The other day I was meeting with a client who was wrestling with self-doubt. Let’s face it, we all experience questions from time to time about whether we are capable or worthy. This is a normal part of being human. Sometimes, however, these doubts feel very powerful and even overwhelming. While these doubts were formed and stored during some past event or period of time, current circumstances can trigger them even when they have nothing to do with what is going on in the moment.
The most challenging thing about thoughts and sensations of self-doubt is that they can feel like the absolute truth. Rather than step back and look at them for what they actually are — the results of conditioned activity in our nervous system — we often take them at face value and use them to make choices about our actions. We can get caught hoping and waiting for them to go away so that we can get on with our lives. But, here’s the thing – they may never go away. So what do we do with that reality?
I used to love pecan pie. But, when I was 18 years old, I ate a piece at my favorite diner and came down with the stomach flu the next day. The pie did not cause my illness, but my brain associated the two. For the next thirty years, I couldn’t think about this dessert without feeling queasy. This is just what brains are doing all the time – associating one thing with another in an effort to help us survive. I told the pecan pie story to my client and it seemed to make sense to her. We talked about mindfully relating to the thoughts and sensations of self-doubt for what they were – the result of some association in the brain that may not be useful.
She developed some strategies for noticing and stepping back from the sensations and thoughts of self-doubt and then choosing an action that would serve her priorities and values. We laughed at some of the clever (and off-color) acronyms we came up with to remember her practice. Already she was starting to reshape her relationship to these limiting associations.
At the end of our meeting, it occurred to me that I was still treating the thoughts and sensations about pecan pie as the truth. So, I called around until I found a bakery that served the dreaded dessert. And…I ordered a piece. Sure enough, all the resistance showed up – the funny feeling in my stomach and at the base of my jaw, and the thoughts about what a mistake this was. I took a breath, dropped my shoulders, smiled, and took a bite. I survived! And it was actually good!
I know that people struggle with much bigger challenges than an aversion to a nutty confection, but the practice is the same. While it is a common human experience to entertain stories about what we can’t do, what is wrong with us, and what we don’t deserve, we always have the option of stopping and asking “says who?”