I almost didn’t post today because it’s finals week, and I still have a lot to grade. But I’m determined to keep to my schedule, so today’s post may be a little bit more raw than usual.
I’m learning that writing and teaching don’t mix as well as I had hoped. But when I don’t write, I am hard on myself and begin to doubt my abilities.
I just wrote a short post about how to keep writing through self-doubt, but this applies to more than just writers and artists. Self-doubt is universal; it can cripple teachers, software developers, parents, and students. While there are those few people who miraculously have no self-doubt (and, often, we wish they did), most of us question our abilities, which keeps us from living courageously.
We believe that courage is only for the naturally bold or perfect. It’s for the people who know they can’t fail.
But courage isn’t the absence of fear. If it was, we wouldn’t have to be courageous. Courage is doing something despite fear—and despite self-doubt.
I am the worst person to be writing about this topic because self-doubt is my weakness. I may always have self-doubt—who knows?—but there are a few things that have helped me act despite it.
1. I had to want something more than I was afraid of it
Fear of failure can stop us from doing many things. When I started college, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I wasn’t worried about the academics; I was worried about coping with anxiety as a student. But I wanted to be a student so badly. I wanted to study literature and improve my writing and make friends. Most of all, I knew that I needed to go to college because it would make me a better, stronger, and braver person.
Doing something that you are afraid of that you also don’t want to do is a challenge. Sometimes we are forced to do things we don’t want, such as having blood tested or getting an Iv (I hate needles). Other times, as a teenager, I would have opportunities to do things that didn’t appeal to me enough to risk a panic attack. To be frank, few things were worth that to me, so I spent many years avoiding things that I probably would have enjoyed.
When we have self-doubt, it’s often a fear of failure that makes us want to avoid something. But if we are afraid of failure, it must mean that we really want to succeed. To overcome self-doubt, we have to want whatever it is more than we’re afraid of failure.
Several years ago, I listened to an episode of the Big Magic podcast by Elizabeth Gilbert. In an interview with Brene Brown, they discussed fear of failure and addressed the common saying, “What would you do if you couldn’t fail?” This question may expand our list of things we would try, but it doesn’t go far enough. Gilbert and Brown suggested a re-phrasing of the question:
“What would you do even if you failed?”
This question shifts our mindset about the end goal of trying something. What if success wasn’t the point? What if the trying in itself was part of the goal, or even the entire goal?
This isn’t just a way to sugar-coat failure. Failure is hard. It’s painful. But failure only happens to the people who are willing to try something hard—and those people are pretty darn brave.
2. I had to see self-doubt as a sign of growth
There are many kinds of self-doubt, and any time we indulge in it we are not utilizing our minds in a healthy way. But self-doubt is often triggered by the realization we aren’t as good at something as we would like to be.
I envy some kids for their lack of self-doubt as they dance or sing or color. They proudly hold up their fifth attempt ever at drawing of a stick person as if it should be hung next to the Mona Lisa. It’s adorable—but if everyone stayed in that mode of unsubstantiated pride, they would never get better.
We can either see self-doubt as our mind’s way of telling us we aren’t good enough; or we can see it as our mind’s way of telling us that we can get better.
The important thing is to stop self-doubt from bullying us by turning it into constructive criticism. Instead of, “This story is terrible, and I’m a terrible writer,” we can think, “My gut is telling me something is wrong with this story. I wonder what it is?” Then we can re-examine our work or ourselves with curiosity instead of hate and consider what we can actively do to improve.
3. I had to trust God over myself
Often, self-doubt is ultimately doubt in God. This may sound extreme when I’m talking about writing a story, but it is very true when I’m talking about doubting my ability to overcome anxiety or do something I’m afraid of.
Oswald Chambers wrote: “If we are honest, we will admit that we never have misgivings or doubts about ourselves, because we know exactly what we are capable or incapable of doing. But we do have misgivings about Jesus. And our pride is hurt even at the thought that He can do what we can’t.” (See “Our Misgivings About Jesus”)
My imagination is powerful, and I can imagine failing in a million ways. But I am not meant to do anything on my own, and God can turn the biggest failures into victories. We have to let go of our human perspective of what success and failure is and open our eyes to what God is doing.
4. I had to remember what I had done
Finally, I often have to remind myself of how much I have grown. I want to be the best version of myself and produce the best results possible. But the truth is that I am still growing and will continue growing until I am in heaven. When I can’t see the end results, I can at least look back at the beginning and how much growth has happened since then.
Don’t let self-doubt stop you. Let it teach you and remind you to look back and to look up.