Ruminations on Self-Doubt

Who doesn’t have it now and then (or in some sad cases, perpetually)? And what makes it so oppressive? If you could turn it off with a switch, would you?

It would be nice to think that once you reach a certain point on your path that you no longer have to deal with the dern thing. Like once you get the job you’ve been training for or the skill level you’ve been busting your ass to achieve. The trouble is that once you clear that high bar, someone raises it. Maybe you do. And maybe it’s just the nature of the mind: to churn on about what is real, what is meant . . . the “yikes” question, Who am I? What’s my purpose? That probably why we seek complacency, laziness–it’s just easier to shut down. Whatever.

Writers know it. Virginia Woolf describes it in her great Room of One’s Own, when she says, “Think of Tennyson; think–but I need hardly multiply the instances of the undeniable, if very, unfortunate, fact that it is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him [or her]. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others” (56). Since she also devotes an entire chapter to Shakespeare’s sister, who died at the crossroads and is kin to other women known as “Anon,” we know also that there is plenty of wreckage of women. I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you too, can become great.” Well, I don’t know about great in the Great sense, but there’s a lot to be said about building a network of friends that believe in you and affirm your worth. And alongside that is this reality: you have to build coalition and community with people who either don’t recognize the Wonders of You or who don’t know how to show it, some so wounded and closed off themselves that it’s like bouncing off a sealed sphere.

University professors know it. When we collect our student evaluations and 98% of the comments are positive, those 2% nasty are what keep us up at night. I remember one particularly unhappy class of Intro to Literature–no matter how great the story, how beautiful the image, how profound the phrase, they chattered among themselves and started packing their backpacks ten minutes before “the bell.” I vowed I’d teach anything (give me the most tiresome ENG 300) than watch what I loved dragged through the dirt by these heathen. My mother, not a university professor but teaching for a few years in her twenties at a high school, wrote, “This morning, of a sudden, I just knew I didn’t want anymore of small high schools and sassy kids. Next time I teach I hope it’ll be at least be a junior college and MUSIC.” If I had been born then, I might have leaned over and said, “Mom, don’t expect them to love music the way you do.” But I don’t want to discredit students categorically because that would be a horrible thing to do to all those who love learning and appreciate their teachers. It’s just those harsh comments that are hard to take. It might be different if they weren’t anonymous–are they empowered by invisibility to “tell the truth,” or does the anonymity become a screen that they can hide behind, sword in hand? Passive aggressive–sucking up for the grade, then snarling on the evaluation. I guess the same thing happens when faculty do evaluations of administrators–all that anger surges out. As a dean friend of mind said with a laugh, “Oh, you learn all kinds of things you didn’t know about yourself!”

Anyway, students know it, parents know it, I suppose even politicians know it. Self-doubt is as human as hunger. While looking around for easy answers (laziness–but I did know the Woolf quote, as I’m reverent when it comes to Virginia), I found this little exercise by Mahatma Ghandi:

Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore that person to a control over his or her own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

I’m not sure how effective that will be; if you can put yourself on a continuum with the “poorest and weakest person whom you have seen,” even for a few moments, the exercise will likely have you scolding yourself for your self-indulgence, spoiled self-centered, selfi-ness. But then you’ll probably go back to fretting, your mind scooting away from those uncomfortable for something more familiar.

Heroes know it. Martin Luther King, radiant light, also suffered from self-doubt, at least according to the Staff of the King Papers Project, who note that “Rather than exhibiting unwavering confidence in his power and wisdom, King was a leader full of self-doubts, keenly aware of his own limitations and human weaknesses.” Perhaps that’s the key or part of it–to be aware of one’s limitations and weaknesses, to struggle with doubt, but to refuse to be crippled by them–to hold in front of one some grand purpose that can silence those petty ego dramas.

The Dalai Lama says self-doubt is a form of laziness, muddling us in inaction. He also says–and it’s probably my favorite quotation–I usually find reason to say this in every class I teach–“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” A little self-forgiveness can go a long way to get us over self-doubt, don’t you think?

As Gloria Steinem, the great feminist leader said, “Measure yourself by the real, not the ideal.” which I revise to: “not the ideal or small-minded.”

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