An Important Exercise in Self-Belief

Alex Cownie
7 min readJul 6, 2022

How can you believe in yourself without external validation… Especially when the odds seem against you?

When becoming a writer, my biggest challenge (yep, even beyond not being a native speaker in the language I chose to write in) was to believe in myself. To trust that I could pull it off even before I put my first sentence to paper. Trust that I had in me the potential to develop the skills needed for the job. To have the strength and resilience required to climb the mountains of words ahead of me, to turn them into stories, posts, discussions, and finally a first book, and then a second and a third and so on, forever if that is my true calling as I believe it is.

Facing my laptop, countless doubts rose from my gut to my chest to my throat until it finally paralysed my brain.

You’re not cut for this. You’re not trained, not good enough, not worthy to be called a writer. There are millions of people better prepared for this job than you are. They are more naturally talented, have better ideas and actually know what good English looks like. Why are you doing this to yourself? Go back to bed, run a little business or get a job, but stop writing, you’re awful at it.

These are the thoughts and fears I’ve been dealing with every day since I made the decision to give it a proper go (my writer-versary in the 14th of May 2020!). And what you see is the politely edited version of what my lack of self-belief says to me on a good day.

But another voice talks to me too. It’s soft and small, yet powerful. It’s the voice of passion, the one that craves for meaning, for a life lived — not just existed — for a life of service to others kept me going (and still does today).

The voice is here and just won’t go away. That’s how I know I have to see this through, no matter what the outcome: public humiliation or inspiring crowds or most likely something milder in the middle…

So yes. I still struggle to believe in myself some days. But more often, I shut the criticism down the minute I get up and get to work. Unsurprisingly, that’s when I produce my best work.

What’s interesting is that when I talk about my author work with the people I need most to believe in me (you’re correct, I’m a simple being who still secretly craves my parents approval), their elusive words of support — or most often complete avoidance of the topic — leave me with no other choice than to rely on myself. To actually believe in myself, for me.

Without my parents’ full support on this — support I need before I earn any success — my heart barely floats. For most of us, there’s a lot of baggage around the parental topic. That’s a story for another time… I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a human gene that makes us rely on our parents’ approval for self-belief. I see it act out everywhere. The pain (my pain) goes deep and is much older and more anchored than anything my favourite adults in this world could ever give me, no matter what efforts they put in believing in me.

So I’m back to me, needing to support me. Scared, facing my writing project, a big dream and a drowning heart. I’m pretty sure you’ve been there too and know exactly what I’m talking about.

The real question is: How do I rescue myself? Isn’t it…?

So here is what I do when I get to that point:

I bring back memories where I challenged the odds, achieved the impossible, rose above or took the hard and brave action despite paralysing fear.

The key to this process is that these recalled times need to have been self-motivated. No one was here to help me or believe in me. I survived, lived and sometimes thrived, thanks to… only me.

One of these moments is when I got accepted into a professional dance school. I talk about it in my new book coming out next year. I think you will enjoy the story, but in a nutshell, here is what happened:

- I went to the audition with no one believing I stood a chance. Not my mum, not my dance teacher, not my friends, and not their mums either. And as you guessed, definitely not me.

- Then came my true motivation for succeeding. I really wanted to:

a) Stay in the experience of the audition as many days as possible to be taught by great teachers (I wanted the “workshop” experience), and

b) Leave high-school — not for the schooling aspect which I loved and would continue by distance education, but for the social aspect of it (I’d been bullied that year and got into all sorts of troubles, leaving me incredibly lonely and scared to go to school every day), and

c) A secret wish was for me to travel the world — and I knew that dancers did, so that was a direct way to guarantee I’d see the world, which seemed impossible if I stayed in high-school and went to university like everyone else.

My motivations were NOT to achieve the immediate purpose of the audition: Get into the professional ballet school. My motivations were very personal and very specific.

At the audition, I focused on myself, terrified I’d lose my ability to concentrate if I’d looked at any of the other incredible dancers there. During four days, my eyes went from the pianist to the dance teacher to my reflection in the mirror, and again, and again.

My focus paid off. Out of three-hundred attendees, I was one of six selected to join the school that year in classical dance.

So today, when I face my blank page and feel my brain choking with fear, I replay that story. I focus on how I felt, what I believed about myself, why I wanted to be there and how I did it.

My beliefs and wants are different today, but it doesn’t matter, because the underlying feeling is the same.

Then, I transcribe that feeling into the present moment.

The process goes like that:

“I want to see progress, I never thought I’d see pages accumulating on a book I am actually writing.”

That new thought is the first thing that gets me going (feeling of inner-satisfaction), as it literally gets me out of bed at 4:45 every morning. Get up and make progress happen. So simple.

Then I think, “I want to inspire people (feeling purposeful). I’ve done it in the past through coaching and I’ve seen dozens of people’s lives change and improve as a result of it.”

That’s when I put my phone on charge and put it out of arm’s reach from my desk (usually on the kitchen counter). My little self-supportive mantra says:

“Someone needs to hear these stories and it will help them move on, accept, maybe even change something significant in their life. I will pursue this work for you (the people I want to support and inspire), because I didn’t go through all this struggle for nothing. That’s how I make it count. For you.”

By that point I start to feel good about myself. I am up, I know progress feels good (the more I do it, the better it feels as I am exercising those progress muscles diligently), I know my project is greater than me — that’s a relief — and I also know that nothing is in the way of distraction.

Then passion hits (feeling true to myself).

“I love words, I love writing and I am a total nerd for study, research and learning new things. I know that when I write more, it means I get to do more of all of that.”

It’s a reverse blank page problem for me: if I use the excuse of a book to write, edit, re-write, and work on, it justifies me reading the dictionary, asking weird questions to people to understand what is really going on for them so that I can put it into words, or geek out on thesaurus searches for new ways to say the same thing.

I don’t write a book to end up with a written book. I write a book for the reasons listed above. And that’s what makes me feel good — aka believe — in myself (feeling of freedom).

The sky’s the limit and I am much more likely to succeed, or at least live a life so full, success becomes a nice but optional cherry on the cake.

Homework, homeplay, and geeking on self-belief exercise:

1. What’s your big project or dream right now?

2. Work on it — even if it’s just plascribbling a few rough ideas on paper — what blocks you? Fear, anxiety, sadness, stress, worry, something else? Make a list.

3. Define those feelings precisely. i.e. I fear no one will like my book. I am super worried to add something this big to my — already — insane schedule.

4. Actually start working on it. Give it a day, an hour, ten minutes. Any amount of time will do. What you want here is action. The biggest you can handle at that point in time.

Then do this:

- Recall a time when you achieved something so great your motivation was internal (not someone else motivating you) and feel that fully.

- Explore why you really want to achieve this goal, dream, or project. What is it going to do to your life, your people, your soul, your future?

- How can the process of acting on it motivate you? What gets you out of bed? What makes you move away from pain and towards your dream? How will you feel when you see slow steady progress, when you visualise your big dream take shape? What is the one thing that gets you to take action and get out of bed early even on cold rainy days to make it happen, no matter what?



Alex Cownie

Non-fiction articles focused around the theme of integrity and being ourselves. Author of (non-fiction) books and (fiction) short stories about inspiring women.