One night, as you lie awake in bed consumed by darkness, you decide never to write again. The next morning, you don’t announce it or even speak of it in passing. You simply swallow your desire like one would a pill. It feels natural to quit, almost too easy. And the silence that grows from pushing your dream down feels familiar and comforting.
You are in denial, but you know why you stalled your aspirations. It’s because of that sinister voice that seeks to destroy every thought that begins with, “I wish to be a writer.” It usually sounds like a coarse older woman scoffing or, worse, laughing at you as she bellows, “You? Write? Who do you think you are? You’re not qualified, nor will you ever succeed…” her voice tapering off into a nasty echo.
Menacing indeed. So much so that you have made it a practice to crawl inside a hole and hide there for a while. Sometimes you tunnel under your comforter, blocking out the world. Or you plug your ears and yell, “La la la” every time you feel the urge to write. The worst is when you smile at folks and exclaim how happy you are to be a grad student, teacher, mom, whatever.
This works for a while. Yet as the years roll on, you begin to feel as though there is a dead version of yourself lodged deep inside you. Like the space that used to be occupied by your lust for life has collapsed in on itself. You’ve become numb and cold. You hate yourself.
One morning after brushing your teeth, you ponder the reflection in the mirror staring at you with dead eyes. You yearn to feel something again. Pretending has become exhausting. It’s because you stopped writing in order to avoid that terrifying voice. But now you’ve had enough. You need to write. You need to silence the voice, not your inner longing.
So that evening, you hurriedly put the kids to bed, eager to look up Karyl McBride, LMFT, PhD, your favorite blogger on the Psychology Today website. She may help you identify that voice. You scroll through her posts and stumble upon an article about self-doubt. Eagerly, you read it. You look like a bobblehead huddled over your desktop as you nod after each statement. You identify with her definition. McBride wrote about being unable to give yourself credit and constantly feeling like an imposter. Exactly.
You wonder where this voice arises. McBride says it’s your parents’ voice internalized after years of repetition. Now you use it against yourself. She asks if your parents told you that your thoughts and feelings were wrong, that you were too sensitive, that you should not question that parent, that you are not good enough no matter how hard you try. “Yes,” you say out loud to yourself as you read. Yes.
Emotionally, you’re all jumbled up. You want to cry, scream, and pound your fist on the desk. Since you don’t want to wake your sleeping children, you journal instead. You begin to fill up the first two pages of an untitled Word document with memories of things your parents said.
Tears stream uncontrollably down your cheeks. You weep for having been called a klutz, an idiot, stupid, or airheaded for dropping a glass. You grimace at how you feared dropping things, which made you drop them even more. You cry for having been screamed at for getting the answer wrong on your math homework. Your stomach aches when you recall your mother blaming you for being too sensitive when you complained of being bullied at school.
You’ll never forget how exited you felt the day you came home proudly sharing the A- you earned on a math test. You were eight years old. Your parents responded by saying you should have gotten an A+. You felt deflated and suddenly paralyzed by the belief that you might never satisfy your parents. You can no longer type as you hold your head in your hands and sob for having been belittled, blamed, criticized, and held to unrealistic expectations.
Your head aches from crying, but somehow your soul feels lighter. You start pecking at the keyboard again and name the file “Self-Doubt Journal.” Now you begin to process how that abuse made you feel small and unworthy. You still feel that way. You notate that before following your urge to research self-doubt a bit more.
As you suspected, upbringing is only the foundation. According to the next expert you research, Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD, the toxic voice of self-doubt represents three stages in a vicious cycle. You take a deep breath and read on.
The first is selective attention. Even though you are certainly qualified to write about your personal experiences, you struggle with feeling qualified to be a writer. You selectively focus on the fact that you don’t have the “right” degrees.
You get a sinking feeling that you truly are a failure. You never won any contests or published articles. You remember what you haven’t accomplished. You don’t want to read on, but you catch a glimpse of the second phase and it feels like deja vu. You realize that you just participated in what Becker-Phelps calls selective memory.
Skeptical, you shake your head at her suggestion to focus on your successes rather than your perceived failures. Easier said than done, you think to yourself. In the past, you wrote journal entries, screenplays, poems, songs and essays, but that isn’t enough to convince you that you can actually be a writer. Then you read the last stage: selective interpretation. Her next statement brings you pause.
“When you believe that you aren’t truly capable or worthy of love, it’s easy to interpret everything in that light,” says Becker-Phelps.
Before you know it, you’re forced to look inward. Heart pounding, you find a dank closet with something hidden behind creaky doors. Naturally, you are afraid to look, but it isn’t worth being in denial any longer. It has stunted your growth and robbed you of your purpose for living. Though you may vomit from fear, you hold your breath and peek inside.
And there, in your face, stands the ultimate truth, the source of that hideous voice, the self-doubting monster that had sucked away at your courage and nearly consumed your dreams. You are shocked to find the image of yourself as a little kid, with the word fear written all over her face. From the deepest corner of your self-doubting mind emerged a petrified child who feared that she might “truly [be] [in]capable or [un]worthy of love,” just as Becker-Phelps suggested.
You feared that you would not be able to secure love if you took risks and made a fool of yourself. You feared that failing might cause you to lose what love people held for you. That fear held you back for so many years. You feel relieved, yet thwarted.
But there’s a funny thing about fear. The instant you face it, it retreats. In that very moment, the voice of self-doubt begins to fade. Your anxieties become less intense now that you see that you only have things to gain from writing and nothing to lose. Most importantly, you sit with that diminutive child who was starved for love, and you befriend her. By doing so, you are able to provide yourself with the love you so desperately need.
Ultimately, you forgive that doubtful voice, even though it comes back to haunt you at your weakest moments. You allow it to speak up because to deny it would be to deny that it exists as part of you. Then you hear it dissipate into oblivion as you continue writing your first article for publication. Instead of hiding your head in your pillow, you hang it over your keyboard and transcribe what’s in your soul. You smile at what you’ve written. You finally feel alive.