Posts Tagged overcoming self-doubt
“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
― Vincent Van Gogh
No matter how successful we become, doubt will occasionally crawl into our minds and refuse to leave, like a song you don’t like but can’t quit hearing. It will haunt us in quiet times and in inopportune times, and it often seems that the harder we try to rid ourselves of doubt, the stronger it takes hold.
When doubt is confirmed by its partner failure, it starts to attach itself to our souls and can be as debilitating as the strongest virus. At those times, it takes a Herculean effort to destroy it – like it takes a Herculean effort to escape the almost-certain pin of a very strong opponent. That’s what happened on the mat a few weeks ago, with my son in his final state wrestling tournament.
Two years earlier, as a sophomore in his first year of varsity wrestling, he had stepped off the championship platform at the state wrestling tournament with a third-place medal around his neck. Standing above him were a senior and a junior, and with five consecutive pins to close out the season, the future looked bright. The very next day, we were in the gym, trying to climb two steps on that platform in 364 days.
Eight months later, he suffered a knee injury in the final football game of his junior year, causing him to miss a crucial season of development. Twenty-one months passed between wrestling matches. Still, he had never lost to anyone in his weight class in the state, and thought that he could have an undefeated season. That, and a state championship, became the goal. Sadly, the goal of an undefeated season didn’t make it past the first tournament of his senior year.
After three first-period pins, he lost the championship match in overtime to a wrestler from another state. Still, it was only one loss, and it was to a wrestler he wouldn’t face for the rest of the season. Then, the next tournament happened. He came down with a pretty bad cold and wrestled like it. Three more losses – all to wrestlers rated 1 or 2 in their respective classes. Though he avenged one of those losses later in the season, because all three opponents were either in different classes or from different states, they wouldn’t be obstacles in his quest for a state championship. He just couldn’t lose to anyone in his class. That happened three times in the next month.
Several times throughout the season, he reset his goal to “no more losses,” and each time, a loss followed. All told, he entered the pinnacle tournament of the season with ten losses, never winning a tournament until the district tournament in the week prior to the state tournament. With each loss, doubt became louder and stronger. We didn’t want to talk about it, but it was there, and he was going to need that Herculean effort to silence it.
When the state championship tournament came around, the no-more-losses goal intertwined with the state championship goal. You can’t lose in the state tournament and win a state championship. That wasn’t going to be easy. Two wrestlers in the tournament had pinned him earlier in the season. If he made it to the semi-finals, he would likely face a wrestler who had pinned him twice in the past six weeks. We didn’t want to have doubt, but logic wasn’t on our side. We were going to have to depend on faith instead.
Faith was rewarded in the semi-finals, when Patrick pinned the wrestler who had pinned him in their two earlier meetings. On the very next mat, almost simultaneously, the wrestler who had pinned Patrick in their only meeting was qualifying for the finals with a pin of his own. The semi-final pin helped to quiet the doubt, but with a talented wrestler who had already pinned him waiting in the finals, logic wasn’t on our side.
When Patrick was flipped to his back in the second period of the championship match, it looked pretty grim. Even the television commentators said that it was all but over. Somehow, in that moment however, he finally killed the doubt that had been haunting him all season, completing an improbable move and winning the state championship he had worked so hard to earn over the course of six years.
Unlike his dad, Patrick doesn’t often cry, especially out of happiness. This time, though, the emotion got the best of him, and the tears flowed almost immediately. Doubt literally had him on his back, but he didn’t allow it to win. The realization that he had beaten doubt and won a state championship had him bawling like a baby in front of 15,000 in the arena and many, many more on television.
We’ve talked about it several times in the days since, as the exhilaration of victory has faded into appreciation for the experience. Looking back, we’re able to see that three things helped him win that championship: 1. faith in the process, 2. not accepting less than his goal, and 3. never quitting. If he had waivered even a small bit in any of those areas, he surely would have been beaten.
Wrestling is now behind him, but its final lesson was a powerful one that we can all learn from: don’t EVER give up on your goals. Doubt is merely an obstacle, and it is only as powerful as you allow it to be.
She looked at my wife, then at me and then at the wall before saying, “I don’t envy you.” We were in an elevator at Bellagio in Las Vegas, headed back to our room after an afternoon spent exploring The Strip. I was in my wheelchair, and Lynda was behind me. It was evident that it was Lynda who she didn’t envy.
Lynda did leave the door open for that comment when she said something to the effect of, “That’s a workout!” in regard to pushing the wheelchair. Still, the stranger’s comment was stunning, so much so that neither of us could manage a response. To her credit, the stranger probably wasn’t trying to insult us – she just let a thought escape her lips.
No man wants to be the source of pity for his wife, but I could understand the reason behind the insensitive comment. Pushing a wheelchair is a lot of work, and I would have much rather been walking side-by-side with my wife, but that wasn’t an option. Ironically, the wheelchair was Lynda’s idea, and the genesis for that idea came in Las Vegas. On our first trip to Las Vegas and for most of the second, Lynda mostly explored the city on her own, as the walking that it required was just too much for my legs. It didn’t bother me all that much to wait in the room while Lynda was out. As my friends and family know, I never want to get in the way.
On that second trip to Las Vegas, Lynda checked with the hotel concierge and discovered that they had a wheelchair for people like me to use. Even when she brought the chair up to the room, I resisted. I had never been in a wheelchair in public, and wasn’t eager to start. My wife is persistent though, and I’m glad that she is. Using a wheelchair allowed me to see Las Vegas in ways that never would have been possible otherwise. We were returning from just such an adventure when we encountered the stranger on the elevator.
I’m not a stranger to pity, and it really doesn’t bother me that much, because I know that genuine pity comes out of concern. People don’t want to see me struggle, and they feel sorry for me that I have to struggle. Plus, they don’t want the struggle for themselves, and are secretly afraid that they couldn’t handle it. I’m certain that the stranger in the elevator felt that way for Lynda and probably for me too. She just said what a lot of other people were thinking.
She had no idea that Lynda insisted on buying me a wheelchair and using it even when I don’t want to. Several times on that trip, I told Lynda that she could leave me in the room, but she always refused. (It’s hard to be stubborn around my wife.) She makes sacrifices like that all of the time, and I appreciate her immensely for it.
The stranger also didn’t know that my hands were blistered and bleeding from propelling the chair myself. There is a reason that experienced wheelchair users wear gloves.
Most of all, the stranger didn’t realize that people with ample experience facing adversity don’t pity themselves and certainly don’t want pity from others. In fact, we’re often happier than people without adversity, because we appreciate small things that a lot of other people take for granted. Pity doesn’t usually cross our minds, unless someone else brings it up, like what happened on that elevator.
Coincidentally, I read the book Tough as They Come by Travis Mills during that trip. SSG Mills is a quadruple amputee due to injuries he suffered while defending our country in Afghanistan. Like me, he has an incredible wife who adapted to a marriage that requires more from her than lesser women could handle. Initially, when facing his new reality and its limitations, SSG Mills thought of his wife Kelsey and what his injuries would mean to her. I’m sure that the stranger on the elevator wouldn’t envy her either, because that was SSG Mills’ initial feeling too. However, once he crushed self-pity, he found a new purpose that he could share with his wife, the Travis Mills Foundation.
I write all of this not to make you feel guilty for pitying other people, but to ask you to use pity as a prompt for kindness. When you feel the very natural feeling of pity, say or do something nice. You might surprised by the beauty you find in adversity, just like we are.
Next Month: It’s not all bad! Far from it! Hear about the good things in people I get to see from my wheelchair.
Before I met one of my wife’s best friends more than twenty years ago, she was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to climb the stairs to her second-floor apartment. I later learned that she thought I was confined to a wheelchair, because Lynda had oversold my physical limitations when she had called earlier in the week. When I walked through the apartment door, I could see the relief and pleasant surprise in her friend’s face. I’ve always relished surprising people with what I can do. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen as often these days.
Now, it’s more common for me to see concern and pity, particularly when I take my wheelchair for a spin and encounter someone I haven’t seen in a while. This is one of the biggest reasons I resisted buying the wheelchair and continue to resist using it. I want to remain the guy who beats the odds and surprises people, not the poor guy in the wheelchair being pushed by his wife.
I completely understand the reactions I get when people see me in the chair for the first time, and though these reactions don’t offend me in any way, I do notice them. The first time it happened was earlier this year when I was in the airport waiting to catch a flight to Chicago for a speaking engagement. Waiting at the same gate was a client from my previous business. He and I had become friends, but hadn’t seen each other for several years. I could see his mind processing the scene in the brief moment between when we noticed each other and when we greeted each other. I imagine that it went like this, “Hey, that’s Mitch, but he’s in a wheelchair. Is that really Mitch in a wheelchair?”
It was the first time in months that I had used the wheelchair, but travel was one of the main reasons I bought the chair, so I was using it that day. I could have stood up and walked toward him, but we were getting ready to board, and doing so would have been inconvenient for my wife who was traveling with me and already burdened with a carry-on bag. Instead, we exchanged pleasantries, never addressing the “elephant in the room.”
Now that it’s football season, I pretty much use my wheelchair every Friday night, which means that I’m being pushed around in front of our community – our friends, our children’s friends and their parents. That’s pretty humbling, and I find myself wanting to wear a sign that says, “I’m riding now, but be in my gym at 8 am tomorrow morning to see me walk unassisted and push heavy weights.” Unfortunately, it’s more likely that the image of me in the chair will be what these people take home with them.
Context and Confidence
A few weeks ago, in the week before his first varsity football game, my son developed a large, ugly blister on his forehead near his hairline. It was likely caused by irritation from his football helmet. Whatever the cause, it caused him much anguish, as he worried about how others viewed him. As a guy who battled acne as a teenager, I could empathize, and I wanted to do everything I could to remove this challenge for him, but I couldn’t. All I could do was offer advice.
I told him that, in the grand scheme of things, the blister was but a minor, temporary inconvenience. School was going well. He had earned a starting spot for his first varsity football game, and he was enjoying a blossoming relationship with a nice young lady. Don’t let something so small as a blister rob that happiness from you, I told him, which turned out to be great advice for me too.
Most people are more supportive and understanding than we believe them to be. Their reactions might be instinctual, but the people who really matter see through whatever external flaws we fret over. In fact, I think we worry much too much about small things that we mistakenly think matter to others, and all of this worry sabotages our happiness.
Whether it is a wheelchair, blister or some other challenge, make sure that you put whatever is worrying you in its proper place, which is usually at the bottom of the Stuff that Matters list. Doing this will help you properly appreciate the blessings around you.
I’ve been qualified for a handicapped parking placard for as long as I’ve been able to drive, but I drove for nearly 20 years before I got one. During that time, I’ve watched people with far less challenging disabilities than mine use them, and I’ve heard people with no disability at all boast about using them to get a better parking place. I’ve limped past both.
Friends who went to NASCAR races with me admonished my stubbornness. “Why the hell do we have to park way out here?” they asked. “Because he’s too stubborn to get a handicapped placard,” my wife would answer for me.
I resisted the handicapped placard, because I didn’t see myself as handicapped. Sure, if I paid attention to such things, I would have noticed the obvious, but no one really treated me any differently, so I wasn’t forced to acknowledge the obvious. Ironically, I convinced myself that parking in one of those reserved stalls would alert the world that I had a handicap, as I limped by. Such is the power of self-image.
Obviously, my self-image was overly optimistic, but far too often, self-image is overly pessimistic. We see ourselves as failing before we even try. We feel inferior to others, though we’ve never really looked for our own worth. We become our own worst enemy, because we let doubt and negativity cloud our thinking.
I believe that we often develop negative self-images when we focus on our weaknesses and past failures instead of our strengths and potential. Everyone makes mistakes and has weaknesses. We doom ourselves to negative self-images if we fail to realize that failure and weakness are parts of being normal, and that we need to learn from our past and put it away, while focusing on our strengths and potential.
So, how do we optimize and nurture our self-image?
- Develop selective memory. Decide which memories are positive and affirming, and hold onto them. Learn all you can from the negative memories and then throw them away. When I reminisce about college fraternity date parties, I don’t dwell on the five rejections I received for my first date party; instead, I focus on the incredible first date I had a few months later with the lady who would become my wife. (Fortunately, I’m not easily discouraged.)
- Feed strengths and starve weaknesses. We often give our weaknesses more attention than they deserve. Sometimes, we even focus on them, to the detriment of our strengths. Discover what you are good at and do more of it.
- Blend humility with appreciation. A healthy dose of appreciation puts weaknesses where they belong – out of the spotlight. When you are feeling down, take the time to be thankful for your blessings. This isn’t always easy, but it’s almost always necessary.
- Associate with positive people. We all have those people who leave us feeling refreshed. They refuse to let us wallow in self-pity and help us direct our thoughts to positive areas. Spend more time with them and less time with the whiners and those who encourage whining.
- Eliminate negative self-talk. Most of us have a silent, but active internal dialogue that we’re often only faintly aware of. Stop and think about it. What are you telling yourself about yourself? If our self-talk repeatedly tells us that we are unworthy of success and happiness, we start to believe it. If there were a little creature sitting on your shoulder constantly criticizing everything you did, you would smash him within minutes. Why let him live inside your head?
I use the heck out of that handicapped parking placard now, not because my self-image surrendered, but rather because it became stronger. Now, I could give a rat’s rear-end about what judgments people might make about the way I walk or where I park. I owe that attitude to a positive self-image that I’m careful to nurture, and I hope the same for you.