You’ve got to believe it

December 1, 2009

This piece also appeared in my December newsletter, the Inspirer. To sign up please go to my website

The issues that bug writers, such as procrastination, writers’ block and lack of motivation prevent them from fulfilling their potential. There are many ways to beat these problems into submission, and in my workshop on the subject I list 40 ways to get back on track. I used to think that one of the best ways to beat the block was self-belief, confidence, an unswerving conviction that you were good enough and you could do it. Until this week that is. Now, thanks to my friend and narrative therapist, Gitta Lieberherr, I think I’ve changed my mind.
I believed in French Tarts, my first book, which was accepted by the first publisher approached. I believed in it despite the fact that I had never been published, was 24 and did not cook. When people asked me to what I attributed my success, honestly, deep down, I would answer ‘self-belief’ and they would nod knowingly. It made sense. When they went on to ask me how I came to have such self-belief I told them that it was a combination of naivety and the fact that my father was always telling me that I was incredible, talented, beautiful and clever. But now, thanks to Gitta, I think I need to revise my answer.
I expect you’ve seen the stuff in the press about the damage that can be done to our children when we praise them too much. Indeed, telling your kids they are mini Einsteins when all they have done is get to a higher level on their Nintendo DS, can burden them with false expectations. Telling someone they are the best thing since sliced bread, when in reality they achieved something fairly ordinary, can lower, rather than raise, self-esteem.
This week I had coffee and rather delicious chocolate tart with Gitta because I wanted to talk to her about blocks and how narrative therapy might help my clients. As I mopped up the crumbs on my plate I told her what I call ‘the French Tarts story’ because it seemed the right thing to do. I told her I attributed my success to self-belief.
‘So, why did you believe in yourself, Jo?’ Gitta asked.
‘Because of my father,’ I answered. ‘He was forever crowing about how wonderful and marvelous I was.’
‘But did you believe him?’
Her question stopped me in my tracks. I laid down my fork. ‘Not really, I suppose,’ I said. ‘I was actually pretty average when I was a child.’
‘Then, do you think it was yourself you believed in or your idea?’
I fell silent as I thought. I drained my coffee and set the cup back down in the saucer. ‘The idea, I suppose,’ I answered at last. ‘I really believed in my idea.’
Thanks to Gitta’s questioning, I had exposed one of my longheld truths as a myth. She had a point. I mean, what writer is not crippled with self-doubt and the imposter syndrome now and again? What writer can bear to read every piece he writes after it is published without cringing inwardly and wishing he had done it differently? I was impressed at the speed with which she had reached the nub of an issue.
‘How did you get me to say that?’ I asked. ‘Was that an example of narrative therapy?’
Gitta smiled and nodded. ‘Yes, it was, Jo. In narrative therapy we learn how to separate the problem from the person,’ she explained. ‘I externalized the issue, of self-belief, so it was not dependent on you. When you are no longer part of the issue it creates distance and opens up new ways of handling the problem. That’s all I did. It doesn’t usually only take one question to get to the bottom of something, though,’ she laughed.
I tell my students and mentees that one of the ways to acquire this elusive self-belief is to ask for feedback, act on it, and preserve all the best testimonials, looking at them often to remind themselves that yes, they can write and write well. This works to a point. I do it myself. But, for me, this praise, however high, lasts fleetingly. When it first arrives I am delighted, buoyed up by the kind words. I stick the card on the wall, print the email, grow another inch and feel validated. But this feeling only lasts until the next piece of writing.
Each month I write this newsletter. Each month I chew my metaphorical fist with trepidation as I press the send button. What if this month’s piece is rubbish? Minutes later I get my answer. Someone writes to thank me for striking a chord and I let myself breathe out.
Self-doubt is natural. It keeps me on my toes. It forces me to try my best every single day. It keeps me from complacency. But when I believe in an idea, just as I passionately believed that French Tarts was a good idea at the right time in the right place with the right focus and aimed for the right market, then that’s what matters. That’s what makes the difference.
It does not matter whether you truly, deep down, believe in yourself. It matters that you totally, fundamentally believe in your idea. Your conviction means that your project is in your head every moment of the day and night, that your actions reflect it – that you’re living it. This is what will make the difference, living your belief or to put it narratively, living from your preferred story. It means that your face lights up when you tell people about it and they can feel your excitement too.
So then, do you believe in your idea? I hope so. How I hope so.

Jo