Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Struggle for Confidence (an IWSG post)

This post is part of Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group blogfest thing. Click the link for more information.

High school is a time for two kinds of people: those with superiority complexes (the jocks and cheerleaders) and those with inferiority complexes (pretty much everyone else). There's not a lot of middle ground there. Go watch pretty much any of the 80s high school movies by John Hughes to get a good look at what it's like. At least, what it was like in  the 80s. Or Better Off Dead (which is not by Hughes but still gives a good look at the chasm between the superior and the inferior).

However, the general consensus in psychology is that the superiority complex is just an act. Basically, at the root of both inferiority and superiority complexes, we find vast insecurities. Questions of worth. Belief in inadequacies. It's a hard thing to deal with. And, really, as much as we'd like to think we do, writers do not corner the market on any of those things.

Dealing with one's insecurities is a tremendous task, and it's a task that we are more and more sabotaging in this current day and age. That, also, is not just something that writers do, but I think it can be clearly seen amongst the blogging community of writers.

But let's back up a moment. What is the answer to feelings of insecurity? What do you do to make those pesky things go away?


Yeah, that's easier said than done, right?

I mean, what is confidence? I'm gonna keep it simple, so we'll just say that (self)confidence is a belief in one's own abilities.

Insecurity undermines confidence, and the thing that makes insecurity so common these days is the lack of reliable feedback from, well, everywhere. We live in a positive feedback society, and it makes it impossible to know if you're really doing well or not. [All of this ties into what I said here and all of the related stuff I've been saying since then. And before then.] If everyone is busy saying "you're doing great!", how do you know if you really are?

There are two responses:
1. the traditional: I must really suck, and no one wants to hurt my feelings.
2. the new-fangled: I'm awesome! (if you read yesterday's post, you'll have heard that this response is on the rise in the good ole USofA, right now (as in, it's becoming an issue in the American workforce)).
Both of these come out of an inability to judge our own performance because of a lack of reliable information due to faulty feedback.

You know, I get it. It feels so much better to surround yourself with people that say "oh, you're so great! you're so awesome! I love it and I love you!" It makes you feel better, and it makes them feel better, too, because they don't have to deal with any fallout from saying something negative. But, really, it's just like a diet of constant sugar. Sure, it tastes good, but, ultimately, it's gonna kill you. And, on the way to killing you, it will make everything else taste just godawful bad (see this post for more on how sugar ruins taste (or, actually, how much taste you will discover without sugar)). You will never develop confidence, actual confidence, surrounded by people who only say how great you are.

I mean, face it, how many people do you know that are actually made of AWESOME? Now, how many people do you know that think they are? Or, at least, espouse to that belief.

The thing is, confidence comes from within. It comes from knowing, I mean actually knowing, that you're good at something. Knowing it objectively, not feeling like you're good at it. All that feeling like you're good at something doesn't mean a thing if you actually suck. The problem is coming to an objective knowledge, and you can never come to an objective knowledge of something if you surround yourself with people who only ever tell you good things about it.

So I'm hearing some of you out there right about now protesting that there are no objective measures in something so subjective as writing, but that's where you'd be wrong, because there are objective measures (which I discussed, in part, here), and that's why we get books that a vast majority of people can agree are good and some that people will agree are bad. Sure, it's hard to pinpoint the specific things within a work of art that make it objectively better than some other work of art (do any kind of research on the popularity of Star Wars to see this), but that doesn't mean that those objective things don't exist. When a vast majority of people can agree that something is better than everything else, you can bet there is something objective behind it even if you can't measure what that objective thing is.

We all want to feel confident. We all want to have some ability to judge ourselves. Unfortunately, this starts with having people around us that are willing to tell us where and how we are screwing up. After that, it comes from repeated reliable feedback. Sometimes, as with an athlete, this comes from actual objective, indisputable data: "you ran this race in x seconds, the stop watch says so." Sometimes, this comes from people that are skilled in a particular area and can just tell you where you're falling short: "you're not bending your knees enough." Whatever the source, we need it. We need that thing that is willing to be honest with us about how we are doing if we want to get better.

I actually think that some of us don't want to get better. It's too hard. We'd rather just have people around us telling us how great we're doing and keep right on being sub-par for, well, forever as long as we can keep people around us to tell us we're great and awesome. I guess what you have to decide is whether you do want to get better, and, if you do, find those people that will help you to get there.

And just to give you some personal insight (that I don't think I've previously shared (although I could be wrong)):

For me, all of this started back in college. Well, really, in high school. Or before that. Anyway... I've known, on some level, that I was a good writer since elementary school. It was in high school that I figured that writing would always be a part of my life. It was in college that I decided, somewhat pretentiously, that real writers are poets. I spent my personal writing time (meaning non-assignment related) working on said poetry. I was in this writing group (not just any writing group, but a school group that you couldn't join without first... well, let's just say it was prestigious to be accepted into the group), and I was really pumping out the poetry for it, because, as I said, real writers are poets. The writing group was presided over by the English faculty, so it wasn't just a bunch of students patting each other on the back. We had people with experience in there. Anyway, one day I had this piece that I was particularly proud of that I'd read to an adequate response, meaning what usually happens with poetry, the ones that didn't "get" it said it was good, because they didn't want to be seen as not "getting" it, and the ones that did get it said it was pretty good. Well, except for one professor (the one that all the students feared and dreaded having, but who was the best English prof around). He didn't say anything specific during the meeting, but he did ask me a lot of pressing questions about the piece, questions about why I'd done particular things in my writing, etc, and it wasn't very comfortable, because, at 20, I didn't always have good answers for those things. After the meeting, he pulled me aside and said something to me that caused me to re-evaluate everything about my writing. He said, "This is great prose, but it's horrible poetry." I was too shocked to even be mad or upset about it. I'd never had anyone say anything like that to me before. He went on to tell me that that was often his response to my poetry, that it would be so great if it wasn't poetry. He suggested that I go back and re-write it as prose.

See, the thing is, he was right. I did go back to my room and read that piece again. And again. And again. Later, I wrote it out in paragraph form and read it again. I tweaked bits and parts and filled it out to make the language work, and it was great. When I took it back to the next meeting as a paragraph of writing and read it that way, no one had issues with understanding it, and everyone loved it. It was because he was honest with me, though. What's more, he allowed me to look at my own work from a more objective viewpoint because he had been honest with me about it. As much as I'd like to be, I am not gifted in poetry. I still work with it sometimes and, occasionally, come up with some things that are decent, but it's not my strength. I only work with it as a writing exercise that makes all of my writing stronger.

The point, though, is that we all need someone who can speak to us like that. Someone that will say, without fear, "this is horrible." Someone that we trust to be saying that out of a desire to help rather than put us down or just to make us feel bad. Yeah, that person can be tough to find, but we all need at least one of those.

The path to confidence requires courage. The courage to be honest and accept honest feedback. I hope you all find the strength to walk that path.


  1. There is a lot of information here to process. The issue of insecurity is an important one for us as individuals. I think that when the school system attempts to give grades in order to increase self-esteem, there is a problem. As a member of the "not at all popular" group, I was insecure. But not academically insecure. That was because in those days, they made us sweat blood for high marks. I was given an objective standard to measure that quality by. And you're right, that is what is needed.

    I'm not a writer, but I am an artist and I am lucky to have painters on blogger (like yourself) who don't pull punches, who give me constructive criticism and who help me improve.

    I'm so tired of the word awesome!

  2. I live in London, and we don't have cheerleaders, nor do we place heavy emphasis on jocks, because sport isn't a big deal here. (There might not be a good thing but yeah.)At my school we have "cool" kids, but they aren't popular. I've never spoken to them before in the entire five years I've known them. But I've watched enough high school dramas to know what you mean :D

    I was very lucky when I went looking for my CPs, that I found people who aren't afraid to tell it like it is. Sometimes I need cheerleaders, so I'll get one of friends to read my work. Other times I NEED to improve, and I can count on those CPs to help me. When I first sent out my first chapter to one of my friends, she told me it was brilliant. I sent out the same chapter to my CP and she ripped it apart. The friend thing was better for my ego. The CP was better for me all round.

    The short version: I totally agree with you :D

  3. I'm tired of the word awesome, too, and dammnit I use it all the darned time. Can't think of another one yet, though. Sorry.

    I agree with you on this one, Andrew. We all need someone to tell us the truth.

  4. Crap, does this mean I can't use the word awesome anymore?
    While I don't want to hear I suck, because who really wants to hear that, I do want to know where I can improve. I want to do the best I can. No, I'm not writing Shakespeare. Or Tolkien. I just want to write best this Ninja can write.
    And of all the 80's teen movies, Better Off Dead is the best.

  5. I am definitely insecure about my writing. If you knew me in real life I am pretty confident in myself when it comes to my job or being a parent. I live by a rule of giving someone my honest opinion. I would hate for someone to just tell me what they think I want to hear because that is not at all helpful. So if a person asks me my opinion I will give it to them. If they want their own opinion regurgitated back to them go ask someone else. I love this post.

  6. I think that's why all writers need critique partners. Not friends they ask to critique, but critique partners. Very important.

  7. This is 100% honestly what happened to me:

    I got to the line about a diet of sugar.

    I began thinking "Oh, man, that would be GREAT to eat nothing but sugar."

    Then I thought "But I would miss McDonald's Cheeseburgers."

    Then I thought "What if they could MAKE A MCDONALD'S CHEESEBURGER OUT OF SUGAR?"

    Then I thought "!!!!!!!!" because my brain temporarily short-circuited.

    I have to go back and read the rest now.

  8. There are days— well, maybe not days— there are hours— well, maybe not hours— there are handfuls of consecutive minutes where I do know I am a good writer. Unfortunately, I never seem to blog during any of those minutes...

    A fantastic post... perfect for today's crowd.

  9. We've had this debate before, you and I, about when to be positive and when to be negative.

    I believe that positivity should be the rule except in professional situations. In other words, if you, as my friend, ask me to take a look at a poem you wrote and tell you what I think, my answer will be "It's good" or higher.

    If you come to me and say "I'd like you to publish this," then I owe you an honest opinion.

    If you ask me to review something for public consumption, like posting a review of your book on Amazon or my blog, my policy is that's a professional task, but I won't then post negative reviews of indie authors, so I will either post a positive review, if I can do so honestly, or nothing.

    But with all that, I think constructive help is better -- I don't say constructive criticism. Your professor was okay, but he could've tried "Hey, have you ever considered writing this as prose? I think that would be great!" instead of "This poem sucks, make it a paragraph and I might not barf when I read it."

    That's what he said, right? I'm paraphrasing.

  10. I like your story about the english prof who told you to write the poem as prose. Everybody needs some people like that in their life. It's one of the things I'm trying to gather as part of my grad school workshops -- a few people who I know will tell me if something's genuinely not working.

    I know several people who are made of awesome, and nearly all of them struggle with bouts of depression. Makes you think.

  11. Love the Movie Better off Dead. It's been some years, but nothing in high school actually prepared for the real world. We live in a sue happy country, so I think some may be afraid to tell just what they think so they go along with the crowd. I have fibbed to close friends about some things because I didn't want to be responsible for their breakdown. Nice post, enjoyed reading.

  12. The way I've been approaching writing lately is kind of like being back in high school. I spent a lot of time hiding and few people even knew who I was. I need to regain some confidence so I can step out in the open.

    What you say here is indeed consistent with what you've been saying all along and it makes a lot of sense. Using blog comments as an example, it's all nicey feely-good when I get a dose of praise and it can be irritating to get some blatant criticism or someone just telling me that I'm an asshole, but the best comments are ones that might say something like "I liked what you wrote, but maybe this would have been better or I don't agree with this and here's why and here are some suggestions that might make it better" or some comment that shows an actual thought process went into it. I appreciate anyone who reads what I write and doesn't just outright attack me, but I esteem and value the person who is there to act in a role of mentor, friend, or someone who truly wants to help.

    Truth is the best teacher.

    Wrote By Rote

  13. This is why I think all writers should surround themselves with super-tough critique partners, most of whom they do not know personally. As for your scale, can I say I feel like a 1.5??? I'm not totally insecure in my abilities, but I know I'm no John Hart either.

    What I do know is that I'm good enough, and anything beyond that can be achieved through hard work and practice. Even in high school, I was a 1.5, never the cheerleader or best friends with those who were, but well-liked. Or well enough anyway. And I'm okay with that, which is probably why my insecurities don't overwhelm me. And while I do have a few folks who offer me their "awesome" praise, most of that came before I really knew them, so I think it's genuine. At least, genuine enough!

    And as far as that friend I was warned about on Goodreads, no, it's not you. The person who warned me is a very good friend to you. And to me, as well. And personally, I don't think you'd stoop to this other guy's level of criticism. You seem to genuine to me.

    Rock on, Andrew!!

  14. I like the "diet of constant sugar" analogy Andrew. Gotta keep it real with tact. Better off Dead was a classic.

  15. I think anyone who is lucky enough to find a critique partner who is willing to say what honestly needs to be said without being cruel is worth everything.

    I do think our society suffers from an "I'm awesome!" mentality. It's like we're afraid to fail anymore, when in fact failure is the mechanism by which most of us learn.

  16. You really inspired some good discussion here today. And talking about self-confidence, I do feel a bit "out of my depth" here as I'm not a writer. But that said, this is all applicable to any kind of creative or professional endeavor.

    Tolerate my ignorance please!!

  17. Anne: I think what we are doing in our schools is just wrong. This emphasis on "protecting" our children at all costs even from any "negative" feelings is just crippling them.

    Even though I use it, I kind of agree with you about "awesome."

    ravena: We didn't have jocks at my high school, either, because we didn't have sports in the traditional sense.

    Cathy: Yeah, we do. Those people are awesome! :P I use it all the time, too. It's a hazard of growing up in the 80s.

    Alex: No, you may not use it anymore; that way, Cathy and I can keep using it without having to hear it from other people. :P
    As a stray fact, my best friend during high school spent, probably, an entire year where we watched that movie every weekend. I think Ferris Bueller is probably better, but, man, Better Off Dead is awesome! (See, that's why you can't use it.)

    Jennifer: I think you come across as pretty straight forward, which is why I'm glad you liked my book :) I'm glad you like (love) the post!

    S.L.: CPs, actual CPs, are a pretty rare breed, though, because for someone like that to be useful to you, they need to have editing skills.

    Briane: Oh, man, you made me laugh so hard! My kids often fantasize about a world where sugar is healthy.

    M.J.: LOL Well, that may be more due to the fact that we have been being culturally trained for at least the last two decades to never acknowledge that we are good at anything.

    And back to
    Briane: Well, sometimes, I think you have to just be blunt about it. Honestly, if he'd said something like that to me, "Don't you think you should try X?" I would have said something like, "yeah, maybe" while mentally disregarding him. I needed someone to tell me "this is not good" to get me to look at it. I think I have some good pieces of poetry, now, but I probably only had one piece of poetry worth showing for every 100 I wrote back in high school and college.

    Callie: I don't know a single person made of awesome, right now, and have only known a couple my whole life. I've known plenty that they were God's gift, though. You must have all of those people, you hoarder.

    G_G: I think the mountain of waiting lawsuits has certainly made a lot of people overly solicitous.

    Lee: Yeah, I'd rather inspire comments that require people to think. So many people avoid it, though, it can be difficult. Maybe that's part of why so many people are so quick with the "it's great!" because it takes a lot of thought to tell someone -why- you didn't like something.

    Nancy: Yeah, writers do need some people around them to help keep them on course so they don't become completely self-indulgent (although I think CPs can be a bit overrated, but more on that will be coming up in the future).

    I like that, "genuine enough!" :)

    I looked over you goodreads list, and I'm pretty sure I know who it is. heh

    Maurice: Thanks!
    But, really, who needs tact? :P
    You know, after Star Wars, Better Off Dead may -still- be the 2nd most quoted movie in my house. "Two dollars!"

    L.G.: See, I think the "cruel" this is what's subjective. You can say it as nicely as possible, and it's still quite possible that the recipient will take it as cruel. Been there, done that.
    It's not just that we're afraid to fail, we're not allowed to. I mean that seriously. We do everything we can to safeguard our children against failure when it's those bumps and bruises and, yes, sometimes broken bones that teach us.

    Anne: Hey, you're not out of your depth. This stuff applies everywhere. The audio from NPR (from yesterday) had nothing to do with writing, specifically, but about how this mentality is affecting the workplace. It made me laugh, though, because that sandwich method is so often used in giving writer feedback. This is something everyone needs to hear, I think, not just writers.

  18. Meaty stuff today. I'm more along the line of Briane with this one. That frightens me, because I'm much more comfortable disagreeing with him. That's what feels natural.

    But again, unless someone specifically asks me to read something of their's and critique it, then I'm going to generally tell them it's fine. If I think it's embarrassingly bad then I will try to find a way of letting them know that it needs more work.

    Same for reviews, at least from Indie folks, I'm not interested in helping anyone out as a writer that didn't solicit my advice. I have read a ton of things I just never reviewed because I couldn't figure out a way to say something nice about the work.

    But, we've had this conversation before.

    I do think getting honest feedback is hard. Really hard. When I ask for it I sometimes don't really want to hear it. I want to hear, "This is the greatest thing I've ever read, period. Don't change a thing."

    So anything other than that is a disappointment. At the same time, I want to get better. So I swallow my pride and ask for honesty.

    Usually. Not always. Wait, I'm undermining my point here. Disregard this paragraph.

  19. Rusty: Well, of course, everyone -wants- to be perfect without any effort or any correction on the first try.
    Anyway, I think you should just go ahead and disagree with Briane if that's what feels right.

  20. Writing is subjective. There will always be folks who love a particular piece and those who hate it. As writers, we have to understand that, produce the best piece we can, and take comfort in it. If we receive legitimate criticism (like from your teacher) then we must absorb it and learn from it and move on. If we work as hard as we can to improve, to grow as writers, and know in our hearts we are doing that, then insecurities will be less inclined to haunt us.

  21. And this is why I have Brandon look at everything I write, and I look at his writing, because we tell it like it is. As co-writers, you get over that cutesy 'oh yeah this is great you're so awesome' crap really fast. Because if he writes something great and I follow it with something crappy, or vice versa, that makes both of us look bad. It's just looking out for our best interest. And it translates to solo projects, too. I don't want Brandon to release a book with a badly written chapter, and he doesn't want me to do the same either. I'd consider that a true friend, far above 'oh this is so great nothing wrong at all yep you're a superstar.'

  22. Finding that legitimate criticism and recognizing it can be tough. Although the meaningless or mean-spirited stuff can usually be spotted a mile away.

  23. Ugh, I know exactly what you mean. Confidence is sometimes hard to achieve. I find that I go up and down like a manic depressive yo-yo - one minute I'm really happy with a piece and the next I think it's terrible. It's good to have someone supportive yet critical to peruse your writing. There's a fine line between being over-critical and giving just the right amount of constructive feedback. I shall continue to write and hopefully I'll gain some courage and confidence along the way. Nice to meet you. I'm #IWSG number 230 and, by the way, I suck at poetry.

  24. Confidence is the toughest thing for me to achieve so this really hits home. I think it may stem from the fact that I've always viewed myself outside the mainstream. I'm gay, atheist, and then haven't felt all that attractive for the majority of my life. So yeah, I lack a lot of confidence in everything I do. This is a good reminder that we can go forward and take small steps to bolster that very important self-esteem.

  25. Liza: The story part is certainly subjective, and there does need to be an understanding that not everyone will like the same things. I mean, cauliflower doesn't get upset when my son doesn't like it, right?

    ABftS: Yeah, that has to be a much tougher dynamic than just being CPs for each other. Your writing can't be good unless both of your writing is good, so you can't let the other person slack just to save feelings.

    L.: It is tough! Tougher than it should be, and part of that is that, culturally, we'll about being anti-negative. Being negative about other people being negative is the only allowed form of negativity. Maybe that's why we bash truth tellers so hard.

    Lisa: I think the line between over-critical and and just right is often due to a failure of the writer to communicate what is needed.

    Michael: Sometimes, that's the kind of confidence you really have to, initially, grow from within. Sit down with yourself and figure out where you excel and satisfy yourself in your knowledge. If other people can see that you are confident in a given area, they become more willing to look at it and see if you're right.

  26. Great post Andrew! This is all so true. Especially about high school. You either WAY too secure, or WAY too insecure.

  27. Bess: It's definitely difficult to find a balance between the two during high school, if ever.

  28. You have to be brave to put yourself out there. I'm confident about most things in my life, but it's a struggle with my writing. But that helps me get better.

  29. Another thought provoking post. Perhaps that should be your byline - Andrew Leon, Thought Provoker.

    "I actually think that some of us don't want to get better. It's too hard." I think this is why I left drama in my first year of uni. In my high school, I was the best. Then, when I went to uni, I was surrounded by others who'd been the best at their high schools, and a lot of them were better than me. I couldn't handle that, so I panicked and dropped out. I didn't understand that at the time, but looking back, it's quite clear that's what was really going on.

    Listening to constructive criticism and learning from it is hard work - both mentally and emotionally. But it's so worth it. I want to continue to grow as a writer, and to do that, I have to be willing to listen to feedback - hopefully I do a better job of it as a writer than I did as an actor. ;-)

  30. SG/K: You do have to be brave. Then, you have to be strong to stay there.

    Cally: But, see, most people don't like to have their thoughts provoked, so I can't put that right out there in front, or everyone would just run away :P
    It's important to have people around us that can tell us to keep trying so that we can see those hard times through. Not people that say "but you're so awesome," people that will say, "sure, there are people better than you, but keep working at it; you'll get there."

  31. You know, I was shocked when I found out my high school was very much like Breakfast Club. I'd never seen such a segregation of types of people before. So I turned into Ally Sheedy...

    You're right. We all need someone to tell us the truth. The best thing I found was a friend who was willing to truly critique my writing. She isn't a writer, she's a reader. And she gives me fantastic feedback, tells me when things aren't working, questions things she doesn't understand, etc. And she doesn't apologize for it. Now THAT is a friend.

  32. Shannon: Fortunately, my high school was actually nothing like that. We didn't have jocks/cheerleaders, because we didn't have team sports. We had fencing!
    It is good to have a friend like that!