Is Self-Doubt such a bad thing?

January 2, 2019

If you’re screaming “Yes, it is!” at my question, then you’re on my wavelength. I’ve felt crippled by it recently. I’ve read a string of outstanding novels lately and each one has made me realise what a lousy writer I am.


To be anecdotal for a moment, I reviewed Steven McKinnon’s ‘Symphony of the Wind recently, labelled it my favourite book of 2018. (It is awesome, go read it if you haven’t already!). However, in reply, Steve sent me this message:

“Thank you, Phil! It means a lot, and the review will serve as a positive reminder when I next doubt myself.”


It was that reply that prompted me to write this post – and to explore the issue of self-doubt in greater depth. So, here goes.


In a 2018 article in Psychology Today, Grant Hilary Brenner MD states: “Self-doubt is generally considered a negative trait. Yet doubt is intellectually and emotionally essential.”


He talks about how self-doubt is linked to curiosity. We question things for all kinds of reasons and they are positive ones, such as to gauge trust in others, to avoid being gullible, to test for safety. He goes on to refer to what happens if we DON’T have these doubts, we develop Experiential Avoidance, a psychological concept where we avoid paying attention to oneself. (Common in many mental health conditions, from depression to PTSD). It appears in our thoughts, feelings, self-recognition and can generate blind spots about ourselves.


And what does a writer need to possess in large doses (OK, apart from writing skills!)? A writer needs self-awareness. So, if you are shutting out parts of your awareness, because you don’t like what you see, then you’re limiting it. A bit like the old adage about looking through rose-tinted spectacles or focusing only on certain features and blotting out the rest of the landscape. The consequence can lead to these limitations affecting your curiosity and even your imagination, over time.


So, self-doubt isn’t such a bad thing then? Fine. That’s all nice in principle but how do you manage it when your writing is plagued by it to the extent you can’t put words on the page?


According to Paul Tremblay, the American dark fantasy author, it comes down to getting the perspective right.

“I struggle with self-doubt every time I sit down to write. Its severity fluctuates, but it's always there, and some level of it should be there, frankly. I think it's healthy. Every writer is different but doubt, at times, drives me, and makes me want to get better.”

In an interview he was plagued by self-doubt while writing his latest novel, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. It crippled him. The reason? He kept comparing the book to his other stories and asking why this one wasn’t the same. (Yep! That’s me too!) So what did he do?

“When I was able to calm down and be somewhat rational, I remembered all the times writing my other novels when I wanted to quit and remind myself that self-doubt was normal and even necessary. I was able to at least talk myself into sitting down and keeping going with the new book.”


Those rose-tinted glasses make us remember only the good parts in those earlier projects, don’t they? We overlook the heartache, the doubts, the sheer hell of writing what we did before.


I think John Skipp, American author and film-maker offers another option:

“If I'm actually stuck on a piece, it's usually because a) I have not done sufficient preparation (research, plot development), or b) because I'm just not really that into it. The first problems are simply fixed by doing the research and preparation. The second is easily fixed by dumping that shit and doing something I am excited about.”

He's referring to the instinct we have as writers, isn’t he? We doubt ourselves and sometimes it’s because part of our brain is screaming that something is wrong.


But that voice isn’t always a thoroughly reliable narrator. Over to the guru of writing, Stephen King:

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labour, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.”


Preparation, preparation, preparation. Someone on Twitter recently suggested that when they get stuck in this cycle, they start writing material on a tangent to their WIP (descriptions of locations, character back-stories etc.). Great idea eh?


And when even that doesn’t work? Dame Angelica Walters says that self-doubt leads to the words ‘fighting her tooth and nail… it’s an ugly cycle.’ To break it?

“Take a break. Read a lot, watch a movie, go out, do anything but write. When I do that, the negative feelings start to melt away and I remember why I write: because I love it.”


So, self-doubt is useful. It keeps us real, tuned-in to our awareness. But, like any emotional facet, it needs to be constantly managed. Think of it this way – self-doubt is someone you need around you, even though they’re bloody annoying. You handle their negative behaviour by finding the right coping strategy. Not by throwing the crockery as you tell them you want them to leave! Because they can be surprisingly useful and you’d be lost without them.


PS: And remember this: there are wonderful folk on social media who help erode that self-doubt when they tell you how much they enjoyed your book. Keeping those comments front and centre helps no end! So thank you!!

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