This week I want to reflect on the connection between therapeutic writing and believing in one’s ability to do well. It is difficult for a practised writer to trust her talent, skills and judgement: writing is a singular occupation involving solitary stretches of time in front of a computer or blank page. Drafting, writing, revising, editing and proofreading a story is a painstaking affair and writing a novel can seem like a marathon. Inexperienced writers who write as a way of healing are trying to deal with a trauma, or physical or mental health problems. This alone can undermine their self-belief and indicates that writing to heal may not be the best way to deal with deeply seated problems, especially if the writer has no one to guide or support them.
Given, however, last week’s events in France, Beirut and other parts of the world, I wonder if a blog about self-belief is relevant or appropriate. After much thought I concluded that those who inflict the worst kind of pain and trauma on others possess an extreme, unrealistic and entrenched form of belief in themselves and in their cause. I have decided, therefore, that self-belief is a continuum; on one hand it is used to ordain heinous behaviour, on the other it can be used to authorise creative, nurturing and loving acts that enrich all humanity.
Because many people struggle to believe in their worth and can be mentally and emotionally crippled by its shortage, let’s start with poor self-belief, or as my mother used to call it, a lack of ‘aplomb’.
If we want to start something new, a blog post, poem or film script, we may find our inner voice maliciously foretells our downfall; ‘We,’ (for the inner voice is, above all else, concerned with self-defence), ‘are setting ourselves up to fail,’ it hisses. ‘This has been written before, we are not up to it, we are sure to look stupid.’ Most of the time the inner voice is not ours; it is a voice from the past, a teacher, perhaps, or a well-meaning but misguided friend. Sometimes it is even a parent who wants to protect us or, sadly, convince us that improving our lot is pointless. Focussing on our weaknesses, dwelling on past failures, and feeling worn down by adversity all contribute to diminished self-confidence, and low self-confidence shreds any self-belief we may have mustered. The problem is, writing is hard work and when we encounter difficulties we agree with the inner voice; ‘I knew I was hopeless at writing’, we think. ‘What could I possibly say on the topic, it has all been said before; I’m sure to fail if I keep going, so it is better to stop now.’
Those who enjoy an excess of self-belief follow, no matter their religion, race or culture, a determinedly righteous path: they brook no contradictions; believe their perspective of the world remains unquestioned; and foster an unassailable self-confidence. When this is taken to extremes, it is hard to agree with Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote:
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
No one consents to abuse or violence. When, however, those of us who struggle with self-belief are confronted with another’s excessive self-belief, we can blame ourselves when threatened. This is exactly what abusers and terrorists want.
Is it possible to improve self-belief? Australian writer Russ Harris has an interesting answer to this question. In The Confidence Gap, he defines confidence as ‘a feeling of certainty or assurance’ and ‘an act of trust and reliance’. Harris points out that most of us make the mistake of assuming we must feel confident before we dive in and trying to achieve our goals. The truth, however, is just the opposite.
I encountered a similar idea in March 2009 when I participated in a seminar run by Hugh Kearns, co-founder, with Maria Gardiner, of ThinkWell™ . Drawing on the latest research into cognitive behaviour therapy and education, Hugh and Maria conduct seminars and workshops in achieving one’s potential. Because they aim their workshops at medical practitioners, academics and PhD students, I was able to attend two of their seminars. Hugh Kearns and Russ Harris’ ideas are similar, but their focus is different; Harris examines confidence, Kearns examines motivation. Most people believe motivation must precede action; in order to do something we need to be motivated to do it. In 2009, like most of my fellow post graduates, I believed I had to be motivated before I could write anything. But, as with confidence, the opposite is true; Kearns encourages students to write for at least ten minutes, even when they are not motivated to do so. The idea is, as I recorded in my workshop notes, action leads to motivation, which then leads to more action. Kearns’ workshops helped me complete my dissertation and now, whenever I struggle to write this blog, or a short story I tell myself to write for ten minutes. It worked this week and I trust that, should the need arise, it will work next week as well.
Self-belief and confidence are tricky concepts. Having too little means life, other people and our past can frustrate or thwart our dreams. Sometimes we overcome these barriers and feel good. When we can’t, we feel bad and blame ourselves for not being motivated, confident or determined enough. This is something I have battled most of my life but in the last few years I feel I have conquered the problem: maybe it is my age; maybe it is completing a PhD; maybe I grew tired of giving myself, and others, a hard time because I could not muster the necessary self-belief I thought I needed to write. Whatever the reason, my writing now comes first. Anything else has to fit in around it. Is this self-belief as an unassailable, self-righteous, unquestioned absolute? I hope not, but what am I prepared to do to keep writing?
I think the message is balance and remaining aware of where I am on the continuum. I will do my best not to hurt another creature, human or otherwise, but I must take those precious ten minutes (and the hours that, invariably, follow), uninterrupted and undiminished by fears and a malevolent inner voice. Action, I have learned, leads to motivation and more action, which leads to confidence and perhaps that is how I can help make the world a better place.
Where are you on the self-belief continuum? What do you think of the idea that action leads to motivation and to confidence? What do you do when it is time to write but you feel unmotivated? What are you prepared to do in order to keep writing?