Writers and Self-Esteem: A Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

We’re all our own worst critics.

Every writer I’ve ever known tends to look down on their own work. We see only the flaws, we fear the critics, and we worry that our readers won’t like our work. Most of the time, people explain this away simply by saying that it’s hard to put yourself out there. It’s hard to work on a book for two years before you know whether anyone will like it. It’s hard to watch your book sales and think of the future and wonder if you’ll ever achieve success.

When these subjects come up in conversation with my writer friends, I usually just assure them that their fears are quite common. In fact, I read a book during my studies at Rowan called The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. It was all about these common fears and how they happen to everyone, even the bestselling authors out there. It also gave advice on how to work past those fears and push forward, instead of letting them hold you back.

But I’ve been thinking today about where that fear comes from, and whether there’s a better way to combat it. And I’m reminded of what I learned about Symbolic Interactionism.

If you’re not familiar with it, Symbolic Interactionism is a theory that discusses how language shapes meaning, and how the words we use can help shape our perception of reality. I’ve discussed it before in some of the other articles on my blog. One of the aspects of Symbolic Interactionism says that a person’s “‘response’ is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions.” For example, if I tell a certain friend that I think her writing is really good, she won’t necessarily take the words at face value. Instead, she might attach additional meaning to the words, such as by thinking, “he’s saying that to be nice because he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.” When we attach such interpretations to something, it alters how we perceive the words and how we will react and respond to them.

Related to this is the concept of the Looking Glass Self. This is a concept that states that we imagine how others perceive us and what they think of us, we react to that perceived judgment, and we develop our sense of self based on it. An important part of this is that we don’t react to how people actually think about us, but instead to how we imagine they think about us. You can see this all the time in people with body image issues and other types of poor self-esteem. Someone might say “You’re beautiful,” but the person hearing it might not believe their words. Instead, they might look at their own flaws, whether it’s being overweight, too tall, too short, or anything else, and think that those flaws are what someone else will see. They then imagine other people judging them based on those flaws, and their self-worth becomes hinged on those imagined judgments . . . even if they’re completely untrue.

A writer looking at their book–whether it’s a first draft, a critique draft, or a finished manuscript–goes through a similar process. You can get a fan who raves about the book, loves the characters, and is eager for the sequel, but the writer might not hear all of that. For example, I once got a 5-Star review where the reviewer raved about almost everything, but said they didn’t like the main character. My self-appraisal through the Looking Glass Self led me to imagine that they judged the entire book (and me as a writer) through that one aspect, I became temporarily fixated on it, and it led to me doubting myself as a writer. This led to that fear I mentioned earlier, which can be difficult to push past.

Based on all this, it occurs to me that as writers, we might sometimes need to do more than just “push back the fear.” Working past it and understanding that it happens to all writers is one thing. But it’s another thing to realize that our fears may be due to entirely imagined judgments. And those imagined judgments can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy . . . if you think that you’re going to fail, there’s a good chance you will.

The best way to counter all of this, in my opinion, is to do more than just accept the fears and work past them. Instead, it’s important to think critically about where those fears are coming from, and consider whether they come from an inaccurate self-reflected appraisal. If you think that your writing isn’t up to par, what makes you think that? Is it only because you hear a voice in your head filling you with imagined judgments? Things people never actually said? If that’s the case, it may be possible that you are basing your fears on what you think people will say, rather than what on they actually say. Or on a small piece of the puzzle that doesn’t impact someone’s overall perception of your work.

Look at your writing for what it really is. Not for what you imagine others might say.

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2 thoughts on “Writers and Self-Esteem: A Symbolic Interactionist Perspective”

  1. You’re right on the mark. I know I struggle with the self-fulfilling prophecy in my own life, writing included. I think because I don’t have confidence in myself, I write like it’s a hobby, not something I want to genuinely pursue. And I read about how it took some writers years before their first book was ever published, overcoming rejection after rejection. I don’t take critique and rejection well in my life. There is this underlying need to please people all the time. It’s a sickness, I know. It’s a habit that is not easily broken. Realizing that I’m not going to please everybody is a first step. Once I accept that as truth, I feel I can write without thinking I have to please the whole world; I can write as if I’m only writing for me.

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