Self-doubt is a crippling emotional disease. I know, because I’ve carried it on my shoulders for as long as I can remember.
When I was small, I understood that I wasn’t pretty enough or girly enough for my dad. I liked to play boys’ games: tag, kickball, cowboy, fort-building and trike-riding.
I despised dolls and pretend house and so I was a disappointment to my mom. I wanted to wear pants and go without tops in the summer, like my brother did. I hated dresses, Mary Janes and frilly socks.
As I grew older and I discovered paint-by-number, I worked at it until I thought I could draw. But I never truly believed in myself. I saw myself as a failure, a person without skills, and so nothing I created was ever of value in my eyes.
I loved books and a good story, and imagined myself as a famous writer. In middle school I wrote short stories about things I knew: tornadoes, thunder and lightning storms, harsh discipline. Because I was shy, I never shared them with anyone. Again, I doubted my ability and quickly gave up.
As a student, I felt dumb. It took me longer to learn to read than my older brother. He was better at math and science, while I believed that I had no academic skills whatsoever. I worked for every grade. Studying hours every night and on weekends. Creating flash cards and copying from my textbooks to help me memorize important facts. My grades improved and I obviously learned to read, but I could never let down my guard.
In high school I enrolled in college prep classes, even though my counselor said that I’d never succeed. That I’d be a dropout, get married and have kids before I was twenty. To spite her, I passed all my classes, and then the following year I’d enroll in even more challenging courses. When I got accepted to every university to which I applied, I brought in my acceptance letters and showed her how wrong she was. And then she told me I’d flunk out.
When I reached dating age, I was an old-fashioned, frumpy kid. My clothes were homemade and based on styles my mother wore as a teen. My skirts were too long and my tops too loose. My shoes were brown and white oxfords at a time when girls wore black flats. And let’s not mention my hair! Oh, my, it was awful. Teased up and hair-sprayed into a plasticized shape that only a mother could create.
Because of my looks, which were not only out of sync with the rest of the world, but also because I was fatter than any of my classmates, I was told that I’d never get a boyfriend. My mother was right until Geoffrey moved in during my eighth grade year. He was as old-ball as I was. He wore thick black glasses, button-up-the-front shirts and pleated slacks when guys wore jeans and rolled up the sleeves of their white t-shirts.
But Geoffrey saw something in me and asked me out. We must have been quite an attraction wherever we went. The nerdy guy and the fat girl with plastic hair. While I enjoyed his attention, I never felt as if I deserved to be with him and so broke up with him after only a handful of dates.
My parent’s goal for me was to get married and have kids. Even so, for some reason they allowed me to go to college. Sitting in those desks, surrounded by incredibly smart young people, I felt even dumber than before. My head swam with confusing information. I didn’t understand many of the assignments and didn’t truly understand how to take notes or write a paper. I studied late into the night, often getting little sleep, just to try to keep up.
Once I went away to school, I found friends for the first time in my life. I had people to eat with, go to football games with, study with. I dated, but mostly odd-ball guys who weren’t too different from me.
For example, there was the one who was shorter than me and I’m only five-foot-two. It just didn’t feel right to bend down to kiss him. And then there was the nice Australian man who had a bad back and couldn’t bend over. He walked with an awkward gate, kind of a shuffle combined with a lope. Another rather interesting guy came from Guatemala and spoke broken English. He was sweet and thought I was beautiful, but we had nothing in common. And I can’t forget the man from a Muslim country who was a wealthy prince, but never spoke to me. He wrote me a love letter asking me to marry him, move to his country, and bear his children.
Even though I now had a social life, I never felt as if I fit in. It was more like they accepted me out of pity, not like. That’s how I saw it. And when I went home on breaks and spoke of my friends, I was told that they weren’t good enough, nice enough, smart enough. The implication was that I lacked the skills to find worthwhile people and that my so-called friends were using me.
And then my husband-to-be came into my life, and then, for the first time, I began to believe that there was something good about me. Something that was valued and important. He made me see that I had talents. He was patient and kind and encouraging. He pushed me out into the world and honored those things that I struggled to learn.
For example, I had always wanted to teach, but I graduated from college at a time when unemployed teachers glutted the market. My husband encouraged me to take classes in the evenings and to work toward a credential. He applauded my first teaching job, even though it was a minimum-wage preschool position.
The first day of class, as the parents walked in with their kids, I froze. Doubt wiped my brain clean of cognizant thoughts. I couldn’t remember the words to the songs, the dance moves, the stories or the activities. Thankfully an elementary school teacher stepped in and saved me. Because of her, I came back the next day and the day after that and every day for over thirty-three years. And all along that journey, as I changed the grades and specialties that I taught, my husband was there to support me. When I doubted my abilities, he buoyed me up.
I have always loved music, but as a teen, when I’d sing, my family would ridicule me. So I didn’t. But I wanted to be a singer. To be part of a choir. And so one day, I walked up to the choir director at church and asked to join. She was encouraging, patient and kind. Because of her I developed enough confidence to be a soloist, all the while doubting my ability to sing on key.
And when I decided to return to writing after a fifty year absence, I was terrified. I didn’t believe that I could create story, character, plot. And so I wrote my story. I told of my early years, my teen years, my college years. I spoke of my fears and those things that caused me to have low self-esteem.
One day I shared some of the stories with a college professor. She told me to write some more. To turn my stories into new ones that were linked together, with a character from my imagination in a setting that was very different from my own.
The idea of doing this, of creating something original, was paralyzing. I’d sit before the computer and nothing happened. Words failed me. But one day I typed a paragraph. The next day I added two more. After that I turned it into a multi-page story that made sense. When I reread, I deleted sentence after sentence, ashamed of my poor writing skills and swore that I’d never do it again.
Self-doubt took away my voice. It robbed me of words that were screaming to be let loose. It locked me up in a prison without a key.
But one day I returned to my work, found a story that I could tell, and wrote page after page. Those pages turned into a novel. And that novel encouraged me to write another.
Today I am still the same person whose doubts often prevent her from action. I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to be a disappointment and this colors how I act and the things that I do. Self-doubt blocks me from speaking in crowds of people that I don’t really know. It causes me to dislike the way that I look and prevents me from doing something major about it.
While I have accomplished much over the years, and dream of accomplishing even more, Self-doubt still cripples my thinking. It distorts my vision of myself. It always has and probably always will.