Birdman, Self-Doubt, and the Fear of Criticism

(Credit: Fox Searchlight)

Author’s note: There are minor Birdman spoilers in here. If you haven’t seen the film yet, reading this won’t necessarily ruin it for you, but some of this piece might not make as much sense. (Also, what are you waiting for?)

I loved Birdman — both times I watched it, and likely when I’ll see it again. As a viewer, I enjoyed the incredible single-take cinematography, powerful performances, and unexpected humor. As a drummer, I relished in the heavily percussive soundtrack and frequent cuts to a performing musician.

But most of all, as a writer and content creator, I loved the movie’s exploration of self-doubt and the role of criticism as a motivating and demotivating factor.

In fact, for anyone who has ever attempted to make / do / create something (which, isn’t that all of us?), these themes are totally applicable to everyday life. Whether you watched the movie and thought, “Holy Batman, that was awesome,” or “What just happened?” I’d like to talk about what the movie meant to me, and what it might mean to you too. What can we all learn about overcoming self-doubt?

That negative voice in your head

“Maybe that’s what you are — a joke.” – Riggan Thomson (as Birdman), to himself

My first piece here was a review of The War of Art, a book that describes the invisible blocks we create that hold us back. To me, what Steven Pressfield identifies as “Resistance” is physically manifested as the recurring Birdman character in the movie. Whereas Resistance is an intangible negative force, Birdman is a sometimes-real supernatural incarnation of Riggan Thomson’s insecurity and self-doubt.

How many times have you tried to do something before a voice — that voice — tried to stop you, or told yourself you couldn’t / shouldn’t / won’t be able to?

Did you ever think of learning something new before telling yourself, “There’s no way I’ll ever be able to figure this out”? Or cutting something negative out of your life and doubting you have the power to do it? Maybe you’ve stopped yourself from doing something as minor as posting a Facebook status after thinking, “My friends are going to give me so much shit for this.”

Of course you have. I have.

We all have.

Sometimes, doubt is a positive, necessary force that encourages us to keep thinking or keep building. But most of the time, self-doubt is actually a very negative pain in the ass that holds us back when it really shouldn’t.

Although I don’t think I’ve ever seen or personified my own personal Resistance (JK Simmons in Whiplash?), Michael Keaton frequently confronts his nemesis in the movie. As he curses to himself, demolishes his surroundings and takes to drugs and alcohol, we see a man struggling with his inability to reconcile his past success with the uncertainty of his future.

Wherever you are in your life, whether you’ve made major steps or are still planning your path, I’m willing to bet there are flashes of thought that try to hold you back. We know what self-doubt feels like. And in the case of Birdman, we know what is looks like and sounds like too. It sucks.

But why do we doubt ourselves so much?

Why are we our own Birdmen and Birdwomen?

Haters gonna hate. Critics gonna critique.

“A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist in the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.” – Riggan Thomson

Riggan yells this adapted Gustave Flaubert quote to Tabitha, the influential, foreboding Broadway critic in the movie. He ends the tirade yelling, “None of this cost you fucking anything! … You risk nothing!” in a scene that feels so real and is so refreshing to hear from a guy who’s pouring his heart into creating something of his own.

The fear of criticism is very real — and very powerful. In fact, I’m willing to bet that so much of our self-doubt and insecurity stems from hurtful criticism we’ve received in the past and hurtful criticism we’re afraid of hearing in the future. That’s why overcoming self-doubt is so difficult.

I can relate to a moment when the fear of criticism almost held me back. I wrote a two-part piece here on how I learned to produce YouTube videos (Part 1 and Part 2). Ironically, although I learned the tools and techniques, I actually hadn’t yet finished and uploaded a single video! I did this knowingly, to hold myself accountable. Like the previews for the play in Birdman, leading up to the premiere, I set the opening night schedule (or at least announced the play) well before my first product was finished.

Even after I created my first video, edited it, and watched it a dozen times and was happy with it, I hesitated. Could I have done it better in another take? Should I film it again with better camera positioning? Am I ready to put myself out there — to put a freaking video of myself online, for anyone to see?!

Fear and self-doubt plagued me before hitting the publish button. But as a I sat on this final product, one that I was happy with, one that I labored over for countless hours, I realized, I had gotten in my head more than I ever have. Finally, I told myself —

Just fucking do it.

“It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something!” – Riggan Thomson

Okay, so maybe this video isn’t necessarily my career (yet?), and going viral wouldn’t actually be so bad (… at all). But there came a point when I realized: This is good enough. In fact, I’m so happy with what I made, and, like I have so many times before, I’m holding myself back for no reason. I’m not going to let that happen. Not this time, anyway.

I hit the upload button and sent my Birdman flying away.

The reception has been great, and I’m connecting with drummers and finding encouragement to keep going at every turn. In fact, while writing this piece, I saw that the manufacturer of my equipment posted my video to their Facebook page! And I couldn’t help but laugh when, among the likes and positive comments, I found a perfect one for this piece:

“Please drumer sucks”

In my last article, I included a Churchill quote about how there are always going to be critics, naysayers, and haters. The feeling of pride and accomplishment of having my work publicly shared infinitely outweighs a misspelled, snarky jab. So much so that my first troll actually feels good — like something is really happening.

The ending to Birdman was less clear. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll spare you the spoiler, but even the directors of the movie stated it was uncertain. Is Riggan ultimately rewarded by the adoration he so desperately craves? Or does he succumb to his own worst enemy?

Regardless of your interpretation, I think the message is clear.

We can be our own worst enemies, perpetuated by the fear of criticism. But our insecurity and self-doubt is so often just a figment of our imagination. Whatever you do for the sake of overcoming self-doubt, rest assured that you’re not alone, and you can do it.

Do you agree with my interpretation of Birdman? If so, how does it relate to your life? If not, what did you think about the movie and its meaning? Drop a comment below!

Yoni Dina - author of 9 posts on The Art of Charm

Yoni is the founder of Etz & Steel and a writer/musician at Yoni the Drummer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Email