Some (not so) brief thoughts on the Sock Puppet of Self Doubt

Below is an episode of Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project, where Adam talks about overcoming self doubt — he describes a week in which he questioned whether he should be doing builds at all, after a particularly rough build, and talks about how he got himself out of that funk. The relevant bit starts at 4:30 and goes on for about 15 minutes.

It’s important to know that someone with as much experience as Adam Savage gets impostor syndrome about the thing that he does best. It’s a thing. We all get it. And it hammered him for a whole week.

It happens in different phases of creation, too. His initial trigger was feeling like he just couldn’t get a series of precise machinings right, that he kept screwing up in the workshop. That’s impostor syndrome that strikes during the creative process. You hit a hard part, you come up on something that you believe you should be perfectly capable of doing, that’s part and parcel of the practice that you engage in, and you cannot but fuck it up every time (or at least feel that way).

Then they talk about the impostor syndrome that strikes at the end of a project, that feeling, once your work’s out there and people appreciate it, that you will never make something that good again. Ever.

For the mid-process syndrome, Adam talks about how, near the end of the project that Would Not Go Right, he remembered another project that had been sitting around for a while that was completely different from what he’d been doing previously, using materials he wasn’t very familiar with, and a process that lent itself to trial and error. The three hosts talk about how doing something different from the fraught part of the work made a difference, but they didn’t go where I found my mind going: by choosing a project that functioned differently, he reframed the context of his practice.

Precise machining has no room for error, or at least it doesn’t on its face. Precision requires a “measure twice, cut once” mentality. But it doesn’t have to, or if it does, the approach leading to the practice itself can be reframed. If precision is demanded, well, reframe your approach. Tell yourself its okay to take time measuring twice, that you’re not an amateur if you do.

I go through something similar with writing. I’ll get all knotted up in the identity of being a writer and making a claim to it, and then it somehow becomes performative. Not that I have to act like a writer, but that my words must conform to what the general idea of writerliness is. And what dictates that general idea of writerliness? Depends on when you ask. It might be an imagined social construct that’s taken up residence in my head. It might be comparing myself (oh, no) to another writer that I’ve just read and admired and been inspired by.

But when you do something that’s performative whose primary purpose is not performative, that’s meant to meet some external checklist of approvals, you stand to lose the intrinsic drive to do that thing. I need to want to write my script, I need to wonder what happens next so I sit down and write the next scene, and not feel the heavy breath of a deadline or upcoming event pressing down on me. This isn’t to say I deny those things. Ha! We live by the gravitational torsion of deadlines. But what I can do is reframe so the external drives become secondary to the internal. Or, even better, so the external process is naturally served by following the drive of the internal.

I am not very good at this, but I’m trying to get better.

As for the end-of-process impostor syndrome, reframing doesn’t work as well. That oppressive feeling of never being able to top yourself does come from badly refracted external drives, but trying to reframe the internal ones to take over still leaves a gulf or void. Adam’s response? He acknowledged that feeling and understood that it was a part of the process, and would diminish in time, and the best thing to do was rest up a bit or march on over to the next project.

Combining these two methods, to me, seems like a reasonable approach to dealing with either end of impostor syndrome. In my mind, reframing and acceptance are interrelated parts of the same process. Reframing requires accepting the existence of something, but granting it a different priority. Let’s go back to my script example. I am tied up in knots about it because the project collaborators are all people I know and admire, and who are important to me. I want to do right by them. So I put a lot of pressure on myself to create something that will measure up to that expectation.

If I start writing what I think other people want, it creates an expectation that, by its nature, is a moving goalpost. The only head I inhabit is my own; I have no real way of knowing exactly what will please anyone. And yes, I can get caught up in the idea that what will please me is pleasing others, but if I examine the thought, reframe it by noting how what I’ve done for myself in the past has already impressed others before I knew them personally (and so couldn’t try to predict what would impress them), then it follows that people can be impressed by things that I do for my own satisfaction. It’s a long road, but the logic follows (at least it does for me), and it brings me back to a place of intrinsic motivations, which draws the extrinsic pressures back far enough for me to continue my practice.

The process of acceptance and reframing is not easy, and it’s a bit harder for my non-linear and staticky mind to hold onto. It means, sometimes, that even though I bring my mindset back on track, I’ve burned up the energy I might have used for creative practice, and have to wait for a new day and renewed energy. But by working those thought pathways, they become a little easier each time, and they foment a kind of forgiveness toward myself that I think is beneficial in the long run.

Anyway, this brief revisit turned into a much longer rumination. I hope it helps those of you wrestling with that universal Sock Puppet.

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