A rational antidote for emotional thinking

Mom I’m afraid that I’ll never be good enough, that I’m a failure.”

“You may be right. You should quit, sweetheart.”

Can you imagine ever having this exchange with your child—or your spouse, best friend, or even a total stranger? If you’re like me—like most of us, I expect—you had a visceral recoil reaction to this precipitous, heartless stomping out of someone’s internal flame.

And yet how often do we do this to ourselves as writers?

Lately I’ve had an unusual number of conversations with authors along these lines: They have lost faith in themselves or their creative work, for whatever reason—they have yet to garner an agent, or to get published, or to be a bestseller, or even to finish a draft, and they’re wondering if the universe is trying to tell them something…whether it would simply be best to quit trying.

I suspect this collective loss of faith has something to do with our global mindset right now, amid the worst pandemic we’ve known in our lifetimes, widespread sociopolitical unrest, the increasingly dangerous effects of climate change, and extraordinary polarization.

But I also believe it’s part of the creative mind-set, that area of our psyches so close to our tenderest, most naked selves. When you learned to walk did you denigrate yourself and give up when it took time to get the hang of it? Or when you learned to tie your shoes or ride a bike or balance a checkbook? (Kids, these were little ledgers where we recorded our expenditures manually.)

In areas outside our vulnerable creative efforts, we generally understand that learning any new skill takes time, practice, and diligent effort as you master the needed abilities—more so the more difficult or complex the challenge you have set for yourself. If you set out to learn Mandarin, you no doubt accept that there will likely be a lot of frustration and failure before you’re fluent.

Writing is one of the most complex and nuanced undertakings I know—combining countless elements of craft, language ability, logistics, a deep understanding of human psychology, imagination, and more, in a complicated balancing act, a marionette with infinite strings. Besides that intricacy, like any creative pursuits it’s also one of the most subjective fields I know: Even if you master your craft, it may not appeal to a particular “gatekeeper” guarding the portal to where you want to go.

I’m not saying grit your teeth and persist in something that has lost its shine for you if your priorities or desires have shifted and writing is no longer giving you joy. But if your contemplation of throwing in the towel is a result of discouragement, frustration, loss of belief in yourself—which are all entirely natural cycles of the human psyche, never more so than in the areas closest to our hearts where our deepest passions lie—then allow me to share a method I’ve developed for dealing with these dark moments of the soul in a rational, effective, useful way that I adapted from the psychological field of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—digging down to the root of one’s personal misbeliefs, to borrow a writing concept.

(Stick with me. This is more fun than it sounds.)

A Rational Antidote for Emotional Thinking

I walked a writer friend through this process recently when she was having a crisis of confidence, and here’s what it looked like:

KH: I need to just quit writing.

Me: Why do you think so?

KH: I haven’t even been able to get an agent. I must suck as a writer.

Me: What if you do suck as a writer? What would that mean?

KH: It would mean I was a failure.

Me: What if you are a failure? What would that mean?

KH: It would mean I should stop writing.

Me: What would it mean if you stopped?

KH, laughing: I’d be miserable. I’m not going to stop.

I’ve talked about knowing your why, and in this (admittedly abridged) version of our “CBT-ing” her loss of faith in herself my friend very quickly realized hers—she isn’t writing to get an agent, or even to get published. She’s writing because she loves it. Writing makes her happy, fulfills her, lets her relish the joy of creating that drives her. And all that before she ever gets an agent or a publisher or a broad readership or reviews.

She already has her brass ring. She’s already achieving her most important goals and fulfillment in her writing career—and that, even she was forced to admit, means she’s not a failure.

When these crises of confidence happen to you, it can be helpful to examine your premises. Not only was my friend misdefining her terms—“failure” not applying after all—but in rationally exploring her argument we very quickly poked a lot of holes in it.

“What’s your evidence that you suck as a writer?” I asked her. “Has anyone said that to you about your writing?” No. Was there any time she had evidence of the opposite—that her writing has merit? Yes—she’s won awards for her fiction; successfully worked as a journalist and magazine editor for many years; frequently hears compliments from coworkers, crit readers, and others about her writing. Again, she had no real basis in fact for her blanket statement of failure.

When the self-doubt demons take you over, it’s so easy to succumb to the little bastards. They’re insidious, gaslighting you with hyperbole and lies. We’re not rational in these moments.

But we can be. Take a deep breath and a step back and examine your premises through the cool lens of logic. Know your why. Remember that mastering the art and craft of writing—like any difficult, complex skill—is a process and takes time.

And keep the faith in yourself, friends. If you’re in a place where that feels too hard right now, I will keep it for you. I believe in you.

Write. The world needs your voice.

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