My self-doubt gets in everywhere—the way a cold draught gusts through a gap under my door.
No matter how I try to block it out, that chilled air never entirely stops breezing through the rooms.
In the same way, my negative self-talk strikes, blowing through conversations, although no one can hear them but me. It’s almost like illness, except that no dose of antibiotics or triple scotch can ever cure it.
And self-talk haunts everything I do, every day. Applying for a job? Fixing the roof guttering? Giving a speech? That self-talk is always echoing around the back of my mind telling me, “No, you can’t—you’ll fail.”
How did that voice get in there? It arrived like an unwelcome person in a shared house—the one who’s always late with the rent, who uses the last cup of milk, and never washes those coffee rings from inside cups. My self-talk is someone who has to be evicted rather than leaving voluntarily.
That self-talk may have arrived in my life a couple of different ways. There’s every chance it might be genetic—it could be a part of me as much as I have my mother’s nose or my father’s love for music, or possibly, I have been conditioned this way.
As a child, every piece of schoolwork, attempt at art, wobble down the driveway on a bike, or swing of a bat was subjected to criticism and a bitter chorus of, “You aren’t trying—you’re hopeless, and you will never succeed.”
Having self-doubt is exhausting. I second-guess every decision and every action. Every time I attempt something for the first time, I’m convinced I won’t be able to do it before I even start. Ask me to straighten a fence, learn a new software, put up a curtain, or build a bookshelf, and my first words would be, “I can’t.”
I’ve turned back from learning a musical instrument, a new language, persisting with Excel, asking out Janet, and building a barbecue that arrived like one of those thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles.
So I take the safe route—the route of doing nothing. I might aspire to a few goals, which initially seems achievable. I go to bed warmed and hopeful with them, yet I wake to be intimidated by the thought of following through.
By breakfast, I abandon my objectives—or at least I’m procrastinating. I vacuum, scrub around the bottom of the sink, rearrange a drawer, or trim back the hydrangea bent over with soccer ball flowers. I do anything but make plans that would commit me to the task—anything but attempt an actual progress.
Self-doubt makes me work in subtle ways. I may complete the first couple of steps, as long as they’re easy. Merely to say (especially to myself), there’s progress—this is more about activity than outcome. This is where I can blunt others (and yes, especially myself) by being able to declare that I started—things are going well; first step done. I might even announce it on Facebook.
Self-doubt makes it difficult to argue. I have plenty of points of views—ranging from social justice, consumer rights, politics, to environment. I write well-constructed letters to politicians or add a reasoned comment to social media. But I probably won’t debate out loud with others. My self-talk would already be hard at work, letting me know I’m not articulate enough or able to think on my feet to carry out the discussion. It’s not as simple as being an introvert or an extrovert—the negative self-talk shuts me down.
As for the self-help training courses, I love them—they promise to reinvent me. I’ll be reborn, motivated, and in charge of my life to build the change I need. They promise to boost my self-esteem.
The best part of that course is that I only believe in personal change within the walls of a classroom. In no time, I am convinced that I’ll face the world with bravery and take on the challenges that I couldn’t face yesterday. Sure, I’m in. But $600 and one day later I’m the same person I was when filling out the enrollment form.
Within the confines of a room filled with people grappling with the same problems as me, the whiteboard, the brewed coffee at 10 a.m., and the small group role-play, I’m lifted up and motivated by our facilitator—for a short time.
But on walking out into the stifling winter air, I’m the same inadequate person I was when participating in the icebreaker, announcing I was a manager, a father, a chef in my own kitchen, and an occasional gardener.
There’s a wisdom about how many days it takes to break a habit. They say when we learn something different for the first time, we perform it under stress, and we revert back to our old behaviors. I don’t need a textbook to understand the truth of that—I’ve been there.
I’ve heard the behavioral models, the theories, the comfort zones, the path of least resistance, and so on. All I have to do is to attempt to edge my way out—maybe sideways rather than forward. At my age, it could be said I’m as set as concrete—the same way as that dirty, grey surface with all the scratches and chip marks that can never be fixed.
So once again, I try to ease my way into something that my self-talk tells me will result in failure.
But I do it, anyway.
I’m trying to talk over the top of that negative inner voice. For a few precious moments, I drown it out and actually believe I can do this.