Where Do You Go When the Doubt Monsters Come?

I don’t know what it is lately, but I have been plagued by self-doubt. I’m a relatively confident person if you don’t count social interactions with like, humans and stuff. (Cats, though. Cats and I are like this. ><) When it comes to my endeavors as a writer, I’m very confident. I believe in myself, I believe in my craft, and I believe in this art-committed life I’ve made for myself. But like any creative, I sometimes look over my shoulder and see the closet door left cracked open, and from within glare the tiny glowing eyes of a dozen shadowed creatures, lurking…

Photo by Express Monorail.

I call them doubt monsters. They’re tiny little mutinous cowards who wait until the softest spots are exposed. Why tiny? Because for me, that’s how doubt creeps in. I’m generally not an existential crisis kind of gal, so the monsters have to divide and conquer. One little nibble here, another sneaky bite there, and if I let them get to me, I’m paralyzed with fear before I know it.

I don’t know why. I don’t want this to come across as complaining or fishing for compliments, because that isn’t it at all.  So please don’t get me wrong; I’m sharing this to talk about this strange little phenomenon called self-doubt, not to get reassurances or sound all woe-is-me. I have much to be excited about, proud of, and thankful for these days.

So what’s with all the doubt? I think it might have something do with untread territory. I’m walking new paths in my career, and I guess that’s scary. It doesn’t feel scary – in my head it feels freaking awesome – but the logical part of me knows that this sudden onset of doubt isn’t coincidental with the new steps I’m taking.

I’ll give you an example. This weekend I’m speaking at a state poetry conference that I’m really truly happy about. (Honored, excited, grateful: all of the above.) Last week, I sat down to write a bio for the program. Out of sheer repetitive habit, I filled it with the best, strongest, and most impressive facts about myself – as I’d seen done in all of the example bios from last year’s program. I focused mostly on poetry and had no problem getting a solid 150-word paragraph that sounded (to my ears) great.

Then I panicked.

All of a sudden, I felt like a hack. A pretentious wannabe. But that’s not logical, I told myself. I hadn’t exaggerated or said a single untrue thing in the whole paragraph. But still, it came across as boastful and snooty. Not really, I told myself. Everyone puts their best stuff in their bio. When have you ever read someone list the number of rejections they got instead of their publication credits? I knew I was being silly, but I just could not shake the feeling that I was somehow faking or pretending. The doubt monsters had come, and they went for the throat.

Luckily one of my friends helped talk me down, and thanks to a tight deadline, I was forced to just send the damn thing. Thank goodness. It’s a good bio, an honest bio. It’s my bio. I should embrace the things I’ve worked hard to earn.

Unfortunately, the doubt monsters cannot be so easily defeated. Shake off one and two more latch on. And I know it’s not just me, not just writers, not even just creatives. Everyone doubts themselves sometimes. I’m disappointed to admit that I’ve been running from doubt monsters quite a bit lately. Which is what brings me to my question of the week. (What, you thought I had an answer all tied up in a bow for you? Ha!)

Where do you go when the doubt monsters come?

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  • When the doubt monsters attack me (which they have recently) I shut down. The longer I hold in the doubt by not speaking about it (I’m famous for holding things in) the longer I’m paralyzed. I’ve learned to talk to my best friend or my mom and that usually releases me from the doubt. Just airing it for someone to see, other than myself, helps. I’ve been known to be stubborn, or to think I’m burdening people with my petty concerns and hold them in longer than necessary. I’m getting better though.

    Great post, Annie!

    • Hm, that’s interesting. I wonder if that’s part of what drove me to blog about this? I’ve been known to be stubborn as well, taking on too much myself and swallowing my concerns, so that’s a very real possibility. Thanks Missy!

      • When I accepted that the novel I’m working on wasn’t going to be novel length I fell into a depression. After few days I talked to my mom about it and it was like a weight had lifted and I started writing again.

        I’m glad I could bring a bit of clarity to your predicament. 🙂

  • Laura Irrgang

    Great post, Annie! I agree with Missy…the doubt monsters send me hiding under the covers. If the nagging doubts are severe, I take a little (not a lot) time off and regroup. Sometimes, those dang nippers are telling me something is wrong with my current project/life/fill-in-the-blank and I should listen. Sometimes, I just keep going, put my head down, and push through them. One thing that helps me, even when I’m feeling down or insecure is this: Do the next thing. It doesn’t have to be monumental, but I have to keep going. I’m working on my studio right now, so what’s the next logical thing? Paint primer in the front room. After that? Put on one coat of paint, then another. Then work on the trim. Stuff like that helps me with forward momentum, and hopefully by the time I’m onto Step Number 4 or 5, the Doubt Monsters have fled. P.S. I’m sure your bio is both awesome AND honest.

    • Thank you Laura. 🙂 I think time off is a good thing. I tend to be very stingy with it (one of the pitfalls of being a workaholic and my own boss), but thank goodness I have a vacation coming up! Maybe that’s the magic potion I need.
      I love “do the next thing.” I don’t know if that helps me get over doubt, but it at least keeps me productive and distracted while the doubt fades on its own. Good tip!

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Unfortunately, I hit the ice cream. Hard. And I’ve been eating A LOT of ice cream lately. So you, my dear, have company, in your doubt monster fest.

  • Regina Richards

    When the doubt monsters attack, and they do with vicious enthusiasm and merciless regularity, I go to the past. I call up the times in my life when despite the sharp-toothed little buggers snipping at my ankles and sometimes sinking their teeth into my backside, I persisted and accomplished real and important things.

    Setting high school sports records it took decades for others to break despite being temporarily half-sighted, suffering from the early symptoms of a debilitating illness and dealing with traumatic situations in my home life. The doubt monsters attacked, but I persisted.

    Insisting on continuing to carry my son despite doctors insisting I was endangering him by not allowing them to induce labor. Standing strong against their harassment despite being threatened and forced to sign papers saying if he was born with problems that it would be my fault. He was born perfect 6 weeks later, has rarely been sick a day in his life, graduated in the top 4 percent of his very competitive high school, received a full academic scholarship to a top university, is an avid body builder, is in a happy/healthy relationship with a wonderful woman, and is already showing impressive success in his career field. The doubt monsters attacked, but I persisted.

    Remembering those times and many more is how I fend off, or sometimes just wait out, the attacks of the doubt monsters that are still just as frequent and vicious as they ever were. I just continue to persist.

    • I love this idea, Regina. (And wow do I love your examples! You are a very strong person!) A while back I started a personal word document called my “Brag Box,” where I copy-pasted the especially touching compliments people sent me in writing. I thought it would be a great file to go to when I was feeling low or sad and needed to remember the good things, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten to keep up with it. But I think I might start it again — and maybe add to it a list of times I persevered and things I’m proud of. Thank you for the idea!

      • Regina Richards

        I love the idea of a Brag Box! I may have to start one of those.

  • I can totally relate to this. Mine don’t creep in, they just show up, unannounced like a roach I can’t escape. I hate to say it but the best way for me to get rid of them is to let them crawl all over me until I get fed up. And getting fed up usually lets me conquer them until the next time..

    • Well the image of letting roaches crawl all over me is absolutely horrifying, but I love what you’re saying. I do this with sadness sometimes. I just let it sink in and allow myself to fully feel it, and then I’m usually ready to move on much sooner than if I try to pretend everything is fine. Maybe I’ll try that with my doubt and see how it goes…

      • Sometimes you just gotta feel it. I always feel better after a good long hard cry. I talk about with the hubs which helps too. You’ve got a great hubs who would listen.

  • Posts like this are reassuring just because it shows even the people who have it together suffer this same feeling. mine are always nibbling on my back. I carry my doubts with me into whatever I do, and never feel 100% confident in anything I’m doing. I’ve learned how to fake it very well and to ignore the doubts. When it gets overwhelming though, I do escape. Sometimes it’s just too much to fight off the doubt and deal with whatever else is going on, so I dive into a good book or a video game. (Lately, it’s been video games, though I have this huge book of short stories by Bradbury that’s also been super awesome for this.)

    • Well thanks for calling me someone who has it together — I don’t always feel that way, especially in the doubt-y times. “Fake it ’til you make it” is a theory I really stand by, though, and usually that helps me. But like you, sometimes even that’s not enough and I need to escape. Reading is always one of the best ways; you know I’m super jealous of that Bradbury book you have!

  • Jessica Vealitzek

    Feeling like a fraud who was about to get caught used to be something I thought happened to just me. Then I read an interview with some very successful, billionaire entrepreneur (wish I could remember who!) who said he pretended he knew what he was doing for years until he DID know what he was doing; and he still sometimes felt like a fraud. I remind myself of things like that when I doubt myself. I also remind myself, like you did, of my very real accomplishments and chide myself for feeling like I don’t deserve acknowledgement. (Sheryl Sandberg writes about this in Lean In…)

    • “Fake it ’til you make it” again! Sometimes I wonder if anyone truly knows what the heck they’re doing. =) Stories like that are good reminders that everyone is human, and that doubt is simply part of life. Thanks, Jessica.

  • Natalia Sylvester

    Oh, those little monsters. I think I’m going through this right now. When the doubt monsters come, I procrastinate for quite some time. I try to get over the doubt by thinking through my problems instead of actually doing something. And then, when that hasn’t worked, I force myself to actually start the doing (e.g. the writing). And eventually, that’s what makes them go away. It’s always through the writing. The only good thing about this (at least, the bright side I’m trying to look at) is that by now, it’s happened so many times that I recognize the pattern, and I’m hoping to move through this routine more quickly each time, so that I can get to the writing sooner. I’m trying to trust the process.

    • Well it’s awesome that you’re so aware of your patterns. It seems like that’s a really good step toward mastering them. Writing helps if the doubts are about writing, but so often my doubts are much more vague than that. General, random fears and doubts that I don’t know how to act toward to make them go away. =/

  • Russell Linton

    Fight or flight. Traditional response to any monster. I own running shoes and a punching bag. I’m a pretty private person and I usually do the stupid thing and keep it to myself. I don’t like to burden others with my problems or admit weakness sometimes. Makes me pretty self sufficient but also pretty stubborn (in good and bad ways.) Sometimes I luck out and that raw energy gets channeled back into my writing.

    Still, confidence is a huge part of being successful. Whether or not you’ve got the ‘cred’ to prove it, you need to be confident in your abilities and honest about your failings. I think as long as you do those things, there’s less room for those little leeches. Your bio sounded boastful? Good for you, you’ve done those things and more I bet. Let the audience know you’re worth listening to.

    • Yes, it’s always nice if I can funnel my angst into some sort of writing — that’s a great point. Maybe there’s a story about doubt in my future (hehe, only half kidding). I’m all for the punching bag; I try not to use the running shoes, even though I don’t always succeed. And I always, always, try to be 100% honest with myself, if nothing else. Thanks Russ!

  • Rochelle Melander

    Annie, First–thanks for stopping by my blog to comment on Nina’s article. Next, thanks for this helpful post–it’s good to know that we’re not alone! Monsters haunt all of us. One thing that’s helped me is figuring out what’s behind the doubt monster. Is it my nasty comparison voice, telling me I’m not as good as x or y speaker? (Yeah, but all those rejection notes help me teach just as well as the acceptance ones ever did!) Or is it my editing brain, wanting me to sharpen my talk instead of writing it? (I tell that voice to take a vacation until it’s time to edit the piece.) Or is it perhaps my “you-better-be-prepared” voice, leftover from childhood? (Once I’m prepared to speak, that one usually goes away.) And then, of course, there are the things that ground us: our friends–like the one who talked you down, our exercise–like Russell’s punching bag, and even our indulgences, like chocolate and ice cream! -Rochelle, Write Now! Coach

    • Hi Rochelle! I think you’re right that the first step is figuring out what’s behind the doubt. And yes, comparison is often the culprit. In this case it wasn’t so much about comparing myself to the other speakers as it was about comparing myself to the me I’m aiming to be — and the accomplishments I wish I’d already achieved. It’s wonderful that people are impressed by what I’ve done, but I’m always hard on myself, and I know that I’d feel so much more secure with this accomplishment under my belt… or that one… or this other one… Of course, that’s just silly. Confidence comes from ourselves, not from our resumes. Good advice!

  • jclementwall

    Weirdly, I’m reading at a literary event this Thursday night, and I pushed back on the coordinator who wanted to include more stuff in my bio than I was comfortable with. (My bio is about three sentences long.) And I’ve been struggling with some pretty fast-talking, mean spirited doubt monsters myself. The weird part is our parallel struggles, not so much the inner turmoil.

    I have this very detailed j-science theory about how artists are more susceptible to crises of confidence because art isn’t objective. We get rejected and we’re not supposed to take that to mean we don’t have talent, or even that our piece isn’t good. I think that kind of resilience (and the special kind of crazy that keeps us at it) is a sort of superpower.

    And even superheros get tired once in a while.

    I have charts and spreadsheets backing this theory up. 😉

    • That is weirdly coincidental — wow! I love your j-science theory. I totally agree with it. 100%. Don’t even need the spreadsheets.

  • KelsNotChels

    Doubt monsters are the devil. This post reminds me of when I was (in a former life) a regularly performing singer. I joked about having not “butterflies” in my stomach, but one butterfly… named Seymore.

    Something about giving that twinge of nerves and self-doubt helped it seem a bit less scary.


    • That’s kind of hilarious. Are you saying I should name my favorite doubt monster Herbert? 😀

  • Tammy Schaefer

    I dive in and do it afraid! Well sometimes I do. Most of my friends think I’m a courageous warrior. What they don’t know is I leap many times before the thought of what might go wrong occurs to me. Every once in a while I fall flat on my face and have to get up and dust myself off. I have a great group of friends that encourage me constantly and help me re-evaluate and move forward.

    • Yes, that’s usually what I do too, Tammy (the do it anyway part, I mean). I tend to think quite a bit before I leap though — not that that guarantees a safer landing or anything. Sometimes we just don’t know what’s over the edge until we make the jump. A good support system is a beautiful thing. <3

  • Rivki Silver

    I know what you mean about the doubt chipping away at the confidence! So sneaky! Yesterday, someone asked me if I was a professional musician. Even though in the past year I’ve gotten paid for performances in two cities AND for composing music, I still hesitated somewhat when responding in the affirmative. What was that? The doubt monsters. Ugh.

    What do I do when they come? I haven’t really formulated a strategy, but I think talking to a friend or mentor for support is a great place to go. Even just something as simple as listing past accomplishments, or future goals.

    For me, I think the main reason I doubt is because I think of myself as a Mommy first (with three little kids at home, it is my primary focus right now), and so my “extras,” no matter how successful I may be at them, still seem like hobbies. Or maybe it’s also because I feel incredulous that I get paid to do things I love.

    I see I have some reflecting to do. Thanks for prompting me!

    • I definitely understand that feeling, Rivki. It took me years to get comfortable calling myself a writer. It’s hard being a creative professional — especially when we work for ourselves. But eventually I did say it enough to start believing it, and now I (almost) never flinch when people ask me what I do. 🙂

  • Amanda

    Personally, I like to know the name of what I’m facing. And this feeling of yours has a name: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

  • A. B. Davis

    This post really struck home, as the little monsters have been scratching at me recently. I go to a very bad place until I can talk myself out of it. Thank you for sharing this. It lets other writers know–in this very lonely profession–that we are not alone.

    • It sure can be a lonely profession. I’m glad to have places like my blog (and others’) to go for support. I’m glad this made you feel a little better!