Self-Doubt: treading the line between hubris and paralysis

Doubt comes in many forms. While spiritual doubt, the subject of my last post, is what usually comes to mind when speaking with religious people, other forms of doubt may have greater importance to some people at specific times in their life. In this post I’ll consider self-doubt as both a positive and negative influence in our lives.

Consider the mountaineer getting ready to attempt a lofty summit. Perhaps the weather is less than ideal. Maybe one or more members of the team are ill or suffering from altitude sickness. It is natural at this point to have some doubt as to whether they can make the summit. Did they prepare thoroughly enough? Will the weather hold? Will the mountain allow them to reach the summit on this day? A little self-doubt is healthy under the circumstances. In fact, it might be the key to staying alive because it encourages an impartial, objective assessment of the risks involved, and forces a strong focus on the moment. Overconfidence is frequently fatal in the mountains.

During the time in my life that I was interested in climbing and mountaineering I remember reading an interview with John Bachar, the renowned free climber infamous for once putting up $10,000 for anyone who could follow him up a route of his choosing. When asked what was his secret to not falling he said: “I never attempt a move that I’m not 100% certain I can do.” Bachar was always ready to retreat and climb back down if things didn’t feel right. Unfortunately, Bachar died in 2009 in a free-climbing accident, so it would appear that the line between confidence and arrogance is quite thin.

Another interview I remember well was with a Himalayan climber known for his alpine style solo ascents of big mountains where he traveled light and fast. Unfortunately I cannot remember his name, but when asked about the dangers of his exploits he replied: “yes, for most people it would be very dangerous, but for me it is not so dangerous.” Confidence, or arrogance? You decide. But certainly he had conquered his self-doubt.

Raphael Slawinski discusses the delicate balance between confidence and doubt in the sport of mountaineering very nicely in an excellent 2015 interview with National Geographic.

I’m sure that in almost any enterprise one could come up with a scenario in which a healthy respect for one’s limitations may prevent an undesirable outcome, if perhaps not being a matter of life and death. Self-doubt encourages humility. It can lead to positive action if it inspires one to work to increase one’s preparation for a potentially dangerous task. I ran competitively in high school and college, and after a 20-year hiatus during graduate school and establishing myself in my career I returned to running casually as a way to improve my fitness. This led to racing again, and to completing a marathon, which is not something that I had previously contemplated. So it was that when I turned 50 I resolved to mark the occasion by completing a 50-mile “race”. Certainly I had some doubt that I would be able to complete the distance, but this encouraged me to train hard to maximize my chances of success. As I approached the starting line I was nervous, but also confident that I had prepared adequately, and that physically I could do it.

Right now the news is filled with the stories of people who thought themselves invincible, pursuing an agenda that was only possible through a blatant disregard for the law, and for a commonly held sense of morality. They never once doubted that they could continue to get away with it. Like characters in a Shakespearian tragedy, many of these individuals are now experiencing a long-overdue reckoning. Failure to listen to the small, nagging voice of doubt within leads to hubris. Self-doubt can be necessary for self-preservation.

Though a little self-doubt can inspire us to action, and eventually give way to confidence, too much self-doubt can hold us back. How many people have decided not to apply for a job because they are certain that they could never get it, that they aren’t qualified enough? It’s difficult to avoid putting oneself down sometimes, especially after some sort of rejection. I’ve occasionally been paralyzed by a sense that I might as well not bother striving for something that I would like because I’m just not good enough to achieve it. I had a major panic attack while trying to write my Ph.D. thesis. The experimental work was more-or-less complete but the task of writing everything up into a 200-odd page document seemed quite impossible. One night I woke up shaking uncontrollably, unable to relax or get back to sleep, and had to call the mental health crisis line. It took six months of counseling, along with making and executing plans for incremental day-to-day progress, to overcome my fear that I wouldn’t manage to finish the degree to which I had devoted six and a half years of my life, and that I needed to complete in order to progress to my next position.

Other people’s well meaning, or in some cases malicious, criticism can re-enforce our feelings of inadequacy and increase our self-doubt to the point where it becomes debilitating. The news is full of stories of people who have been subjected to physical and emotional abuse by a partner but have found themselves unable to leave a bad situation for fear that they could not manage without the abuser. One of the tactics of the abuser is often to convince their victim that they are worthless, that nobody else would ever love them. Clearly in these cases self-doubt results in harm to the individual. It would appear that self-doubt, like so many things in life, is best taken in moderation.