One of the greatest enemies we’ll ever face in life is our own self-doubt.
Vicious, pernicious and potentially crippling, the self-doubt monster hides away in the darkest recesses of our mind, seemingly asleep, but always ready to leap out a moment’s notice and rip us to shreds with its woeful catastrophising.
This is something every artist, writer, or creative person has to deal with.
Most of the time I have my self-doubt monster under control (in that I tend to ignore its fearful laments).
But I’ve noticed two times when it is most likely to strike. It likes to sink its teeth in either before I start a project (“how can you even think about doing this? You know you can’t do it! You’ll just make a mess of it!”) or right after I’ve finished it (“sorry, but this just isn’t good enough! No one’s ever gonna buy THIS! Just think of the reviews you’re gonna get!”).
No doubt about it, my self-doubt monster is a real dick.
Now, a little doubt is healthy. It gives us a certain objectivity about our work, which is useful. It can be used wisely, to help us improve our work, refine our skills and up our game.
It becomes harmful, however, when it degenerates into overwrought, mud-slinging neuroticism.
It’s as though our mind seems determined to convince us that nothing we do is ever good enough and that we’d be better off setting it aside and watching Netflix instead.
The self-doubt monster is so pervasive and persuasive it’s almost certainly destroyed countless artists’ careers before they’ve even begun. Left unchecked, this inner censor will not only hinder your creativity, it’ll completely destroy it and leave you a blubbering and, above all, blocked wreck!
It needn’t be this way, though.
The self-doubt monster is actually fairly easy, if not to defeat, then at least to keep in check.
First of all, you have to take the ‘self’ out of self-doubt.
It has nothing to do with who you are. It’s simply a thought and it’s actually completely impersonal. Everyone, in every walk of life, experiences thoughts of doubt with regard to themselves and their abilities.
Self-doubt is basically fear. It’s a defence mechanism designed to somehow keep us safe. Essentially, it means well in some twisted way, it’s just a little misinformed and highly counterproductive. Depersonalising it immediately takes the sting out of it.
Secondly, once I’ve depersonalised it, I personify it.
This might sound utterly crazy, but I find it helps to give it a name and form.
I call my self-doubt monster Fred. Fred the Fearful. He looks like a big, fat, grey caterpillar. Most of the time, I suppose he just wiggles about in the shadows of my mind, doing whatever it is caterpillars do.
Occasionally, however, something gets Fred upset. He gets all flustered and doubles in size, become a gargantuan blob full of his own hot air. This happened when I was just finishing off my last novel, The Key of Alanar, and I somehow managed to convince myself that I was the worst writer in human history and I should really just burn everything I’ve ever written and go live in a cave.
Rather than get sucked into this downward spiral of a mindset, 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’d worked himself into a terrible frenzy. So I sat him down and explained that I’m grateful that 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 to the world, as it probably is for a baby bird being pushed out of its nest in the hope it will fly for the first time. But it really does pay just to chill out and keep everything in perspective.
One of the most helpful things I’ve ever learned in life is called Karma Yoga. Karma Yoga isn’t what you might traditionally think of as yoga. It’s not a set of physical postures or breathing techniques. It’s actually a mindset with which we approach life.
An ancient text called the Bhagavad Gita explains all about Karma Yoga. It says that we have the right to act in life, but the results of those actions are never up to us. Which, if you think about it, is true. 100% of the time. So the Karma Yoga attitude — which is the greatest antidote to stress that I know — is simply to do our very best and let go of the results.
Once you’ve shot an arrow, you’ve done your part. It’s no longer up to you whether it hits the intended target. Sure, you’ve almost certainly done your best to aim it in the right direction. But it’s now under the control of laws and dynamics outwith your influence. All you can do is relax, take it easy and endeavour to take whatever happens 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 been a more prolific writer 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 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 into perspective 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 must follow our calling. We have to write the stories and paint the pictures our muse is kind enough to share with us. When inspiration strikes, we must seize it and run with it, or else we lose it.
Along the way, we learn and grow and improve our skills. Sure, we make mistakes (tons of them!) 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 others won’t. Some people are fair in their criticism and others are simply jerks with clear psychological deficiencies.
Learn to make peace with your self-doubt monster. 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 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 actually doing fine!
When we no longer give fear or doubt power over us, we give ourselves the greatest gift of all. Freedom! Freedom is the ultimate goal of all creative–and all human– endeavour! So dance with your doubts and allow yourself to be free.