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How to Save Your Self-Esteem

There seems to be a society-wide conspiracy to teach people that confidence is bad and low self-esteem is good. Look at the way we portray heroes and heroines in fiction.

  • Loveable heroines are modest "good girls" who feel insecure about their pasty skin and big thighs. They're shocked, shocked, to discover that any man could desire them.
  • Villainesses wear revealing outfits and have brash personalities. They take the initiative with men and aren't afraid of their fellow women and are, therefore, bad people.
  • Loveable heroes are weak. Superheroes will stand there, looking righteously appalled, as villains do horrible things. They often get beat up, never lifting a finger to defend themselves. This makes them good men.
  • Villains are arrogant and pushy. They brag about how smart and strong they are. This makes them bad men.

The problem is that people confuse confidence with arrogance. Confidence is being aware of your true worth and skills, while still appreciating the talents of other people and being strong enough to admit you're not always right. Arrogance, on the other hand, stems from insecurity. Arrogant people feel the need to prove that they're better than everybody else. They get petty, mean, and loud if their superiority is threatened in any way.

Terrified of being seen as arrogant, many people become spineless and think they're "humble." Writers, in particular, seem to suffer from an epidemic of low self-esteem.

It's no wonder, really. The book business is highly competitive. Anyone who gives the writing thing a serious shot will quickly get used to hearing, "You're not good enough. Nobody wants to read your books. Nobody wants to read any books. You have no talent and you won't make it. You're doing everything wrong and everyone hates you and your haircut is ugly."

It can be difficult for any writer, whether a commercially successful veteran or a bushy-tailed newbie, to keep a firm grip on his or her sense of self-worth. Here are some things you can do to remain confident in your work and abilities, even when it seems like the whole world is shouting, "You suck!"

Mute the Dementors.

Because this industry is so competitive, and so few people achieve financial success through fiction writing, the ones who struggle can turn all kinds of unpleasant: bitter, jealous, cynical, and just plain mean. These people like to congregate in certain places online and be angry together. Occasionally they go on field trips to punish other people who express opinions they don't like.

If you find yourself in one of these toxic circles, get out ASAP and don't look back. These people are Dementors, sucking the happiness and optimism out of everyone around them.

You may also know some well-meaning Dementors: friends or family who think they're saving you from heartache by advising you to give up those pipe dreams and get a real job. They say discouraging things because they don't want you to get hurt, but you should ask them to stop. If they won't, they're not your friends.

Don't become a Dementor.

You can avoid most of the people who shout that you suck, the industry sucks, and the universe sucks. But often the person shouting the loudest lives in the mirror.

Sometimes I have to try very hard not to become a Dementor. I have bad days and I want to complain about them. I have to remind myself that what I post online is public, and that I wouldn't step outside and start yelling, "Writing is so haaard! I hate bureaucracy so muuuch! Why are people so meeean?!"

There are rants about important issues that need to be written, and then there's venting. Are you writing vicious things for catharsis? Attacking a specific person? Unfairly generalizing about large groups of people (e.g., all literary agents are greedy vultures, all reviewers are bullies, all self-publishers are lazy hacks)? This is venting. You're being unpleasant and alienating people for no good reason. And if you're a decent person, you'll feel guilty about it later.

Don't sink to the level of the Dementors. If you feel the urge to be nasty, just turn around and waltz away on the high road. You'll feel much better about yourself, believe me.

Listen to the compliments.

I remember almost all of the negative things people have said about me and my stories. But I seldom remember all of the positive things people have said about me and my stories.

I remember the giveaway winner who said the heroine of Bubbles Pop is one of the most unlikeable characters in English literature. I remember the blogger who requested my book, then emailed me to say she wouldn't review it because it was boring.

But I don't remember all of the people who gave it four or five stars. I don't remember the reviewers who said they enjoyed the humor and couldn't put it down, or the ones who said they looked forward to reading my future books.

It's easy to discount compliments as lip service. "Oh, they're just saying that. They don't really mean it." But for some reason, when people say rude or dismissive things about us, we assume they're right.

What if the rude people are trying to drag you down because they're jealous? What if the people who gush over your stories really, truly enjoyed them? Embrace the compliments!

Reevaluate the word "failure."

We often use the word "failure" when we mean "a result that isn't as great as we'd hoped."

In the kids' movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown goes to the Big City to represent his school at a spelling bee. He gets to the final round, then misspells the word "beagle" and takes second place. Second place—what a failure face! Charlie's friends are disgusted with him. The townspeople refuse to speak to him. He barricades himself in his room to hide his shame.

Our culture tends to sneeze at silver and bronze medals, as if gold were the only one worth having. If you're not the champion, you're a loser. If you're not the lead actor, you're a nobody. And if you're not a billionaire bestselling author, you're a failure as a writer.

We need to stop saying "failure" for everything that isn't the best of the best. A real failure is something that doesn't do what it's supposed to do.

A bridge that collapses is a failure. It was supposed to stand up, and it didn't. It doesn't meet the basic requirements of being a bridge.

A rocket that fizzles out on the ground is a failure. It was supposed to fly, and it doesn't. It doesn't meet the basic requirements of being a rocket.

But a book that sells only a handful of copies isn't a failure. It's still a book. It's just a book that wasn't as popular as you hoped it would be. And a manuscript that's rejected by agents and editors isn't a failure; it's just a story that might need to be revised and/or self-published.

When you say you've "failed" at something, do you really mean you failed? Or do you mean you were disappointed with the results of your efforts? If you expect perfect success in everything you do, you're going to be disappointed in yourself for the rest of your life.


Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt (October 15, 2014, 9:34 pm)

Do you know how few people start a novel, much less finish one? I am surrounded by non-novelists, people who think I'm somehow special because I have a compulsion. It's okay - I've been 'different' since I was a child, and it hasn't gotten much better.

I know just enough Harry Potter to appreciate the apt Dementors reference - my problem is being ignored, so far, rather than being squashed.

I just shrug. Those Olympic athletes, even the ones who don't win any medal, work very hard at what they do and are only in position for a little praise once every four years. They get used to it - I hope they enjoy their successes to the hilt when they get them.

On someone's recommendation I keep a leather-bound notebook, and every time I finish a scene, I whoop it up and tell myself I'm awesome. Because I have to celebrate the victories as they come - or I'll get only one big one at the end.

Nice post - self-esteem is something you grant yourself when you put in the work. Keep your standards low enough so you have realistic chances of achieving them regularly, and that's the key to happiness.

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What is the first letter of "Hawaii"?