A Beautiful Life Despite Self-Doubt

10 Nov

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.


Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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3 responses to “A Beautiful Life Despite Self-Doubt

  1. Jane Chelliah

    November 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    I heard something quite revealing about women from the head of a large organisation in the UK. He said that women have to be encouraged to apply for jobs that they are perfectly qualified to apply for on promotion whereas men will ‘give it a go’. Sometimes women are their own biggest self-critic but it is also learned behaviour from young when girls are made to try harder.

  2. machupchu

    November 11, 2011 at 11:09 am

    i think i could be the poster child for self doubt as it took me a decade to finally realize that my graduate program did not admit me by mistake and that hmmm… maybe they think i am smart. even when i started teaching as an adjunct, i kept telling my best girlfriend as we sat in the adjunct office that i could easily disappear as a teacher but she kept reminding me that i had the keys to the office, lol. i tried to wonder why i was plagued w/so much self doubt and for me, it was growing up with a critical mother and marrying a critical husband. i still love them both because they are not evil (maybe sometimes) but they are a part of who i am today. when my girlfriend and i lol about how i grew up in the ghetto, being a latch key kid with a cold mother who had her own issues to deal with, she would remind me that it was living that life, having that mother who made me the wonderful and strong person that i am. learning more about buddhism has also helped me see that there is no good or bad and that all those critical people in my life can be a gift to me because they teach me how to stand up strong for myself and to trust my instincts even when everyone around me is telling me otherwise.

    my children have also taught me some of the greatest lessons in my life. when my daughter was born, i wasn’t set on nursing her. i figured, i would try it and if it didn’t work out, i’d use formula. she is born after 41 hours of labor and i become obsessed with trying to nurse her. i was a mess cause i couldn’t get her to latch on correctly, sore as hell, bleeding nipples, the whole gamut. no one seemed to be able to help me, the lc said everything looked good as i was in pain, the LLL was yelling at me over the phone, i was crying, the baby was crying. my husband was telling me to stop torturing myself and just feed her formula and if looks could kill… i was pumping every 2-3 hours, 24/7. the sleep deprivation was insane. i ended pumping every 2-3 hours, 24/7 for 6 months straight. i had excruciating clogged ducts for those 6 months, emailed dr. newman for help and he said that i could have ultrasound to break up the clogs but they could also go away on their own in 6 months which they did. that was a dark time in my life but it taught me that i had fallen into the hell of intensive mothering with a big spoonful of neoliberalism. i learned a very valuable lesson which was that i had to listen to myself and not the doctors, AAP, LLL, or all the people who told me formula was just fine. with each baby, i felt more confident listening to myself and telling others to stfu and that green eyed monster of self doubt began to rear its ugly head less often.
    so i guess it is worthwhile to try to think deeply as to where the source of self doubt is coming from and to take each opportunity to do what u feel is right for you. i always tell my students that it’s my rational brain that usually gets me in trouble but the older i get, the more i realize that my gut instinct has never led me astray. and it has been my gut instinct that has led me my passion in research which is to create a new model of how women r taught to breastfeed that is not based on listening to outside “experts” but to bring the focus back to the 2 most important players, the mom & her baby. i defend my dissertation next month.

    • Dr. Mama

      November 16, 2011 at 9:26 pm

      Thanks machupchu for posting. Sorry it took me so long to get your post up! I really did approve it like a week ago on my phone…I was surprised to see it never posted–sorry! Sounds like you have undergone some amazing growth in your motherhood journey. It’s so hard to figure out how much to grab onto from the ‘experts’ and how much to release. And so hard to see in the rough moments how there can possibly be a lesson in there somewhere. Congratulations on getting to this point in your intellectual travels, and best of luck in your defense. Let me know when to refer to you as Dr. Machupchu 🙂


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