Inside: How to navigate self-doubt in your creative life and work with gentleness and kindness. This is a guest post by Nicole Gullota. The post contains referral links.
In my second year of college, I signed up for a publishing workshop where a handful of hopeful writers were eager to learn the secrets to securing publication. On the first day of class, our professor arrived with a large manila folder in tow and proceeded to dump its contents onto our table. One by one, slips of paper were passed around and read aloud.
These scraps were, in fact, rejection slips. She brought them to reveal a truth about the writer’s life—and ultimately, life in general—that rejection is part of the process. Anytime we make a move to share our work with the wider world, there will be opposition to contend with.
Although I’ve published two books since then, I’m not immune to self-doubt. I still experience a knot in my stomach when I submit my work to journals, and continue to muddle through the first draft questioning my worth. The inner critic. Rejection. Self-doubt. Fear. However you choose to name these aspects of the creative life, one thing is certain: artists will always contend with the shadow sides of their work.
SELF-DOUBT: a lack of faith in oneself : a feeling of doubt or uncertainty or lack of confidence in oneself and one’s abilities.
How To Lean in and learn from Self-Doubt
Steven Pressfield said in his book, The War of Art, “the more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.” With this in mind, here are six ways to navigate self-doubt with a sense of intention.
1. Acknowledge the discomfort of fear.
Self-doubt can stem from a variety of root causes, but one of them is often the fear of being visible. After all, if we keep our work private, there’s a lower perceived risk of rejection. But keeping our art close not only damages us, but others who might find encouragement from it. There’s nothing wrong with your feelings—always begin by acknowledging them. We can acknowledge the discomfort of fear and take action anyway.
2. get curious about your self-doubt.
In The Wisdom of Anxiety, Sheryl Paul offers a nurturing way to approach these stressors from a lens of curiosity. “If you take the thoughts at face value instead of becoming curious about the deeper messages, you will miss the opportunity for healing.”
When you’re prepared to go deeper, you can dig to better understand where a thought is coming from, how you might have been conditioned to feel it, and what lessons it might offer.
3. Recognize rejection as part of the process.
There’s no way around the fact that rejection is part of creative living. Our work won’t resonate with everyone, and that’s fine. A gallery will reject our paintings. A record label will reject our music. In the writing world, it’s been said that you need to submit an essay, story, or poem to at least ten different journals before garnering an acceptance.
I once heard a writer say that she tried to look at sending out her work (and collecting the rejection slips) as routine as writing a check for her bills every month.
4. Name your desires.
When you write down your soul’s desires, say them out loud, hear them, and see them, you can better know they’ve come from a place deep within you. Sourced from this authentic place, you can more easily let go of the voices telling you otherwise.
One exercise to try comes from the book Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo. To practice it, simply open a notebook to a blank page and begin writing the phrase “What I really want is..” and keep writing until you fill the page. Don’t edit or censor yourself—just write. Once the page is filled, you’re done for the day.
Repeat the exercise for seven days, then reread what you’ve written at the end of the week, checking for trends, patterns, and common words or phrases that might better articulate your creative desires.
5. Show gratitude for resistance.
Remember the Steven Pressfield quote? Resistance is a clue. Coming up against this sensation is likely a sign that you’re moving in the direction your creativity is aching to go. Rather than seeing this as a blockage from pursuing your art, reframe it as a signal that you’re embarking on the work you were meant to do.
6. Practice kindness.
Imagine that a good friend of yours comes over for a cup of tea. You sit on the couch together, and she begins sharing some of the fears and frustrations on her heart. She’s questioning her work. She feels like she won’t reach her audience. She experienced a setback. What would you say to her? Most likely, you would be kind, reassuring, and hopeful.
How easy it is to offer this to others, yet we rarely offer it to ourselves. Don’t forget to extend kindness to your own feelings, whatever they may be. Talk to them—out loud, in your mind, or in the pages of a journal—the way you would encourage someone else.
Although it sounds appealing to live in a world where self-doubt doesn’t follow on our heels, or where we can overcome it completely with enough practice, I don’t believe this is how it works. Navigating self-doubt is a necessary exercise to learn and grow from over the course of our creative lives. Don’t sweep it away—invite it in and see what it’s here to teach you.
Bio: Nicole Gulotta is the author of Wild Words: Rituals, Routines, and Rhythms for Braving the Writer’s Path and the literary cookbook Eat This Poem. Sign up for her newsletter offering encouragement for the writer’s life, or join the community on Instagram.