Thursday, January 17, 2008

How to Slay the Dragon of Self-Doubt

Loyal reader and friend Erzsebet brought up an extremely important point in her comment on the "How to Be Humble" post:

However, one should always be careful to not confuse humble humility with self-doubt. Both start with, "I can't do this...". In the case of a positive, humble attitude, the formulation completes with, "I can't do this alone." Self-doubt begins and ends with "I can't do this." Pernicious little fabricator that self-doubt is, it will try and gussy itself up with, "I can't do this until ..." or "I can't do this without {some set of things far outside of my control}." It looks rather obvious to spot, but I've found it's not always the obvious trap one might expect.

Right on! In fact, self-doubt is one of the most debilitating of all the obstacles on your journey toward experiencing bliss.

Erzsebet has already done a great job explicating how you recognize self-doubt (and how you distinguish it from a healthy sense of humility), so I'd like to explore what to do once you realize that what you're saying is, "Oh, I can't do that."

Self-doubt, first of all, is usually based in fear. Often, it is fear of humiliation. Which, of course, is often linked with fear of failure. If you say, "Oh, I can't try out for the community theater because I'm just no good," but really, inside, you know that's what you want, that it's something that voice inside has been asking for for a long time, that maybe you even did okay in high school or college drama courses, then it's fear that's keeping you from trying to go further.

You think, "I'll get up there and audition and everyone will laugh at me." Well, maybe they will, and maybe they won't. If they do, what is the worst that can happen? You feel a bit embarrassed, or disappointed. Those feelings are tough, no doubt. But will you survive them? Of course you will. You will also learn something--about your abilities, your reactions, your motivations and determination. That challenge will strengthen you. You will decide, based on feedback, whether you have it in you to keep trying, and how badly you want it. If you want it bad enough, you will find a way to learn more, get better, practice, or do whatever it is you need to do to make progress toward your goal.

If they don't laugh at you, but instead ask you to keep going, imagine: you are actively pursuing a goal, and you are steering your destiny, no longer allowing life to pass you by. Your confidence will grow, and you will begin to bloom with that nurturing. Your heart's desire will begin to be answered, and your life will grow more full.

Seriously, is the threat of a little disappointment enough to keep you away from what might be possible?

I do not mean to undermine the fears involved; I know from personal experience how crippling they can be. But there are ways to get a handle on them before they get too outsized and take control.

  1. Speak your fears aloud. Sometimes what runs through your brain silently can grow and get a chokehold on your thoughts and emotions, but when you say out loud, "I'm afraid if I audition, everyone will laugh at me and think I'm wretched," it sounds less terrifying. Maybe not pleasant, but a lot less terrifying.
  2. Exaggerate your fears. You might be doing this anyway in your head, but go ahead and really take it to the extreme. Make it as ridiculous as possible. So, "If I audition, people will laugh at me, and write down my name on a secret list of people who should be forevermore banned from theater auditions, and I will never be happy again. Life as I know it will be over, and I will have to hide my face in shame wherever I go." Do you see what I mean? Of course it would never get this bad, but by exaggerating it, you get to laugh a bit at your fears and diminish their power.
  3. Do something you're not afraid of to start. So maybe you can't just jump up for a full-fledged audition. Can you get involved in some small element of theater that you're not afraid of? Can you volunteer to send out postcards for the local community theater's annual fundraiser? Or can you perform a small monologue in front of someone who doesn't scare you, like a trusted friend or family member? (Even if it's your 6-month old?) Getting closer to what you want in increments is just fine, and takes the paralysis of fear out of the equation.
Self-doubt, is, as Erzsebet said, pernicious. It rarely serves any good purpose, and usually is a way to make excuses to not do what scares you. You're not scared because you're no good, likely. You're likely scared because you know you might be good at it, and you might have to grow and acknowledge some dormant aspect of yourself. Your comfortable life might have to change. It might be more exciting and fulfilling, but yes, things might change. If you can remember that life changes around you whether you want it to or not, you might be able to slay that dragon of self-doubt and grow into the role you've been meant to play all along.

I hope this post has given you a sword with which to slay that dragon. (Apparently I'm obsessed with killing all kinds of fairy-tale creatures this week. Excuse my uncharacteristic violence. But hey, sometimes you gotta get your hands--or sword--dirty.)

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1 comment:

erzsebet said...

Thank you, Tiffany, for following up on my comment. You are quite right: stating the problem is only the beginning of the (dragon-slaying) battle. Determining strategy is the next step, and I think you've added three good weapons to the self-doubt battler's armament. I have a technique I'd like to suggest, which I think would be something like "3a" in your list, because it is along the same lines.

In my experience, self-doubt sneaks in most forcefully when I forget that every task has discrete steps. For instance, on a ten mile run, starting out thinking of all ten miles made the distance seem unfathomable, unattainable. But to think, "OK, I'm going to start with two miles and see how I feel" took a lot of the psychological pressure off of the idea of running a long distance. With the pressure gone, it gave me permission to go as far as my body could take me, sometimes several miles beyond the original ten. By breaking the problem down into the discrete sections, each section becomes less intimidating and thus more attainable.

There were times, of course, when two miles was as far as I could go. Self-doubt sneered, laughed. The trick, then, was to realize that not every run would be a Personal Record, that sometimes I'm just not well-rested or well-fueled enough to accomplish the bigger goal. I found that practicing compassion towards myself allowed me to rest, refuel, and come back strong for the next run. Even self-doubt has difficulty jeering in the face of true compassion, and it's acceptance that the journey isn't going to be perfect that allows us to pick ourselves up and go on running or writing a novel or learning Italian. Whatever the goal, there will be off-days, and compassion is a good tool to fend off a resurgence of self-doubt.

- erzsebet