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?]