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  • How to survive terrifying and crippling self-doubt by Fiona Robyn
How to survive terrifying and crippling self-doubt by Fiona Robyn
Written by
Satya Robyn
December 2011
Written by
Satya Robyn
December 2011

As writers, we are all occasionally struck by the sudden fear that we are truly awful. We produce abominable work. We make dreadful decisions. We let ourselves and other people down.

This is certainly true for me as a writer (and in my general life). Sometimes I wonder how I’ve ever managed to persuade anyone to publish my books. I can’t imagine that anyone would get anything from my writing. I’m just going ‘blah blah blah’ and expecting others to be interested. The audacity!

The usual effect of this self-doubt is to paralyse me. I can’t continue writing. Sometimes I can’t even imagine ever writing again.

What can we do when we’re suddenly swallowed up with fear and trembling like this? I’d like to share a few things that have worked for me over the years, and I’d love it if you added to this list by adding your own experiences to the comments section below.

1.    Acknowledging that my feelings are understandable

When I feel overwhelmed by doubt (or any other emotion, for that matter) I begin by acknowledging the validity of what I’m feeling. It might feel out of proportion in terms of what has just happened, but I trust that my reaction will make some kind of sense when I take into account my emotional history. When I have a poem rejected, I’m not just reacting to the rejected poem, but I’m tapping in to a whole store-house of feelings about rejection – some going back to when I was very small. When we’re very small, rejection can be a life or death situation – if we’re not acceptable to our parents, then who will feed us? No wonder we can get stirred up by things!

2.    Developing the ability to take a step back

I find it incredibly helpful to take a step back from my own process and look in at myself from a small distance. If I’m gnashing my teeth about what somebody said about my new book, I step outside myself, look in with curiosity, and notice what’s happening. ‘Ah, she seems to be very upset by this. I wonder why that is? What might it be reminding her of?’ Developing a curious, objective ‘observer’ can stop us from being completely drowned in our floods of emotion. This variety of mindfulness does get easier with practice.


I said VERY SMALL. If I’ve just got three damning pages of feedback on my manuscript, could I read the first sentence again and look at the changes I might want to make? If I feel I can never type again, could I just read the last paragraph I wrote? If it still feels too much, then make the step even smaller.

4.    Seeking the support of others

I might be the only person in the world who suffers from occasional crushing self-doubt, but I doubt it. In fact, I know it, because I speak with my writing colleagues and my friends and family about their own doubts and my own. It’s always good to remind ourselves that we’re not the only one who struggles with something. Also, other people might have tried things that have worked for them. Share your knowledge and seek it from others.

5.    Having patience with our healing process

This one isn’t always easy. But sometimes, when we receive an emotional knock, it can take time to heal. We understand that broken bones take weeks or month to knit back together, but we usually feel much less patient with our emotional wounds. In my experience, we’re not always fully aware of why something has set us back, but seemingly trivial experiences can (and do) cut deep. If you’re not feeling better yet, it’s because you haven’t given yourself enough time.

I hope these suggestions have helped, and I look forward to reading your own experiences of dealing with crippling self-doubt. 


If you'd like to spend time using writing to heal yourself during January, enrol for my ecourse Writing Towards Healing. It starts on Monday the 9th of January and is running in partnership with She Writes.

You'll receive themed essays, daily inspirational emails, writing exercises and a private group here with a lovely fellow She Writes members to share your journey with. The structure will help you find the space you need for yourself and for your writing.

Find out more and register here - once you're registered I'll get the pre-course material sent out to you. It'd be wonderful to have you along.


This blog is part of the 'Looking Back Looking Forwards' series edited by Fiona Robyn between the 1st and 7th of January. What did we learn about writing and about ourselves in 2011? How will we use this knowledge in 2012? What do we hope for? Do join us and write your own post, tagged with "Looking Back Looking Forwards" (don't forget the quotation marks). Read other's posts here (or by clicking on the tag). I'll be featuring a small selection of your blogs during the week. Enjoy. 

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  • Satya Robyn

    Karla - sounds like a wonderful class. Glad you found it : )

    Claire - a pleasure. 

  • Claire Grove

    Thank you, Fiona, for writing on a subject that keeps us imprisoned, not just in our writing lives, but in living a fulfilled life. This is exactly what I speak of often at my blog, Daisy Among Roses at www.daisyamongroses.com. It's about not comparing, but embracing who we are and thanking the Universe. Thanks for sharing.

    Claire Johnson, M.D.

  • Karla Brown

    Dear Fiona, i'm finally stepping away from that dreadful feeling because of a wonderful writing class tha i'm taking. It's showing me what i don't know, congratulating me on what i do and encouraging my growth as a writer. I have hope! Sure i'm studying hard and trying to keep up ( broken finger/work accident), but my joy is retuning. Thanks for your post.


  • Satya Robyn

    This reminds me of the necessity of winter... something is replenishing underground... thanks for sharing, Hope.

  • Hope A. Perlman

    I find my periods of self doubt are part of a cycle. I've learned that when I grind to a halt and feel completely uselss as a writer, I'm usually about to move into a new phase, with a burst of energy. I'm always amazed when she shift from total despair happens. Suddenly, my energy returns, and I can put aside the doubts for a while again.

  • Satya Robyn

    Rebecca - yes, it helps me a lot to remember that I'm not alone - writing posts like these, and sharing my fear with my writing colleagues. Even very famous writers get the collywobbles sometimes!

    Grace - thank you. It's amazing how much power our bodies have over our state of mind, isn't it? 

    Caroline - thank you. Great quote!

  • Wonderful post... here's a quote next to my desk  "The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind.  It is a moral illumination." Elizabeth Hardwick.   Reading and wine (the latter much rarer!). 

  • Grace Peterson

    I learned this when my kids were small and then again when they were emotional teenagers. When they'd get into Debbie-Downer mode, I do a little analysis such as, what do they need? Are they hungry, thirsty, do they need more physical activity or more rest? By paying attention to what was really going on Debbie's attitude usually followed suit. Now that my kids are adults, I've learned to mother myself. When my attitude sucks I can usually trace its roots back to something organic. I think this ties in with number 1. What I'm feeling is valid but it will pass. Great post!  

  • Rebecca Scott

    I think we alll suffer self-doubt. Humility and the desire to persevere beyong our own worst critic is what sometimes produces writing that is at its best - glaringly honest and heartfelt. Sharing these moments of doubt makes the experience more bearable.

  • Satya Robyn

    Kate - yes, blogs are wonderful for getting your writing 'out there' and having instant feedback... Thank you - and thanks for dropping by. 

    Lauren - yes, thinking big is so important. As you say, doubt can be seen as a marker that we're on the right (slightly scary) track!

  • Kate Deeks

    Great post! That is why I love blogs. They go out into the ether for good or for bad. Like you said, small steps. http://keepingplacewithkate.blogspot.com/

  • Satya Robyn

    Rhiannon - thanks for commenting. This is good advice. I also encourage my clients (I work as a psychotherapist) to think about these voices as scared parts of themselves trying to help - all mean people are really trying to protect themselves from something painful. It can be difficult sometimes but, over time, compassion softens the harshest voice...