I’ve had a few conversations lately about self-doubt. And by that I mean I’ve had a few conversations out loud, and with other people, lately. I actually have conversations on a regular basis with myself about it. And I’ve been thinking about how we trouble ourselves so with it, pay so much attention to it, give it way more credence than it deserves. Now, I say “we” here, but I don’t necessarily mean you. I guess I mean lots of people, but maybe you aren’t one of them; maybe you aren’t plagued by self-doubt, or have learned to wrestle it to the ground. I rather hope you aren’t and you have, so you can reply to this post and tell us your secret. From what I’ve been observing though, plenty of people struggle with doubt, and plenty of mothers among them.
One of the things “they” teach (us) in A.A. is the idea that “feelings aren’t facts.” Now this idea probably doesn’t sit well with many folks, because it could suggest that feelings aren’t real or don’t count or shouldn’t be noted; it separates emotional life from rational life; it separates mind from body, and so on. And I agree that these are some problematic directions that the adage could take us. But there are some useful directions it could take us too, including the idea that having an inkling about something, being needled by a thought, taking a notion, doesn’t mean ipso facto that one is wrestling with a truth. That you feel inadequate in this area or that one isn’t the same as you are inadequate. Getting a sense or an impression doesn’t absolutely require your full blown attention; you may in fact benefit from treating that sense or impression with a healthy dose of disregard. I have often heard it said we can’t help the way we feel. But actually, we can help the way we feel. It’s not as if there is one level of feeling and either you have it or you don’t. It’s not as if a given feeling is either present and loud and true and in total command of our attention, or it’s absent, of its own will, and has thankfully seen fit to offer us reprieve by withdrawing. We do have some say over the presence and absence of feelings, their volume, their command, their advance or retreat. We don’t just have to wait around until they have their way with us. There are some protective and self defense measures we can take that will situate us to be less vulnerable to this feeling or that. We don’t have to be victims of our feelings and their whims.
I was talking with a spiritually lovely woman the other day who was wrestling with self-doubt, with impressions of herself as “stupid” because she wasn’t performing the way she wanted to in a class. We talked about how performance in a particular arena doesn’t make one “smart” or “stupid.” And we talked about how feeling not competent does not mean there is a fact that one is not competent, a fact to which one owes her energy and focus and esteem. I shared with her what I’m not finished learning: that feeling something doesn’t make it so, and that the presence of the self-doubt isn’t the problem so much as how much attention one decides to give it. I suspect I may never be free of my own esteem and doubt issues. But I could release myself from their constricting grip and I could keep them at bay. Another woman, from whom I’ve had the great fortune of receiving much needed life guidance, suggested a few years ago that I watch the film A Beautiful Mind again. She talked about the sometimes shadowy, sometimes formidable figure of William Parcher (played by Ed Harris) in the mind of John Nash (played by Russell Crowe). Nash is plagued by Parcher’s presence until he learns to keep Parcher in the shadows and regard him less fully (Parcher never goes away entirely). The story is about other and larger elements of course, but for me the take home point was that the presence of figures or notions or feelings doesn’t mean, to bring it down a little bit, that they’re the boss of you. The say they that have in your life and self image can be brought to a whisper, maybe even an imperceptible one. Ideally of course, they would be silenced altogether, but I think we waste a lot of time and energy waiting for that to happen, allowing them “boss” status in the meantime, only to learn that those needling insecurities are never silenced and may in fact have been amplified while we were waiting for them to leave. The inspiration of A Beautiful Mind for me was the way in which Nash learns, through much purposeful effort, to relegate Parcher to the shadows much of the time, and figures out how to function despite Parcher’s (now distant) company. The Parcher figure functions for me as a metaphor for my self-doubt and insecurity and for accepting that these may always linger for me. But I have the say in how much they command my attention and use up my energy, and how much I have left for the company of interesting, nourishing thoughts and people.