Self-doubt, fear and other enemies of awesomeness

I have a story about self-confidence, or lack thereof.  During the last race season, Brian would ask what my goal was for an upcoming 5K and I would say that I wanted to break 27 minutes.

“But you’ve already done that,” he’d say.

And he was right – I had.  Several times.

But I made a bunch of excuses as to why those races didn’t count – I suspected the distance was not the full 3.1 miles, I had been taking a super-vitamin regiment that had me all amped up, etc.  I was pretty sure that, on a normal day on a normal race course, there was no way I could break 27 minutes.

I was suffering from a serious lack of self-confidence in terms of my 5K abilities.  I thought I knew what I could safely do without failing and I was not sure I could do much better than that.

But of course, I could, and I did.  Since the last time Brian and I had this discussion – because like I said, we had this conversation a few times – I’ve run two 5Ks in less than 24 minutes.

What was holding me back?  It wasn’t my legs or my ability or my cardiovascular fitness.  It was me.

I don’t think I’m unusual in this regard.  As I’ve written before, Olympic distance runner Kara Goucher has been remarkably candid about her struggles with self-confidence, and the way her mind has worked to undermine her athletic performance:

“I have a lot of negative chatter in my head,” Goucher tells me in a recent interview. “If I don’t rein it in, my mind will tend to obsess about what everyone else is doing in the race around me. I’ll start comparing myself to everyone else.” When she does that, she says, she saps the strength from her own legs. She morphs from great into okay.

The article is lengthy but super-good and worth reading, if only to see how someone who is so insanely talented can still be plagued with self-doubt.  If anything, it made me feel a little better about my own issues, because hey, if Kara Goucher is dealing with this, then clearly it’s normal and not proof of my defective psyche, right?

And this is the thing – it’s totally normal.  In fact, it’s so commonplace that there is even a name for a particular manifestation of a lack of self-confidence: Imposter syndrome.

Impostor syndrome describes a situation where someone feels like an imposter or fraud because their accomplishments are nowhere near as good as those of the people around them. Usually, their accomplishments are just as good, and the person is being needlessly insecure.

Imposter syndrome is normally considered an affliction of the ladies, but I suspect that a lot of guys feel this way too.  They just don’t show it because dudes are not supposed to admit to weakness or vulnerability.

I can’t speak authoritatively about another’s issues, but I know mine stem almost entirely from my dysfunctional relationship with fear.  Fear is a lot like anger in that it is an emotion that is important and useful when it’s handled properly.  It keeps you from taking unnecessary risks, like, say, doing four Jager shots before driving home or diving into waters of questionable depth or any number of potentially dangerous things.

My problem is, I don’t handle my fear properly.  My fear, I’ve come to learn, is more like an abusive partner.  It promised to keep me safe and secure, and then it punched me in the stomach and pushed me down the stairs.  My fear runs amok, and instead of protecting me, it has kept me from living a life that is full of experience and possibility.

So I have this whole cost-benefit analysis I do in my head now, and I try to be honest about it, and not let myself get carried away with all of the infinite ways in which a given situation could turn out badly for me.  But this isn’t the hard part.  The hard part comes next, after I’ve thought about something and determined my fears are pretty much unwarranted.

I swallow hard and I make myself do it.

And you know what?  It actually works. If I force myself to do a really scary or a really hard thing, and I come out the other side relatively unscathed, it makes me that less afraid the next time around.  It tells me that I am in fact capable of handling this kind of thing, which helps me have a little more confidence in myself.  And on and on, in an ongoing cycle of fear-defeat and confidence-building.

Ironically enough, one of the biggest confidence builders in my life has been distance running.  As I wrote in my zine, All I Want is Everything #1, when my self-concept expanded to include “marathoner,” I could no longer see myself as this weak, cowardly creature.  Instead, the strength and courage I have in my heart was laid bare, and I had no choice but to acknowledge it.  I could not hide behind excuses, I could not talk down my accomplishment.  I had run a marathon. It doesn’t get much tougher than that.

I still get scared and nervous about things, and I am constantly having to beat back self-doubt and fear.  Old habits die hard, you know?  But this is what I’ve learned – the strongest, bravest, most confident people among us are not this way because they do not feel fear or because they do not doubt themselves.  They are this way because they acknowledge their fear and self-doubt, and they push on anyway.

I thought about this again while reading this post by Amy Moritz, in which she writes about an exchange she has with Diana Nyad on Twitter, in which Nyad calls her “fearless”:

What I didn’t get to say in my 140 characters on Twitter was how many times I cried just thinking about the 2.4-mile swim of Esprit Montreal; how I wanted to throw up when I looked at the Olympic rowing basin; how I was the last swimmer out of the water. When it was done, I smiled broadly and felt immense relief and the beginnings of joy. But before, and at times during, the swim I was crippled by fear and doubt I wondered just how far off the charts on the “suck-o-meter” I really was. This was fearless? Who am I to be fearless? And then I laughed. Right there at home, all alone, in front of my laptop, I laughed out loud. Because who am I not to be fearless? Because maybe what makes us fearless isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability to be strong in ourselves and and dive into live despite our fears.

I try to remember this whenever I’m struggling with my fears and my lack of self-confidence.  It’s okay to be afraid.  It’s okay to wonder what the hell I think I’m doing.  What’s not okay is using my self-doubt as an excuse to retreat into that tiny little cocoon of fear I’d built for myself.  I’ve had a taste of what it means to be fearless and to be confident in myself, and I have no desire to give it back.