The ebb and flow of self belief
The tweet above appeared on my timeline and it hit me hard. I suffer from anxiety and depression, illnesses which often combine to make me paranoid, bereft of confidence and self-critical.
As a writer, a musician and even in my day job as an IT professional, I know I am competent. I’ve been doing all of these things for decades at various levels and have never had any real disasters, while having received positive feedback for pieces of writing, tunes and professional appraisals.
If only logic played any part in mental health.
Despite knowing that I can write, that I can create music, or do my day job, I am constantly fighting the sensation that I’m not good enough; I’m just pretending or playing at it. It’s more than simply imposter syndrome. I’ll take any small flaw in my writing and it will be amplified in my head until it’s absolute proof that the whole piece is worthless and no-one will want to read it. Which is pretty extreme for what is usually a misplaced apostrophe (curse you possessive pronouns!).
I also find that I’m overly sensitive to criticism, which isn’t really helpful for anyone trying to be creative. Even criticism that is completely unconstructive and unworthy of attention, like a single troll leaving an abusive comment on a blog post, will make me question the validity of my work, leaving me in a creative funk that can take days to clear.
Part of the problem may also be the natural shrinking of my social circle as I get older. While I still have a lot of people I would gladly call friends, my contact with them has dried up as everyone has settled into careers, marriages and family life. This means the people I spend almost all my time interacting with are work colleagues and my family. While my family are amazing and my wife at least does a convincing impression of someone who appreciates my creative talents, my colleagues aren’t really interested.
What that means is I’m working in a bit of a creative vacuum. Aside from presenting work at my local creative writing group (who are brilliant), I have no-one to act as a creative sounding board that will reinforce my self-belief and offer relevant support and constructive discussion about work.
Week to week I can swing wildly between being full of self-confidence, aware of my own abilities and believing I have something worthwhile to say and share with people; to being an empty tank of belief, wondering why I ever thought anyone wanted to listen to any music I played or read any of my writing.
While I can use various tools to manage my mental health — exercise, medication, diet etc. there needs to be a toolkit in place to manage self-belief as well.
The first thing I do is try and keep a sense of perspective. I’m a very logical person (which is amplified by a career in IT) so using clear arguments to reason with others and myself works well for me. I remind myself that I play music and write for fun first and for others second. As long as I enjoy the process and I’m happy with the result then it’s been worth my time.
The second thing to do is tell myself that I’m allowed to make mistakes. I don’t do this for a living, but even professional writers and musicians are far from perfect. Everyone can improve and I wouldn’t expect perfection from others, so I shouldn’t demand it from myself.
Next I remind myself that my voice is valid and just as deserving to be heard as anyone’s. As a consumer I read some pretty poor stuff and have listened to thousands of terrible musicians over the years, as well as all the great stuff I love. The market is full of good writers, bad writers and average writers; old writers, young writers and writers of middle-age; writers of every race, colour, nationality and economic background. There’s a place for me there.
Lastly I try to remember that criticism is OK and I don’t have to acknowledge, or give time to, any that is unwarranted or abusive. Don’t feed the trolls.
Using all these tools gives myself the support I need to keep creating, something which has been an important part of my life since I was a child. You are your own biggest supporter and you need to remember that when the voice of doubt creeps in again.
Of course there’s always more to be done and I would encourage anyone who struggles with self-doubt to try and find like minded people and groups that can help boost your confidence. My local writing group meets once a week and is invaluable to remind myself that there’s a community of us out there creating and looking for help and advice. Look for these groups near you or start one, if you’re the organising type and you can’t find one.
Above all, be kind to yourself.