Overcoming Self-Doubt within a Creative Life

With her new book, Staying Composed: Overcoming Self-Doubt and Anxiety within a Creative Life, composer Dale Trumbore has written the book that she always wanted to read. As a young composer, she found several inspiring biographies and memoirs from composers that she looked up to, but, she says, “there was really not that much information out there at all about making a living as a creative person or overcoming hurdles in the creative process from the perspective of a musician.”

After about a decade of working as a professional composer and writing about her experiences, Trumbore decided to gather what she has learned into a book. While she hopes that Staying Composed will provide some insight into how the mind of a composer works, she says the lessons and strategies in the book are designed to be relevant to “anyone doing anything creative.”

Trumbore covers topics like self-doubt (excerpted below), procrastination, seeking new opportunities, and collaboration candidly. “In my experience, a lot of the most helpful advice comes not from people who are on a drastically different step of their career from me, but from peers who are maybe just slightly ahead in their field,” she says. “Honesty and communication is really what facilitates those discussions, whether it's about business things like what you're charging for a commission, or whether it's talking openly about creative struggles.”

Acknowledge self-doubt, then release it.

Excerpted from Staying Composed by Dale Trumbore

There's an Irish superstition that if you see a single magpie, you have to acknowledge it by waving at it, or you risk having bad luck. By this logic, you ignore bad luck at your own peril, but you can easily avoid it by simply recognizing that it exists.

I don't hold much faith in superstitions, but it's not smart to flat-out ignore that which could trip you up. When you're confronted with a bad case of self-doubt, the easiest way I've found to release it is to treat it the way this Irish superstition deals with magpies. You recognize self-doubt; you greet it. Then you consciously shift your thoughts to something else.

The more often you catch yourself in the throes of doubt and practice acknowledging, then dismissing it, the better you'll become at recognizing that self-doubt doesn't mean your work is bad. It's a state of mind, and in small doses, it’s a perfectly ordinary part of being a creative artist.

If you refuse to consciously acknowledge self-doubt, then that doubt continues to hold power over you. But it's so simple to acknowledge and greet it instead: I see you. I know you're there. Hello!

Author Brené Brown has made a career out of writing and speaking about how shame dissipates when we embrace our own vulnerability, and like shame, self-doubt often eases up when we expose it to air. Your form of “waving” at self-doubt might be to confide any feelings of insecurity to a trusted friend or family member: someone who will know, without prompting, to remind you that you're wonderful and you're on the right track with your work and your goals.

If you don't have a person like that, then here's a sentence for you to reread when you need it: If you've taken the time to seek out a book on overcoming anxiety in the creative process, you are on the right track. You are self-aware. You are actively trying to make good work. Keep doing what you’re doing. I have faith in you.

A small amount of self-doubt reflects a desire for our work to be excellent. That’s a good thing. After all, if we didn't occasionally doubt our work, we wouldn't be very good editors. We wouldn't work through the multiple drafts it often takes to hone our work into something brilliant.

As with procrastination, if we learn to recognize and acknowledge self-doubt whenever it pops up, we can label that as part of our process. We can expect it to happen in every new project we start. We can remind ourselves each time that it is temporary; it will pass.

The more you practice “waving” at your self-doubt in recognition, the more familiar that self-doubt becomes. This familiarization functions like a declawing, in which even your most unpleasant feelings gradually become less of a threat to your creative work. At the very least, they are a fear you now know. At best, that familiarity will lead you to pass through future phases of self-doubt without adding any extra anxiety to those feelings.

As you label and greet insecurity, you'll recognize how predictable, even boring, it is. In your future work, you'll also know when in the process those doubts are most likely to pop up. You might even find you're ready for each lone bird of anxiety before it appears:

I hate everything I've written so far; hello, first-draft self-doubt.

I’m about to finish a new piece, so I'm worried that the whole piece is terrible; this always happens at this point in my process.

I've just finished a work that I actually like, and now I feel like I might never write anything good again. Of course—I’ve felt this way before, so I know that it will pass.

Magpies are smart, beautiful birds. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to scare them away altogether. Likewise, the ability to question the merit of your own work serves a purpose. Your inner birds of self-doubt are an indicator of your desire to be excellent. They’re popping up because you're a self-aware, perceptive person who wants to create meaningful work. It’s scary to think that we might not be able to create art that lives up to our own high standards, and self-doubt tries to save us from the very real possibility that what we make might not be as good as we hope it will be.

The more you learn to recognize your doubts, wave at them like magpies, and keep writing anyway, the less power they’ll have to derail your creative process. So acknowledge self-doubt, self-pity, and self-loathing as they pop up, especially when they’re accompanied by the urge to procrastinate. Know that once you've seen your doubts, waved at them, and turned your attention back to creating, they’re less likely to disrupt your work. They will inevitably return, yes, but when they do, you'll be ready to repeat this process all over again.

Staying Composed is available in paperback and ebook.