Self-Doubt – Part 2

A Cultural Norm?

Before I began researching self-doubt I’d often heard it referred to as useful or important and that without it one might become arrogant. This often struck me as being at odds with the harsh, critical and self-limiting reality of self-doubt. If the opposite of self-doubt were arrogance no wonder it seemed to be such a widely accepted norm.

However, what if true self confidence has nothing to do with being an extrovert, demonstrative or even successful. What if it has everything to do with simply trusting oneself? As such the opposite of self-doubt is not arrogance or an inflated sense of confidence but actually trust and self belief.

When I trust in myself the world around me feels like a safer place to be, my faith in others is stronger and I’m more resilient to deal with life’s challenges. When I don’t have belief or faith in myself I’m faced with self-doubt wherever I go. The world is full of uncertainty and I feel both vulnerable and a victim to a world where others have all the power, success and happiness.

Internal querying of ourselves and the world is a natural and normal mechanism, which can also be regarded as our moral compass that assesses what the right thing to do or say is. Self-doubt is part of this mechanism but it turns the querying into criticism. Because of the important moral aspect it is no wonder we confuse critical self-doubt with being so important. However it is self-regulation that is important. Self-regulation is the internal assessment process that supports our journey through our lives.

In my next blog I outline the two aspects of self-doubt and self-regulation the purpose of which is to provide a simple tool for empowering ourselves and navigating beyond the self-limitation. I argue that self-regulation is the important device that assesses what is right for me as well as the world around me whilst self-doubt is a defensive position that keeps me limited and withdrawn from my life.

Understanding self-doubt as a cultural norm means we can step beyond it and make different choices. As such we can shift our attention away from unhelpful internal dialogues and towards that which helps us grow and live more fulfilling lives.

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Self-Doubt – Part 1

‘My encounter’

Some time ago I decided to embark on a research MA in psychotherapy. Prior to commencing I had spent a couple of years researching my chosen topic. As a result I felt quite confident and prepared as I approached the initial stages of the programme. However, as I proceeded I was soon faced with familiar feelings of withdrawal that I recognised as self-doubt. Suddenly my chosen subject, my abilities and capacities were all brought into question. This habitual encounter with self-doubt, I realised, would often result in me abandoning similar endeavours. From here I became aware of numerous projects deserted and strewn throughout my past. I also now understood how my ongoing encounter with self-doubt continually directed me away from my true nature and, as such, authentic expressions of myself. The sort of internal dialogues around self-doubt that I found myself grappling with included – I’m not good enough – I can’t do this – I’m going to fail – I need to be perfect – there’s something wrong with me  – who do I think I am?- and so on. Self-doubt seemed only to serve to keep me small and as such my life limited. The question that now rose was – why?

As I next considered how to proceed, and with the prospect of two years of research ahead of me, I wondered why I hadn’t chosen self-doubt as my research topic as it was rich data that I had immediate access to. With that thought I was suddenly alive with inspiration and it was as if my new topic had chosen me and it now felt unavoidable. Until I turned to face self-doubt and made this my focus I knew I would continue to struggle with it as a limitation.

Therefore, my initial proposal was replaced by the topic of self-doubt. From now on any doubt or uncertainties would become part of the research and the heart of the investigation. Other areas of interest went on hold until I uncovered the nature of self-doubt and understood its origins. I decided to put myself at the centre of the research and used active imagination through which to explore the subject. This took the form of meditations, visualisations, journalling and dream analysis from which I designed a workshop where I would compare my findings with that of others who also encountered self-doubt as a limitation within their lives.

The question that took me into the research became – what is the nature of self-doubt and how can active imagination enable both understanding and transformation? As I progressed over the next two years it became clear that very little has been written on the subject despite many of us struggling with self-doubt. People around me as well as clients I worked with often construed it as being their greatest difficulty. Whenever I asked clients to rate their experiences of depression, anxiety, anger, fear etc, self-doubt was often the one they identified immediately and rated the most prominent. Like me, it seemed to stand in the way of whatever they wished to do, say or be.

The following series of blogs entitled Self-Doubt – Parts 1-5′ chart my experiences and findings from the two year research period. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Learning to stay

When our life situations challenge us in ways that are uncomfortable our natural urge is to move towards comfort as quickly as possible. We react negatively to the unpleasant sensations that arise in our bodies as a result of what has entered through our sense doors. By this I mean, what we’ve heard, seen, smelt, tasted, felt or thought. Information that enters these door causes discord and conflict within our internal landscape. This can be a very painful experience and because we don’t like it we fight to return to what we do like and to the comfort of certainty and safety.
On the surface there is nothing wrong with wanting to be comfortable and free of pain. However we all know that discomfort and conflict is part of our lived experience. We can’t avoid it and the more we cling to comfort, safety and certainty the more we’re unhappy when we don’t have it. In other words avoiding the challenges of life is unsustainable. This is not to say that we need to seek discomfort but instead learn to acknowledge it and thus master it rather than the challenging situation master us.
By having an aversion to the discomfort we conversely amplify it. If we can learn to observe it rather than identify with it we begin to build a better relationship with the disquiet of life. Of course this is easier said than done.
One way we can do this is by ‘learning to stay’. This is a very useful tool and is something the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron teaches in ‘Getting unstuck’. Learning to stay literally means waiting. When anguish, stress, illness, anger, fear and all the painful experiences of life appear we can just stay with it and as Pema says, “relax into it and pour some loving kindness into the whole situation”. By this she means kindness to ourselves and the whole human condition.
We spend a great deal of time setting up avoidance strategies. This might mean drinking, taking drugs, watching TV, becoming workaholics etc. The restlessness of loneliness and boredom is a big discomfort in our human experience. To avoid this we may distract ourselves with texting or immersing ourselves in the internet. What ways do you distract yourself from discomfort?
I know I find learning to stay very difficult but the more I practice the easier it gets – for example, I may have a desire to feel good. Therefore, when conflict comes into my life I might have a need to sort it out as quickly as possible. Over the years I’ve learnt to stay a bit longer with whatever the discomfort might be and I’ve found that one of the keys in learning to stay is the understanding that everything changes. When we’re in the grip of difficulties we have the tendency to believe they’re never going to end and nothing is ever going to change. We catastrophise but everything in our lives and in nature is in constant flux.
Staying with it, knowing that everything changes and being kind to ourselves are key to working with discomfort and personal challenge. Learning to stay is something we can apply to all aspects of our life, from the smallest irritation to the greatest trauma, it is a useful tool in the journey through our lives.