Writing & Self-worth – February 7th, 2018

Self-worth is defined as a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It’s the way they see themselves and how they appraise what they see, and according to the writer Martin Ross there is a three tier classification for the states of self-worth:

Strong: The individual has a positive self-image and is resistant to feelings such as shame or defeat, has less fear of failure, acknowledges mistakes, and often appears humble and cheerful.

Vulnerable: The individual generally has a positive self-image but is vulnerable to a perceived risk of feelings such as shame, defeat, or embarrassment and, as a result, are nervous and quick to use defense mechanisms. They may avoid decision-making, may blame others, and may self-sabotage themselves in competition so they don’t become at risk of losing.

Shattered: The individual doesn’t see themselves as valuable or lovable, and may be overwhelmed by feelings such as shame or defeat. They pity themselves, insult themselves, and can even become paralyzed by their sadness.

*record scratch*

Wait, why are we talking about self-worth anyway?

Because as writers–as creatives–the work part of our life and its corresponding influence on our self-worth sits within the realm of the subjective, at the mercy of the opinions of others including gatekeepers like agents or publishers, critics, reviewers, and the general reading public. On top of this, our writing comes from within us, and while this writing is shaped by editors, beta readers, and our own reading, it is nevertheless a direct product of, well… ourselves, reflecting our experiences and perspectives.

Contrast this with the work that someone like a software engineer might do. Their output will still be judged by the court of public opinion, but that public will largely assess their software on how useful and easy-to-use it is, much of which comes down to objective measurement: speed, number of clicks or taps, hours saved, and so on. Which isn’t to say engineers don’t get attached to their work–of course they do–but the judgments made upon their work have clearer solutions and a more tolerable environment to rectify these mistakes.

For even more proof of how writers so frequently struggle with self-worth, just look at the list of famous authors who’ve killed themselves: there’s Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace and Hunter S. Thompson and Yukio Mishima, just for starters. You could look at how often writers descend into substance abuse. You could look at situations where writers don’t get published until after they’re dead–such as John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces–having struggled their entire life with their self-worth only to never see their own success.

So if you’re one of the many writers who struggles with self-worth, what do you do? We’ve already seen that fame and wealth aren’t the solution, both with our self-harm examples above and with studies that have shown how the correlation between money and happiness results in diminishing returns. But there’s another solution I’d like to offer up that has personally helped me during my own struggles with self-worth.

A quick note: Before we continue, I want to say that if you or someone you know is suffering from severe mental health issues, please skip my proposed solution and either seek out a mental health professional or, if suicidal thoughts are present, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line, available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

The philosophy behind my solution is simple: take ownership of your self-worth. By shifting your mindset from letting extrinsic forces such as rejection letters and reader reviews shape your self-worth to taking an intrinsic approach to how you value yourself, you imbue your behaviors and the habits you adopt with agency. You give yourself power–power to grow and change and adapt to the mental and emotional stresses that are so abundant in any creative pursuit.

Let’s go one step further and talk about this ownership and agency on a practical level. What specific actions should you take? I like to chunk it out into three big groups:

Self-care

Self-care can take on a lot of meanings, but I take it to mean the trio of exercise, hygiene, and dress. As anyone who has ever suffered from depression knows, when you are depressed–and when you are in what Martin Ross would consider a shattered state of self-worth–you are more likely to neglect the physical self. You can go without showering or grooming, skip the gym indefinitely, and wear wrinkled, stained, and ill-fitting clothing without a second thought.

But when you decide to make time for self-care, you are making a declaration: I am worth the effort. I deserve to look cleaner and to feel better about my physical self. Even if you don’t believe it in the moment, you are subconsciously seeding the idea into your own mind.

Self-care doesn’t have to take time or money either. There are plenty of exercise routines you can do at home with no equipment, hygiene is a matter of consistency, and there are all kinds of free resources on dressing well, such as reddit’s /r/malefashionadvice or /r/femalefashionadvice subreddits. It’s all a matter of making the time and eventually forming a lasting habit (which we’ll talk about a bit later).

Community

As has been shown time and time again, community begets happiness and in turn improves one’s self-worth. I recommend joining communities that are both writing and non-writing related so that you have ample opportunity to engage with people who share a wide swath of your interests.

For writing communities, there are forums on places such as Goodreads, Facebook Groups (including my own that I invite you to check out–the Weird Writers Company), and a number of subreddits on reddit that are worth checking out (I’m a big fan of the /r/selfpublish subreddit for independent writers). You could also explore writing groups in your area or maybe even classes to keep your skills sharp.

As for non-writing communities, that will depend on what your interests are. Online forums are once again an option, but I urge you to find in-person opportunities so that you can form more personal bonds with others that are not based on your writing. Plus who knows–maybe some of these people will even become fans of your work!

Exposure

Last but certainly not least, I always encourage writers to be avid readers of both established work (i.e. published work with critical or commercial acclaim) as well as emerging work, such as work found via small presses and literary magazines.

It’s the “both” part here that’s important, as reading only established work is likely to give most of us an inferiority complex while also missing out on the opportunity to understand writing at differing levels of notoriety and exclusivity, not to mention the increased breadth of ideas present in smaller publications. All of this provides perspective and that perspective can help cast aside feelings that our work (and by extension the self) is unworthy or fundamentally lacking.

You could even go one step further and become a slush reader for a literary magazine. It’s tiring, tough work but the exposure you gain allows you to more quickly identify issues and potential in writing, a skill that you could then apply to your own work. Shameless plug alert: You could even inquire about being a slush reader for my literary magazine (Weird City) if you were so inclined.

But for any of these solutions above to take effect, you need to build a habit around them. Simply exercising once, reading a single slush pile story, or joining a community and making a lone post isn’t going to do much to shift your feelings about your self-worth. You need to be consistent. There’s a common myth that for a habit to stick, you need to persist for 21 or so days. This myth has been debunked but it’s easy to see how it took hold–we get used to what we repeat and several weeks of repetition lets us get used to new activities.

I recommend that you take it slow and that you set goals over a week, or maybe a month. Something like: “I’ll go to the gym twice this week” or “I’ll pick up four literary magazines this month and read them”. Again, take it slow. If you set a dozen goals to take on new activities every day of the week for the next three months, there is a very likely chance you will fail–after all, who wouldn’t?–and discourage yourself further.

So there you have it: The problem of low self-worth and writing, along with a set of suggestions to get you out of the hole if you find yourself–or ever find yourself–feeling in a vulnerable or shattered state about yourself. Hopefully you find this advice useful and if any of you would like to share success stories or your own methods for overcoming issues with self-worth, don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

Thanks for reading!