Slinking, creeping, unraveling doubt.
It’s a burden you know too well. That point halfway through a workout when the voice inside your head starts pounding against your eardrums, telling you you’re too tired, too sick, or too weak to go on. Or out in the world when you convince yourself you’re too fat to wear that dress, too old to play that sport, or too green to do that job. It’s a sensation so overwhelming that you find yourself practically submerged in it, like a liquid skepticism, viscous and disgusting. You rationalize, “Hey, it’s alright… it’s just the way things are. Those dresses are for skinny minnies, those sports are for the young bucks, and that job… well, I’ll bide my time and get there eventually.” But deep down you’re hating yourself, resenting your size, your age, your inexperience, or whatever relative weaknesses you have. You wish you were more fearless, more driven, and more secure, but life has taught you well your incapacities and it’s not your place to argue.
The truth is we’d much rather assume defeat than face our weaknesses head on—far better to avoid the mirror than risk a humiliating sidelong glimpse. In essence, doubt is a mechanism designed to protect our ego from this very confrontation. Years of experience and pain have honed our instincts to sidestep landmines of embarrassment and grief, conditioning us to be chronic under-estimators. On the whole we have grown habitually and pathetically risk-averse.
The problem with this way of living is twofold. First, we forget what it’s like to face a challenge, thus neglecting the skills needed to overcome it. Whichever way you slice it, life is hard and emotionally uncomfortable. It is never quick or easy, and it is harshly unapologetic. In order to truly grow we must be willing to live on the margins and step outside our comfort zone, in many cases risking failure. We need to tap into stores of courage and determination that most days lie collecting dust. If we don’t, they lose their potency and condemn us to chronic intimidation. Then on that day when we no longer have a choice, when we can't avoid the issue or sidestep the mines any longer, we don't have what it takes to survive. You find yourself on an operating table with 3 stints in your heart and no idea how you got there, no idea how to recover. Or you wake up geriatric at 55, unable to pick up your grandkids for fear you might pinch a nerve or slip a disc. Such is not the intended way.
Second, and perhaps more dangerously, we begin to identify more with what we can’t do than with what we can. This is because, in the absence of real confrontation, our doubts become our reality. It doesn’t matter how irrational or ill-conceived the reasoning, the man obsessed with his age looks older by the day; the woman refusing to try on the dress grows less and less likely to ever wear it. If we keep inundating ourselves with notions of inability, we will always struggle to improve. If halfway through every workout you keep telling yourself it can’t be done, chances are it never will be. Soon the mirror knows only negative reflections, having gone so long since showing any other. A productive life cannot be lived in such circumstances.
Granted, fixing this is easier said than done. Behind every sneaking doubt or hesitation there is some truth. But we cannot be defined by these limitations. They are merely yardsticks: Commit yourself to outgrowing them.
When I was a junior in high school I played cornerback for the varsity football team at 5’9, 145 lbs. I wasn’t particularly quick, strong, or tough, and I wasn’t the coach’s son. The only thing I really had going for me was my brain. I always knew where to be and when to be there, and on the not so infrequent occasion when someone else forgot where they were supposed to be, I could get him there too. The problem with being this aware was that I couldn’t fool myself into believing I was something that I wasn’t. Other guys may have convinced their 2nd string bodies they were all-state material, but I knew I was average. I knew I was small and slow and, most of the time, scared. These were facts. They defined my capabilities.
One day in practice our tight end (a 250 lb behemoth) caught an out route and turned upfield towards me. I had made plenty of tackles in my life and knew that going low was the safe play, but for whatever reason I went in high with no regard for life or limb. Somehow I connected just right and my 145 lb frame flipped his 250 lb one like a buttermilk pancake. I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t compute. The player I thought I was could never have made that play. Yet there I was, standing over the dragon slain.
It’s no different in society. People aren’t blind or misguided: they look in the mirror and know what they see. If it’s unpleasant they’ll trim it, tuck it, or wrap it in fancy paper, but deep down they know their shortcomings. Many are haunted by them. Some overcompensate—the 5 foot guy drives a Hummer, the incompetent boss screams about everyone else’s incompetence-- but most simply avoid the issue entirely. Precious few address the fact that the doubt in their subconscious is rooted in truth. That guy is 5 feet tall. That boss is incompetent. Until something happens to change those facts no amount of compensation or avoidance will make them feel any better.
The only way to overcome doubt is to welcome it, face it, and test it. We have to invite our weaker sides onstage and see how fragile they truly are. For me it happened by accident, but more deliberate approaches are just as effective. Start by using your doubt as an indicator of where you need work. Rather than silently dreading the day when double unders come up in a WOD, do so many of them that you’d just as soon skip rope across the street as you would walk there. Rather than telling yourself you’re too old to keep up with the fire-breathers, re-define your limits and stop making excuses. Refuse to be intimidated by your weaknesses and you might discover that all this time you were drowning yourself in a 3-foot pool.
Until that hit 10 years ago, I was limited by my own under-estimation. Afterwards I was more aggressive, more decisive, and more effective. I promise that unless you risk your ego from time to time you will never overcome your current limits. They will fester and persist until that pallid reflection becomes real. Remember this the next time that voice starts pounding against your temples. Maybe the outcome isn't so certain.