• tarahthornburg

How to Manage Self-Doubt as a Creative

This post originally aired as an episode of my podcast, The Fearless Creative.

Make sure you subscribe to get your weekly dose of inspiration, motivation, and my very best tips for succeeding as a creative entrepreneur! If you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below.

Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show everybody. I am so happy to have you here with me…

Today I want to talk about something that is really important to discuss in the context of creativity…We’re going to be talking about self-doubt. And I think all of us experience self-doubt at some point in our careers, whether we’re writers, artists, or small business owners. I think if we don’t learn how to deal with our self-doubt, it can become crippling.

So I’m going to discuss why we experience self-doubt and some of the strategies that I’ve used to manage my own self-doubt so that you can hopefully do the same. Because although self-doubt is perfectly natural in the writing world and in the art world, you can’t let it get to the point that it’s running your life as a creative person. We’re really going to delve into that today…

But first it’s time for this week’s Discovery segment. This is the part of the show where I talk about something useful or interesting that I’ve found helpful this week. And today I am finally ready to talk about this book I’ve been reading. The book is called “The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America” written by Mark Sundeen.

This is a book I’ve wanted to read for a while, and I finally got around to ordering it. Mark Sundeen explores the idea of getting back to the land in the modern age. This is not the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The book centers around three families trying to live closer to the land and be self-sufficient in today’s world — 2015 or 2016.

He explores three different scenarios with three different families: One of the family is in La Plata, Missouri; one is in Detroit; and one is near Missoula, Montana. He himself has a craving to get back to the land, which he explores throughout the book.

I think Sundeen does a good job of looking at the back-to-the-land movement from a really practical standpoint. He isn’t overly idealistic. He doesn’t romanticize this movement or look at it through rose-colored glasses. He writes about these families and what they’re trying to achieve in a way that’s really stark and personal, and he does it with a nice dose of humor to boot. He’s just a fantastic writer.

If you’re interested in urban farming, going off the grid, or just living a simpler life, this book is definitely worth your time. But it’s an interesting read for anyone with a nonconformist streak who sometimes dreams of opting out of society.

Once again, that book is called “The Unsettlers” by Mark Sundeen.

Let’s go ahead and dive into today’s topic. This is an important one. And I really got to thinking about self-doubt this week because I got Creative Morning Magic back from my proofreader…I started formatting it and working with a cover designer. I’m in the last phase of my production process — the last big push before publication — and it’s been really good for me because I’ve gotten some emotional distance from the book.

I’ve finally reached a turning point that I always have to reach where a book stops being this piece of creative work that’s really near and dear to my heart and becomes a product that’s ready to sell. That might sound a little unromantic to you writers out there because a lot of us think of our books as our “babies”…

We’re going to talk about why that isn’t healthy later in the episode, but it was a good time for me to sit back and reflect on why it has taken me this long to get the book to market and what emotional shift had to happen for me to get to this point.

This was a big week of self-reflection for me because I realized I couldn’t sidestep the topic of self-doubt on the podcast any longer. To be completely honest with you, I never wanted to talk about self-doubt. It’s a really popular topic in creative circles, but I always kind of rolled my eyes when it came up.

It’s not that I don’t experience self-doubt — because I do — but for years I’ve taken the approach of just ripping the Band-Aid off. If I feel nervous to put something out into the world, I’ll just do it.

Over time I’ve desensitized myself to a lot of self-doubt that I used to feel around my fiction. But for me, self-doubt really reared its ugly head this year when I started branching into nonfiction and podcasting and video and all these things that I’d never done before.

I realized that you can desensitize yourself to self-doubt, but only to a point. If you’re evolving — if you’re stretching yourself and taking on new challenges — you are going to experience self-doubt.

So why do we experience self-doubt? There are lots of reasons. 

For one thing, nearly all of us fear rejection. We evolved to rely on tribes and societies for survival, so we are biologically hardwired to seek the approval of others. There was a time in not-so-distant human history when social rejection was a death sentence. If you were cast out of your merry band of hunter-gatherers, there was a good chance you would die.

Thankfully, that’s not the case anymore, but our brains are still hardwired to seek social acceptance. If we think that something could threaten that social acceptance, we’ll generally suppress or hide that part of ourselves. And if we intellectually know that something is positive (like putting a book out into the world) we’ll still want to do it, but we’ll do it with more hesitation and worry because we fear that rejection.

Second, self-doubt is kind of this self-protective mechanism that we subsciously think will protect us from disappointment if our work isn’t well-received. 

It’s kind of like worrying. Trust me: I am an Olympic-level worrier. I routinely imagine the worst possible outcome in every scenario.

On a subconscious level, we think that by anticipating the worst-case scenario that we can somehow prevent it, but this just isn’t true.

If anything, self-doubt might just prevent us from putting our work out there in the first place or going “all in” when we need to.

Another reason is that there is a pervasive cultural narrative that we aren’t good enough. Corporations spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year to make sure that we feel that we aren’t good enough. If we don’t feel like we’re good enough, we think we need to buy things that might help make us feel better, like new clothes and new cars and new makeup. Playing on insecurities is also how advertisers sell us things. 

Take deodorant, for instance. Until the 1910s, commercial deodorant was a relatively new invention and kind of hard to sell to people. What first made commercial deodorant take off was an ad placed in Ladies Home Journal in 1919 that suggested that body odor was a source of terrible social embarrassment for women — and they might not even know they stink. (It took even longer to convince men that they needed deodorant because, in the early 1900s, stink was considered masculine.)

Even the service economy is built on making people feel incapable. How many people do you know who change the oil in their car or grow their own food? How many people do you know who fix their own appliances or resolve their own plumbing problems?

Today we earn more money so we can outsource these skills and outsource responsibility. Which is completely fine. (I for one have no desire to change the oil in my car.) But by outsourcing responsibility, we never develop these skills, and so we never develop the confidence that comes with figuring something out for ourselves and being self-sufficient.

Finally, we live in a world where everyone’s a critic. If you look at platforms like Facebook, YouTube, or Amazon, they are all designed to gather feedback from people. You can comment, you can thumbs-up or thumbs-down on YouTube, you can rate and review books…Therefore, everyone thinks that their opinion matters and that they should have a platform to express their opinion.

All these new platforms democratize the critique process. It gives everyone a voice, when in fact everyone’s opinion doesn’t matter. Because if you’re reaching someone who isn’t your target audience, it really shouldn’t matter what that person thinks — and yet we feel it does.

Because we live in a world where everyone’s a critic, we have to get really skillful at managing our own insecurity.

And there are several ways to manage it…

The first way I already mentioned, which is brute force. If you create a piece of work and you’re feeling insecure and worrying that people won’t like it, you just rip the Band-Aid off and put it out there anyway. And you can manage your own self-doubt really effectively this way — sometimes indefinitely.

The thing about the “brute force” approach is that it requires less and less brute force with every piece of work you put out into the world. You kind of become conditioned to that discomfort. You get comfortable being uncomfortable. 

But one thing I’ve realized is that even if you overcome self-doubt in one area of your life or business, you can still experience it in other areas.

For instance, I have no trouble putting out a sequel to a book, but I used to have a really hard time with the first book in a new series. Now that bothers me less, but I’m still really nervous to put out a nonfiction book, because I haven’t desensitized myself in this area. I was nervous to launch the podcast because I’ve never done any audio projects and it was completely new for me, so I wasn’t sure how it would be received. 

That said, sometimes you can trick yourself into feeling more confident than you are by doing work in an unrelated area of your life. This is why I think fitness is so important…Meeting fitness challenges tricks your brain into being more confident. And this is something I wish I could have learned when I was younger. Accomplishing physical feats does wonders for your confidence in all areas: creativity, business, relationships, you name it.

Especially as a woman, martial arts completely changed the way I walk through the world. If you come at people strong, people are just going to treat you better. That’s a fact. You’re going to get more respect. You’re going to get better deals when you negotiate. People are more inclined to listen to you…But this all comes from having confidence, and one of the fastest ways to get it, I think, is to develop physical strength.

Another tip I have might be a little unconventional…It’s to realize that nothing will ever be “perfect.”

Perfect is an impossible standard because it’s completely subjective. So setting perfection as your standard is about as productive as having no standards whatsoever. 

Whenever someone tells me, “but I’m a perfectionist,” what they’re really saying to me is, “but I’m procrastinating.”

Ugh…We writers are notorious handwringers. We’re notorious for never getting anything done because we’re so busy waiting for a piece of writing to be perfect.

And, by the way, they don’t have this problem in the business community. Mark Zuckerberg’s motto is “Move fast and break things.” I’ve worked for startups — I’ve written for startups — and I’ll tell you that the startup community embraces failure as part of the process. The startup community fetishizes failure. The goal in the startup community is to create a minimum viable product, get it to market, and iterate from there. They say if it’s perfect, you didn’t launch fast enough. 

Please don’t misunderstand me, though…When I say that nothing is ever perfect, I don’t mean you shouldn’t try to make it the very best it can be. You SHOULD revise and revise and revise. You should invest in coaching, solicit feedback from appropriate sources, and invest in a good editor. But at some point, you have to call it and say “this is the best this is going to be.” Because at a certain point, the only thing that’s ever going to make you better is to go create the next thing and get distance from this thing.

It takes time and practice to make peace with imperfection. One way you can accelerate this process is by accepting that a single piece of work doesn’t represent the totality of who you are — or even the totality of your work.

A book or a piece of art is just a snapshot of who you are as an artist in that moment of time. 

Think of it this way: We’ve all taken unflattering photographs. If you’re wondering how Instagram stars take really good selfies, it’s by getting in the right light, getting the angle just right, and taking a LOT of photos. The Kardashians don’t post the first selfie they take…They might post the 500th selfie they take.

The rule of selfies applies to art, too: You’re not going to get it perfect on the first shot. You might not get it perfect on the 10th shot. That doesn’t make you a bad artist or a bad writer. It just means you need to be more prolific to give yourself a chance at mastery.

This is why it’s so important to be prolific. If you are always onto the next thing, you won’t be as easily shaken when one thing you create isn’t well-received. 

If you can develop an attitude of abundance around your work, you won’t stress about being perfect, because you’ll know there’s more where that came from. You don’t have to hang all of your hopes and dreams on this one thing. 

Artists and writers run into trouble when they start to think of a piece of work as “their baby.”

It’s not your baby. It’s just something you created. Just like the chicken teriyaki I made the other night isn’t “my baby.” I take responsibility for it — I made it — but I don’t feel that it defines me as a cook or as a person.

Getting past the “it’s my baby” stage takes work. And when I say it takes work, I mean it takes creating more work: more paintings, more music, more books.

Hanging all of your hopes on one thing isn’t healthy for your creative work…or babies for that matter.

And if you worry about putting something out there that isn’t perfect because a book is forever or a blog post is forever…Don’t worry because it’s not. Having your first book lingering out in the world isn’t a problem you’re going to have in a world where the content on the Internet is always getting buried by a tidal wave of new content. The real problem is clawing your way out of obscurity and staying relevant. People are busy, and anymore, nothing is permanent. 

A lot of beginning writers think of their first book as their one shot at a writing career. But the truth is, you aren’t going to make a slam dunk on your first try. Slam dunks in publishing are extremely rare, and statistically, you aren’t going to be the exception to that rule on your first book. 

Take solace in the fact that only your good stuff will be remembered. Did you read The Torrents of Spring in high school? No? It was only written by the most famous American author in history! But if you read any Hemingway in high school, you probably read The Old Man in the Sea or The Sun Also Rises.

It’s actually cute how permanent and life-defining people think their individual creations are. I think it comes from teachers and parents putting the fear of God in us that we all have a “permanent record” somewhere that we’re forever going to be judged against. But there is no permanent record in adulthood.

I’ve had aspiring authors tell me, “Well if I self-publish my book, no traditional publisher will ever touch my books in the future.” And that’s just not true. It’s an old wives’ tale made up by people who have never published a book in their lives. (Or people who are part of the old system and feel threatened by the new system.)

If you do all of these things and your head is still spinning with all the reasons why something is going to fail, the best workaround I’ve found is to get all those fears out into the open at once. 

A lot of times when we’re worried about something, our thinking becomes circular and repetitive. It’s like when you can’t sleep at 4 o’clock in the morning and your brain just keeps churning through all of your ridiculous worries. They aren’t necessarily even rational, but they’re overwhelming regardless.

What I like to do is to give myself 10 minutes to write down everything I’m worried about. This was my Inner Critic’s chance to air all of her grievances. I did this when I sent Creative Morning Magic to my editor. I wrote down every little worry I had — no matter how ridiculous or terrifying. I wrote down all the ways the project could fail and how I would be devastated.

Once I got that stuff down on paper, I realized I only had three or four unique worries. The rest were just echoes of those worries. And the worries I had weren’t earth-shattering. They were strangely isolated and specific. Once they were down on paper, I realized that I could live with those things if they came true. Doing this helps you see that your worries are actually fairly manageable.

That’s all I have for you today…If you enjoyed this episode (or this transcript), please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review. Reviews help other creatives like you find the podcast, and I really appreciate them.

You can also get in touch with me via the contact form or on Instagram and Twitter @writewithtarah.

I’ll see you next time, and happy creating!

Photo by Sasha Freemind

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