes time and practice to build up your confidence.
Take action: Practice, Practice, Practice. Failure is a wonderful teacher. It doesn’t make the pain of rejection go away but we can learn from our mistakes, engage in the process and task at hand, and keep moving forward. Have patience.
If you’re plagued by self-doubt, relax; you’re in good company. No matter how accomplished or “famous” a writer is, self-doubt never goes away. It’s an unwelcome friend, but a fact of life. Accepting this is the first step to overcoming self-doubt. No amount of writing success will defeat it.
Still don’t believe me? Take a look.
“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”
[Modernism’s Patriarch (Time Magazine, June 10, 1996)]”
― Robert Hughes
‘Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’
― Maya Angelou
There isn’t really any solution to self-doubt. In the end, you just have to write and doubt simultaneously.
― Zadie Smith The Guardian: Zadie Smith: ‘I have a very messy and chaotic mind’
Doubt will break your computer, it will, you know, cut off your fingers. Doubt in yourself comes first, that’s the essence of it. And then if you allow enough time to sit with doubt, that’s when you start to question this character or this story strand, and that’s where time disappears, time takes your life.”
― Tara June Winch (The Garrat: writers on writing podcast)
I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing — that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.
― Stephen King: Rolling Stone 2014 interview
“Perhaps I wish to say: look behind you. You are not alone. Don’t permit yourself to be ambushed…Get back on the horse that threw you. Advice for the innocent pilgrim, worthy enough, no doubt, but no doubt useless: dangers multiply by the hour, you never step into the same river twice, the vast empty spaces of the blank page appall, and everyone walks into the maze blindfolded.”
― Margaret Atwood: Negotiating with the Dead: A writer on writing
We spend so much time trying to prove to ourselves that somehow we are different from others when we succumb to feelings of doubt and lack of self-confidence.
We should instead accept that we are all flawed.
There will be times when we want to quit, feel lost, and give up. It’s important to recognize these feelings. It is never too late to start again.
If nothing else, believe in the next three sentences:
That’s right, writer’s doubt is a liar. It feeds on your insecurities, it tells you things that are not true. And the cycle of doubt repeats itself. It’s not ideal, but beating yourself up over it won’t change anything. So, should we just give up?
We can try again and the next time we can be more aware. We can use our own self efficacy and take actions to improve. That’s life, that’s normal.
Sir Winston Churchill summed it up beautifully: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
And above all, be kind to yourself, hold yourself gently, and keep writing. No one else has your unique perspective. It’s worth the effort.
Patricia Allen is a professional content writer and copywriter specialising in white papers and case studies. She is the founder of Allenwrite Consulting, a former Educator, Researcher and Executive Director. Patricia holds a BA, Dip.Ed., from Sydney University and a master’s degree from Macquarie University, Sydney. She is at heart a storyteller, connecting with people on real issues. She enjoys vinyl records, reading, a good conversation and, of course, putting pen to paper. You can find her at allenwriteconsulting.com or on LinkedIn.