An Important Exercise in Self-Belief

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. 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.

For the longest time I felt I was going to die young. It’s not the kind of thing that is easy to explain or make sense of, but it was a strong feeling that lasted from my early childhood until I turned thirty-one years old. Feeling Damocles’ sword hanging above my head led me to pack an entire life of experiences in my first three decades on earth. 

I’ve studied, explored, loved, travelled the world, learned two foreign languages fluently, taken risks, moved across the globe, got married, birthed two perfect children, bought a house, built a business from an idea, bought another business and renovated it before reselling it for profit, helped countless people often for free and lived a life without much room for regrets… You know, because my time was coming. 

And my time did come, except for one important detail: I didn’t really die. I almost did. 

What happened next is too long and sad a story for this letter, so I’ll keep things simple. The virus that sent me to hospital wreaked havoc in my body and left me handicapped for life. Overnight, I was forced to give-up my entire life’s work and passion for dance, for a very frightening clean slate of a future. 

It was devastating, but the terrible news did not end when learning I would remain deaf in one ear for the rest of my life. Repeat life altering diagnosis turned into multi-layered trauma added to existing traumas from my pre-illness life… My health and life became a giant mess.

Honestly, it still is too hard some days, because I haven’t fully designed or even imagined the life I want to create for a future I never thought I was going to experience. Makes sense? I hope so.

But when I look further back than the “accident”… I can see so much life, and despite some traumatic experiences. I’ll tell you my friend… How I’ve lived! 

I tell my husband that if I were to die today, I would die with only two regrets, and those would be to not see my children grow-up and to not see us grow old together. Other than that, I’m satisfied. I know I will die in peace, because I’ve spent a lifetime preparing myself for it and when I flirted with death, it was love that stood out, not regret.

After being ill, when looking at my new state of being, at my now and future, I felt insignificant, living one day at a time, barely surviving. I just couldn’t see what I had to offer to contribute to this world, being unable to sustain the physical efforts required or being untrained in the fields I wanted to work in. My mental health degraded fast and when the relief of death was all I could think about, I finally sought out help from a psychologist with the support of my husband, children, and close friends. 

This is when my thirty years of personal development packed into three started. I meditated multiple times daily. I attended personal transformation seminars, read self-help books, and allowed myself to feel the now instead of escaping it. Until one day, I was able to reach a state of deep peace and gratitude for the growth my near-death experience brought me.

And this, my friend, is when I started to share my story…

And the more I shared it, the more I realised how powerful it was. People’s responses were incredible to witness. Many leaned on it to create significant change in their lives lasting to this day. 

I have since been coaching and inspiring people – especially women – to have the courage and resources to make positive changes in their lives, no matter what hardship comes their way, making adversity a friend, not a foe. This work has become the focus of my readings and research and a deep source of motivation in life.

Finally grounded, life brought back memories of my childhood dreams of becoming an author. I’d already published a small cookbook as well as a guide for young dancers, but never felt like an author as such. The memories came to me in dreams, in random messages from family and friends (close and long-lost) who suddenly felt the urge to reach out and remind me of my dream. It was the strangest and one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Everyone and everything pushed me to write, almost beyond what is reasonable. Life wasn’t subtle in showing me what my life’s work really should be about.

But now I’m listening and answering the call: Here I am. Alex Cownie, the dancing writer. 

My books share the life stories of inspiring women who not only survived the impossible but thrived and shined brighter because of it.

Do you also have a story aching to be told that made you greater than you knew was possible? Please visit the Stories page and apply for Alex to write your story.