Why it’s so difficult to write about ourselves

Writing an about page or short bio or God Forbid a cover letter is, like, literally, the worst. I am not even kidding.

You’d think it would be easier.

After all, what subject could I possibly know better? Expertise? I got that, baby. I’ve been hanging out with myself since I was born. Maybe longer.

But it’s terrible.

If you’ve ever faced the total blankness and panic that comes after being asked to submit “a short biography,” well, then, you know what I mean.

High school students have it especially hard. They’re always being asked to describe themselves, write a personal essay, share an experience, compare and contrast life events.

What a grossly unfair thing to ask of them.

They’ve had maybe three life “experiences,” on average. At least one of those is a teen turmoil (“That time a senior broke my heart” or “That time I did a thing that made me feel nervous”). Nobody cares, including the student who has to write about it.

Another one is usually of the cookie-cutter be a good person volunteer-trip-mission-service variety. They’re popular for rounding out one’s narrowly focused list of achievements.

It’s like an expansion pack for an average life.

“I am basically like everyone, but also! I went to Africa and dug a well.”

Power up.

Admissions essays cap it off. Imagine having to write an About page that some detached, disinterested panel of judges will, well, judge. Imagine having your entire future at stake, based on what they think of your writing about yourself.

I sound like I hate students, but I don’t. I like them.

Asking them to have it all together in a way that enables them to write confidently about themselves, using a format that makes vastly more experienced people want to vomit, is awful.

There’s nothing wrong with an average life, if it’s your average life. There’s no need to be a hero or prove yourself. Being yourself is being a hero. Being yourself requires all the courage you’ve got. Being yourself is enough. But these identity requirements create pressure. You’ve got to have more to say about yourself — and it better be impressive — if you’re going to get anywhere in life.

When I was a high school student, I knew absolutely nothing about nothing. Now that I am decades past high school, I know absolutely nothing about very little. I’ve progressed.

I still hate writing about myself.

Why is it so tough to write about ourselves? It’s all about being vulnerable.

Quick, raise your hand if you enjoy making yourself vulnerable in front of strangers.

No one?

Writing about ourselves is being vulnerable. It’s defining our identity. It’s making a stand. It’s saying, “Here’s what I’m about and what I can do and why I’m valuable.”

As soon as you say that, you’ve created two big risks:

  • The risk of being trapped, and
  • The risk of being judged.

When you define yourself, you’re expected to stick to the self-definition. Forever.

The risk of being trapped

We all create expectations for each other. If I meet your expectations, we’re cool. If I don’t meet your expectations, we might still be cool. Especially if we don’t have any previous interaction. You might be pleasantly surprised. You might be uncomfortable but accepting.

But if I meet your expectations for a while and then — without warning, without explanation, without reason — stop meeting those expectations… 
We will not be cool.

You will feel betrayed, because I’ve stepped out of my defined identity. Now you don’t know what to expect from me. I broke the pattern. I’m making you nervous.

We might not talk about this stuff, but we understand it. Patterns and agreements are how society works. We know that the identity we create is a role. We know that playing the role is how we get acceptance in a group. We know that failing in the role is how we get kicked out of a group. And we know that being ostracized and isolated is death. Humans are tribal creatures. Yeah, even the introverts.

So when you write about yourself, you have a big gut fear thing that’s saying: “BETTER BE CAREFUL! DON’T COMMIT TO ANYTHING YOU CAN’T MAINTAIN.”

The fear of being judged

That fear is directly at war with the other fear, which is fear of being judged.

We want to impress people. We want to be liked and accepted. We want to attract the right connections with our identity.

We want approval!


Group hugs!

Okay, maybe not group hugs for everyone.

But approval? Yeah. We’re all about that.

And that’s okay. But when the desire for approval cripples us (as it often does) or — worse — convinces us to act like something we’re not, it can escalate into a bad situation.

We find ourselves forming relationships that don’t work, participating in groups we don’t enjoy, pursuing interests we don’t like, spending money we don’t have, wasting time we can’t get back, chasing things we don’t value.

But the alternative — being judged and rejected — seems like it must be worse.

So we continue self-defining an identity that we may or may not truly desire, and then we do our best to play the role we’ve created.

We want to be careful so we don’t over-extend and risk trapping ourselves into something we can’t maintain. We also want to be impressive so we get what we want and aren’t judged negatively.

There’s also a fear of being trapped in something that we’ll outgrow. Would you want to be evaluated now based on your preferred self-expression as a sixth grader? Uh, no.

When we have to write about ourselves, all those fears, those internal conflicts, those psychological baits and traps and pits and mazes, all of them, flood our minds and terrify us. It’s too much for us to think about. It’s too much to overcome.

We lock up, we shut down, we do other metaphors related to not being able to move forward.

Eventually — if we can’t get out of this about me writing requirement — we force something onto the page, hate it, and pretend not to care.

How to write about yourself

I still don’t like writing about myself but I’m better at it. It can get easier. Try these methods.

  1. Write about yourself in third person. You have to get out of that headspace of judging and fearing judgment. Most of us (sadly) are kinder to other people than we are to ourselves. If you can step away from the self-judgment, and look at yourself as if you’re seeing someone else, you’ll be better at describing what you see.
  2. Be targeted in what you’re writing. Every “about you” writing need has a purpose. If you think for a while about what the purpose is, it’s easier to write. Think about who’s going to read it. Think about connections you have with that person or group. Make those connections or shared interest points the focus of what you write.
  3. Think of every self-description as temporary. Because it is. You’re growing and changing all the time. You can only describe yourself as you exist at a single moment.
  4. Remember that every self-description is limited. Even limited to a single moment, you can only describe so much about who you are. You’re infinite, but your *about page* is finite. You have to make choices about what to include, but these choices don’t signify your values. Describing yourself as a writer doesn’t mean you’ve devalued your role as a parent.
  5. Free write about yourself for a set amount of time. Ten minutes is a good start. Free writing means you sit down and write and don’t stop until the time is up. It can be very stream-of-consciousness. In this method, though, limit your stream to writing consciously about yourself. Ten minutes doesn’t seem long, but if you’re writing the whole time, you can get a lot said. Then you pick out the bits you like best, rearrange them, and you’re set.
  6. Use all the tools and help you have. Ask other people to describe you. Take a poll. Copy the basic structure of someone else’s bio. Use templates. These are ways to make something difficult easier on yourself. There’s nothing noble about axing a door open when you could have used the key.
  7. Write multiple versions. I know, when something’s difficult to write the last thing you want to do is write more of it. But multiple versions give you freedom to mess up. You’re afraid of messing up, and that’s why writing is difficult. Write three versions and you’re safe: you can mess up two of them and be good to go. You can mess up parts of all three, pull out the parts you didn’t mess up, and you’re good to go. Pressure removed.

Photo by Lorraine Steriopol on Unsplash