Battling Self-Doubt—Who to Believe?

When I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, I remember being frustrated when home from college. I have three older siblings. One older brother is mechanically inclined, so whenever something needed fixing, it got fixed before I ever got the chance to swing the bat. And no one ever taught me how to work with my hands. Through teasing, I got put in a “mostly incompetent” box which hurt my confidence and zapped my initiative. Better not to try than to fail. A downward spiral of self-doubt. Alex Smith in need of a Jim Harbaugh.

Built like a pool cue, I was also labelled soft and spoiled. Truth be told, I shied away from physical contact, and by the time I came along, my parents were better off, the task master was often traveling, and Mother Dear had let her hair down. I did live a charmed life. I coasted through high school so much, my dad, who also thought of me as sheltered, discouraged me from going to college.

Proving him wrong was motivating. As a first year college student living on my own in a culturally diverse, challenging, and stimulating setting, I was transformed. Afraid of failing, I applied myself, studying intensely. I quickly improved as a thinker, writer, student. I gained confidence in communicating original ideas. I met lots of interesting people who had no preconceived notions about me. I spent a summer working at an inner-city Boston park and food bank with a dozen other college students from around the country.

Whenever I returned home though, time seemingly stood still. In the eyes of my family, I was still the mostly incompetent, soft, sheltered, spoiled seventeen year-old. The result was equal parts alienation and frustration.

So who to believe, others from the past or myself? Incompetent, soft, spoiled, sheltered, or increasingly capable, resilient, socially conscious, and experienced?

This “who to believe” dilemma is universal. Everyone has to contend with negative messages that go way back to parents, teachers, coaches, other authority figures, siblings. Why do some people succumb to long-running negativity and others rise above detrimental preconceived notions?

The single most important variable is whether you surround yourself with positive or negative people. A negative past can be blunted. Case in point, I love how my Better Half always goes into “compensation” mode and encourages me whenever I attempt to install or repair something.

Most of the time though, we have to confront our self-doubt alone. The way to do that is to build enough countervailing evidence to eventually tilt the balance from self-doubt to self-confidence. A marathon without shortcuts.

To illustrate, consider my preparation for IronPerson Canada in late August, a mere seven months away. Something about swimming 3.8 kilometers, riding 112 miles, and then running 26.2 sparks serious self-doubt. Athough I’m not building up for it yet, I can’t help but think about it from time to time. My mental prep is hampered by the fact that I’ve internalized the “soft” messages of my youth. I not only internalized them, I embellished them. Like a taller, skinnier Woody Allen, I even thought at times that I had a particularly weak constitution, and that I’d probably contract some chronic illness, and pass from the stage prematurely.

The self-doubt is playing havoc with my sub-conscious; consequently, I’ve had a series of disconcerting IronPerson dreams. In last night’s version, the brakes on my bike unravelled right before the start leading to the dreaded “DNF”—did not finish. I’ve had others where I swim completely off course and the race goes on without me. I probably haven’t dreamed about the most challenging leg yet because I haven’t worn out all the swimming and cycling nightmares.

Here’s the odd thing though, in the last two decades I’ve become an experienced open water swimmer, long distance cyclist, and marathoner. And while this is hard to admit publicly, I’ve gotten pretty good as an endurance athlete. Riding especially strongly at the end of RAMROD last July and my last half iron distance triathlon last September were major confidence boosters. Yet, I struggle to even write “pretty good” because deep down in my gut the cassette recorder quietly repeats “I’m soft, an impostor, a wannabe.”

I’m wrestling with who I am as an athlete. Ultimately of course, I’m an insignificant weekend warrior, but I have to get more specific to set goals and then devise and successfully implement a race strategy.

Am I still the third-grader who climbed down from the 10 meter platform too afraid to jump off, the scrawny junior higher who routinely got whupped in the 660 yard dash, the junior high cornerback who whiffed an easy tackle, the batter who was too chicken shit to hit a curve, or the long distance runner who was mentally tough and gutted out the last 10k of the 2010 Seattle marathon, or the cyclist who last summer got stronger the longer and tougher the mountain climb? If I’m more of the former, my goal should be the traditional “just to finish,” if more of the later, it should be to throw down with the fastest dudes in my age group.

Forget me and my inconsequential, irrational race. What negative messages limit your potential? Have you succumbed to the negativity of critical peeps from your past or are have you created a positive present?

[extra credit—What city is in the February header?]

7 thoughts on “Battling Self-Doubt—Who to Believe?

  1. “Better not to try than to fail.”

    This became imbedded in me early. I had a great desire to play baseball in elementary school and always considered myself athletic, though I knew there were those better than I. Yet there was this Pop Warner Little League coach who after a short try out period came up to me and literally told me, “Sorry kid, you just don’t have what it takes to be a ball player.”

    To this poor excuse for a coach he didn’t see my desire and try to instill in me a drive that would overcome my weaknesses, or bother to explain that failure is part of the process to success. He simply wrote me off after one short day of workouts and I never tried out to play baseball again, except much later for a church league where everyone who wanted to play got to play some.

    As crushing as that early baseball experience was for a 9 year boy however, I still felt I had athletic abilities in me that needed to come out. I did play football and though I wanted to play the heroic tight end scoring game winning passes (even though I was way too short at the time) I did discover, through a coach who saw where I would be of value, that I was a great middle line backer that could sniff out a play before it got going most times.

    If only that positive coaching mentality had existed in that Pop Warner coach.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share that story Larry. Odd isn’t it that most leagues make sure coaches’ CPR cards are up-to-date, but don’t screen for the intangible, interpersonal attributes or dispositions that make all the difference in the end. I’d say it may not be too late, but the Rangers are loaded.

  2. Why no mention of your stellar high school water polo career? As I remember, it was almost like you walked on water.
    Your commitment to fitness in mind and body is hardly the work of someone who is soft, spoiled or sheltered. But when it comes to mechanical skills, rather than swinging a bat, you might try a screwdriver or maybe pliers. You can’t fix too many things with a bat.

    • When it comes to my water polo career, I was most famous for being the last guy in the water at before school practices, the last guy in the weight room, and the last guy out of the shower. I had a teammate, a year behind me, who was a very bad influence. And I often start with a screwdriver or pliers, but I always seem to end up using a bat.

  3. I think that many coaches are too intent on winning and not on teaching. My son walked away from being cut twice from high school baseball (so that kids who could pay a lot of money for private instruction could make the team) saying “I don’t really want to be yelled at anyway” It is annoying how many coaches bench kids for daring to make mistakes. I think if high school sports are going to be a benefit to kids, the coaches should be observed in the same way a classroom teacher is.

    • I agree that many coaches error on the side of winning at the expense of teaching sports and life lessons. And never thought of folding school coaches into the teacher eval system. I like that idea.

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