Being a writer means living in terror.
I don’t mean the terror of a zombie apocalypse or of circus clowns.
I mean the incessant nagging of self-doubt.
Do you ever ask yourself any of the following:
- Do I really have what it takes?
- What if they reject my proposal?
- What if no one takes my ideas seriously?
- What if I’m just not meant to be a writer?
- When will they discover I’m a fraud?
- Who am I kidding anyway?
Self-doubt can be completely debilitating.
But if you listen to it closely, this type of fear can become a potent tool for revealing your deepest desires and showing you how to attain them.
Fear Tells Us What We Need
We tend to think of fear as something to avoid, but it often turns out that behind self-doubt hides something we desperately need.
For example, I have numerous fears about writing a novel: the fear of criticism, not finding enough time to write, finding out I’m not as talented as I like to think I am, etc. However, beyond all the things that make me hesitate, there is a powerful desire to hold the finished work in my hands, to have my ideas perfectly articulated, and to receive praise from friends and family.
This tension of being drawn toward something and simultaneously repulsed is what creates the visceral discomfort of self-doubt that makes us want to run.
The fact that self-doubt is ultimately rooted in desire is precisely why it’s so hard to ignore – we don’t want to lose sight of something precious! If there is no strong need or desire, there’s no self-doubt either. For example, I have no fear of getting a pilot’s license – though objectively, flying is more dangerous than novel writing – because I have no desire to learn to fly.
Fear Tells Us What It Will Take
While self-doubt reminds us of our goals and desires, it also tells us – as nothing and no one else will – the price we must pay to achieve those goals.
When I think about writing a novel, I immediately start imagining the frustration of writer’s block, the sting of rejection slips, and the fight-or-flight terror of one-star reviews on Amazon.
Now, I have a choice.
I can accept these fears as challenges I need to overcome to reach my goal, or I can let them become excuses to put off doing the work that will get me closer to my desires.
If I push on, then my fears have given me the chance to prepare myself mentally before facing the challenges the real world will throw at me.
If I let myself be discouraged instead, then my fear has still served me well – by testing my resolve and keeping me from diving into something I wasn’t sufficiently committed to.
Either way, my fear shows me clearly what I need, how to get it, and makes me choose deliberately, instead of blindly chasing my desires.
Fear Helps Us to Grow and Makes Our Achievements Matter
I’ve often bemoaned how much more I could accomplish if only I was more courageous.
However, I’ve found, like so many before me, that courage isn’t the absence of fear; it is the decision to proceed in spite of it. As we face our self-doubts and overcome obstacles, our courage begins to grow, allowing us to face bigger challenges. Little by little, we become the kind of person worthy of the goals we’ve set.
Overcoming fear is also part of what makes achieving a goal meaningful.
For example, when I was a child I consistently brought home straight-A report cards. My parents and teachers always made a fuss, but at the time school was easy for me, so it never felt significant. No major obstacles meant no self-doubt, but no sense of accomplishment either.
Several years ago I entered a talent show to play the guitar and sing in front of an audience of fifty friends and coworkers. I was nearly frozen with terror, certain of imminent death by humiliation, but I have never felt as victorious as when I finished my set – not even when I found out at night’s end that I had taken second place.
How to Use Fear to Write Better
Self-doubt presents us with a choice: “Here is something you need, and here’ what’s keeping you from it. Ignore it and avoid the struggle, or go for it and maybe gain something priceless. Your call.”
This challenge can liberate us from a life of complacency, and can also help us know ourselves better, but only if we learn to make use our fear, to friends with our fear.
Step One: Acknowledge and name your self-doubts.
Go ahead and write down one of those big fears.
Then break it down into all the smaller fears that it consists of. For example, if writing and publishing a novel is my big fear, the small fears might be the fear of criticism, being accused of self-promotion, or learning that my ‘profound ideas’ are just clichés distilled from watching too much television.
If you have trouble coming up with your big fears, just try to think of something you’ve always talked about doing, but have never gotten around to. That’s doubt’s calling card.
Step Two: Think about what you really want that’s on the other side of this fear.
Think about the reward you will get when you face and overcome this fear. Write this down in as much detail as possible. Imagine what it will be like to sign copies of your book for fans, to receive your first five-figure royalty check, or to give a reading in front of a thousand people. Have fun with this step!
Step Three: Take the fears you listed in Step One and rewrite them as steps to be taken to reach your goal.
This is how your fear and self-doubt can literally provide you with a roadmap to your goal. For example, I might reformulate my worry about having my writing criticized as “Find an online critique site where I can practice receiving anonymous criticism.”
This process allows me to change my mindset from “I don’t have what it takes to write a novel!” to “If I follow these steps, someday I’ll hold my story in the palm of my hands”.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
It’s almost impossible to make friends with the gut-twisting, visceral experience of fear, but if we wait for fear to go away before acting, we might end up never doing much of anything!
So practice pushing through the physical sensation by first overcoming small fears and then building up. Visualizing the rewards of going beyond the fear is another way to motivate yourself.
The good news is that even if you try and fail, facing up to your fears is a meaningful accomplishment in and of itself. If your goal is to get a raise and you make your best appeal to your boss but still get a “no”, you can at least feel better knowing that you tried, and you’ll be that much more confident – and better prepared – the next time around.
When you make friends with fear, you win either way.
What are your big fears, and what might they be calling you to do? Share your answers in the comments below to help others start thinking about how to make the most of their self-doubt!