I published my first book five days ago. Here is a short list of some feelings I have felt over the past month:
- Unexplained Gut-Wrenching
- Intolerable Impatience
- Deep Satisfaction
This is not a comprehensive list. I suspect, however, it is a familiar one for anyone who has tried to pursue a dream that mattered to them. And this book of mine was a genuine pursuit, from beginning to end. By “pursuit,” I mean, I chose it. I chose to do this. And every morning, I had to wake up and keep choosing it, no matter how it felt.
That’s the mixed bag of indie authorship. You are your own guide. You are the Decider Of All Things. You are the force that keeps the project moving forward. You are betting on yourself. And as readers of Cross-Section of a Human Heart could tell you, I am not someone who bets on myself with immediate ease and total confidence.
Here’s the thing about that. I know in my head I am a good enough writer to be read, to have a book. I even have an actual screenwriting career with my brother Phil. Logically, rationally, I believe I am someone who should be sharing her written work.
But there is a separate layer to pursuing the things one wants, a layer where the worries and what-ifs live, their whining voices growing louder the closer you get to your goal. One of the worst lies we tell in our culture is that these voices do not exist for those who are truly confident. We have this idea that trusting yourself means you would never lie awake at night, haunted by the imagined tragedy of 147 one-star reviews. We think those who are sure of their capabilities don’t feel the heart-squeeze of anxiety as they click “approve” and “publish.”
These are lies. I want you to know that. They are all lies. We all know what failure is. We all know what humiliation is. We all know that even if we see marvelous things in ourselves, it doesn’t mean everyone else can see it, too. There is no use in feeding fear, it’s true, but don’t ever let anyone tell you fear wouldn’t exist if you just believed in yourself enough. Trepidation and self-certainty absolutely can (and do) live side-by-side. Confidence is about knowing what you’re technically capable of. Fear comes from the earned knowledge that we don’t always get the outcome we want, the knowledge that heartbreak is always a possibility, no matter how objectively excellent we may be.
I don’t say this to discourage you from running headlong toward your goals. It’s the opposite, really. What I mean to say is, if you are standing at the opening of 2019 with a goal in your heart and the fear that you are too emotionally weak to pursue it, let it be known that we are all freaking out. All of us. Maybe not every second, but at least sometimes.
My biggest freak-out of the year came last June when I was halfway through my first edit on Cross-Section of a Human Heart. I called my mom and unloaded a million tangled fears. What if this idea I have of my own talent turns out to be pure delusion? What if I get nothing but scathing reviews and have to reevaluate this goal I’ve had for an entire lifetime? What if I actually destroy my dream by pursuing it?
My mom listened to the entire, panicked, self-indugent rant. Then she said, “Abigail, you know I believe you are capable of writing a great book. But I also know the career you’ve chosen is not an easy one, and success is not a guarantee, not even if you’re good. So I truly don’t know what will happen if you put yourself out there. But we do know what happens if you do nothing.”
I nodded, not that she could see me. “Everything stays the same.”
“Everything stays the same.”
If you have a dream, your job is not to morph into some 24/7 badass who would never have a single doubt. It does help to cultivate a little optimism, but don’t waste time trying to become full-blown fearless, because that’s not a real thing–or if it is, it’s really rare–and experiencing fear is not evidence of a failing character.
Rather, if you have a dream, your job is simply this:
Choose to pursue that dream.
Every morning. Even when you doubt. Even when you fear. Even when someone is claiming you shouldn’t have doubts and fears, so now you have doubts, fears, and shame. Just keep choosing the thing you love, the thing you want, the thing that glows incessantly in the center of your heart.
Keep choosing what you love, because the only other alternative is to live without it.
Don’t even waste time trying to be unafraid, and definitely do not lose precious emotional energy resenting your own vulnerability. Let the fear happen. Let the insecurity and doubt and unexplained gut wrenching happen. But never stop choosing.
Unless you want everything to stay the same.
My love and best wishes to you in 2019. May you be all be a little bit terrified at least 20% of the time.
BONUS EXCERPT from Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood (available now at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited)
Your (Emotional) Game Plan
Much smarter people than I will give you great advice for creating a common sense plan to make your dream come true. So I’m going to keep my trap shut about that because I don’t know what I’m talking about.
What may be just as important—especially if you’re like me and really good at psyching yourself out of moving forward—is creating an emotional plan, anticipating the roadblocks that will inevitably crop up inside your own head and heart.
Find a quiet, comfortable place, settle in with your beverage of choice, and let’s get cracking on a psychological plan for your personal version of world domination.
Figure out what you want. It’s okay if you don’t know for sure yet. It takes some people years to find the dream that feels like a perfect fit. The important thing is that you work toward figuring out what you want. Think about what brings you joy. Imagine the life that feels as natural to you as your own skin. Write that down. Practice saying it out loud, even if you’re afraid it sounds stupid. Keep saying it and saying it and saying it. Never stop saying it.
Identify what your emotional needs will be as you pursue your dream. Everyone is different, so there is no right or wrong answer here. Some people need a swift kick in the pants when they feel stuck. Others are more motivated by gentle encouragement. What works for you is a personality thing, not a statement on your resilience, so answer these questions for yourself honestly and without judgment.
What do you need when:
- You fail?
- You succeed?
- You feel stuck?
- You feel unmotivated?
- You feel afraid or inferior?
Once you have those things figured out, come up with a plan for getting what you need. Who in your life can offer you the sort of support you’re looking for? What movie or book or quote always inspires you? Is there an experience that helps you get where you need to be—meditation or exercise or a little time in nature?
Figure out how to express what you need. Most of us have someone in our lives who is close enough to see us in our weaker moments. Sometimes this person gives the kind of support theywould want, not realizing that same approach might not be effective for us. If you have someone like that, figure out now how you are going to lovingly, graciously communicate what you need. “When I’m freaking out, it helps so much to hear that you believe in me.” Or “It means so much that you believe in me, but when you gush about my talents, I get more overwhelmed. It’s totally cool to just say, ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine’ and then change the subject.”
Now that you’ve learned to forgive your own insecurities and made a plan for self-care, it’s time to make a plan for getting tough. The most effective way to build confidence is to get work done—even bad work, even if you’re still feeling small or freaked out. Productivity feels good. Walking directly into the storm is empowering. Work takes your mind off of your fear and puts it on something you care about. Not to mention, the more you do the thing you love, the better you become, making your “crazy” dream feel less crazy.
Come up with some tips that you know will help you get to work even when your heart is trying to run flailing-Muppet-style in the opposite direction. Some ideas to get you started:
- Research your role models. Find the aspects of their life stories that would be an insecurity for you. Maybe they went to a college no one’s heard of, or they switched career paths late in life, or they had a sibling who succeeded years before they did. Remember that everyone can come up with a reason to doubt themselves.
- Remind yourself that it will not always be as hard as it is right now. You get better and the work gets easier.
- Be bored with your own fears. When you worry about being the dumbest person in med school, remind yourself of the five million times you already worried about this and actively think, “Ugh, this story again?” You’ve been over it. It’s old. It’s annoying.
Let it go.