“The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her journal. And she couldn’t have been more accurate.
Self-doubt can persuade us to stop creating or keep us from sending our work out into the world. It can be so influential that it colors how we see ourselves, ensuring we don’t pick up a pen, paintbrush, camera or other tool for decades.
“Self-doubt paralyzed me for 25 years,” said Meghan Davidson, Ph.D, a psychologist, professor and researcher at the University of Nebraska. When Davidson was eight years old, her art teacher wrote in her report card that she had “no artistic ability whatsoever.”
This destroyed Davidson. Her teacher’s words became a running joke in her family, who had no idea of their crushing effect.
It was only after a personal health crisis reminded her of the brevity of life that Davidson decided to pursue her creativity. She picked up a camera. Today, she’s an accomplished photographer whose work has been featured in gallery shows and publications such as UPPERCASE and Artful Blogging.
Jolie Guillebeau’s project of 100 paintings a day “originated entirely from self-doubt.” “In February 2010, I wasn’t sure that I could even call myself an artist, because I wasn’t really painting. I’d been paralyzed from my own angst and hadn’t picked up a paintbrush in months.”
She decided to prove herself wrong. After completing 100 paintings, Guillebeau felt more like an artist. But her self-doubt lingered. So she stepped out of the comfort of her studio, and painted outside for an entire summer.
Tips to Overcome Self-Doubt
“Creativity means navigating new terrain, and it’s scary and uncomfortable,” according to Carla Sonheim, an illustrator, workshop instructor and author of the new book The Art of Silliness: A Creativity Book for Everyone.
So feeling self-doubt is natural. “Self-doubt is a part of human nature,” Davidson said. But because it sabotages creativity, it’s important to know how to overcome it. Here are 10 ways to surmount self-doubt, so you can focus on the good stuff: creating.
1. Remember self-doubt is a story.
As Davidson said, thinking you’re not good at something doesn’t make it true. Her art teacher triggered her self-doubt, but it was the stories spinning in Davidson’s mind that stopped her from creating. And these disempowering tales were clearly distorted.
2. Remember why you create.
“Remind yourself of what you want to do and why you want to do it,” Davidson said. For instance, connecting to your creativity might be part of your self-care or a longing in your spirit, she said.
3. Take small steps.
Even when self-doubt is deafening, “take tiny steps toward your goal every day,” Guillebeau said. “Maybe you can’t create the Great American Novel today, but perhaps you can write 750 words? Or your self-doubt is in the way of creating a painting, but at least going to the art supply store and buying a paintbrush is possible.”
4. Marvel at others’ talent.
When painting alongside her artist friend, Gail McMeekin would feel a flood of self-doubt and insecurity. “[I’d] feel overshadowed and totally inept,” said McMeekin, LICSW, a coach to creative women entrepreneurs and professionals and author of The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women.
Today, instead of letting someone else’s talents negate her own or hinder her creativity, she’s learned to “adopt an attitude of wonderment.”
She encouraged readers to “Notice the genius of the people who are teaching you or sharing a moment with you and soak up what you admire and aspire to, to use in your own work. Enjoy the privilege of being around creators who inspire you without trashing yourself.”
5. Reframe your self-doubt.
Like Guillebeau did with her painting projects, use self-doubt to fuel your creativity. Prove it wrong. Take the challenge. “By determining to prove that naysayer wrong, I’ve managed to create a daily painting practice that has evolved in to my livelihood and my career,” Guillebeau said.
Consider the positive side of self-doubt, like Sonheim. “Self-doubt often acts as a measuring stick, helping me to determine whether I’m playing it safe or really sticking my neck out.”
6. Surround yourself with supportive people.
“Look for supportive or encouraging people to help cheer you on [in your creative pursuits],” Davidson said.
7. Celebrate your creations.
For instance, McMeekin displays her paintings around her home. “Let your work remind you that beauty can appear when you trust yourself and luxuriate in your fascinations and playfulness,” she said.
8. Talk to someone you trust. “
Even if they don’t really understand what you are going on about, their comments and questions — and your gut reactions to them — can help clarify the why of your uneasiness,” Sonheim said.
You’ll also be able to process your emotions more effectively when you figure out if they’re internal or external, she said.
9. Find what puts you in your creative zone.
“Experiment until you discover what puts you into your theta brain and sparks your creative journey,” McMeekin said. She turns to journaling, music and other inspirational tools, such as her Creativity Courage Cards. “I often wear out the same music, and even one song over and over, at times, as the melody entrances me to create and get into my fertile garden in my mind.”
10. Just go for it.
“You have nothing to lose,” Davidson said. (You don’t have to share your creations with anyone, she said.) “I wish I hadn’t listened to the self-doubt gremlins for 20-some years. I could’ve been doing this for all this time. But it’s never too late to just jump in and play. And go in with childlike curiosity.”
That childlike curiosity is a great reminder of how limitless, joyful and incredibly liberating creativity can be. “I often remember the utter joy I felt in kindergarten on that first day when I dipped my hands in gorgeous, brightly colored fingerpaints and was told that I could put my paints on my wet paper any way I chose and it would be all right,” McMeekin said.
“Overcoming self-doubt involves believing that you can do it, accepting your strengths and limitations, fixing what you can, and then taking a risk by moving forward, even if you don’t have all the answers,” Sonheim said.
She shared this beautiful quote from actor and author Alan Alda on creativity: “Be brave enough to live creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You cannot get there by bus, only by hard work, risking and by not quite knowing what you are doing. What you will discover will be wonderful: Yourself.”