Banishing self-doubt


I was going to title this essay "In defence of faith". But as you'll soon see, the mindset I am going to defend falls a bit short of "faith" in the strict sense of that word. Rather, I will be talking about the importance of "banishing self-doubt". My reasons for this subtle, though important, distinction will become clear later on.

Regardless of what we call it, I think this mindset is nothing short of critical to your "success" and general happiness – whether in martial arts (as depicted in the adjacent meme) or life in general. I hope to explain and evidence exactly how and why I think so in this essay.

But first, let me first discuss "faith" more generally.

Faith: is it the "antithesis of reason"?

"Faith" cops a lot of bad press from modern skeptical thinkers. And, to a large extent, I can see why. Faith is, after all, "blind": it is the belief in something without (at least sufficient) evidence.

I won't go into the details of the problems connected with faith. Instead I will direct you to the works of people like Sam Harris (see his polemic "The End of Faith"). Suffice it to say, I agree with Sam, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and so many others that, at least most of the time, you really should have a good reason for believing in something.

But at the same time, we can't ignore the fact that faith is, and arguably always has been, a powerful motivator in human affairs. If we are honest, we will recognise it as one of the most important and influential driving forces in the history of human society (I will justify that statement in a moment). Accordingly, I think it that understanding the nature of faith – and appreciating its potential – is crucial to achieving a higher understanding of our own nature and potential as individuals.

As I will argue, I think such understanding also enables us to find an acceptable "middle ground" between "blind" faith on one hand and what is perceived to be an indifferent, cold and seemingly "negative" skepticism on the other.

In defence of faith

Okay, so I have just said that faith has been a powerful force in shaping society. Why do I think this? Let me put it this way:

It was once thought that technological innovations such as the domestication of grain and animals acted as the primary motivation for our species to move from a primitive hunter/gatherer existence into complex societies.


These innovations permitted stable settlement (as opposed to itinerant life).

It was generally assumed that more sophisticated practices such mass cooperation, architecture, art, and social organisation – including religion – emerged only after the establishment of early agricultural settlements.

But we now know from, say, the Gobekli Tepe complex that, in fact, the above very likely happened in reverse.

It was at Gobeki Tepe, some 11,000 years ago (at least 6,000 years before Stonehenge and the invention of writing, and at least 500 years before even the earliest agriculture), that thousands of stone age hunter/gatherers cooperated over years, very likely decades, to build a large complex of sophisticated, monolithic buildings and structures. What motivated these early humans? It seems the answer can be summed up in one word:


It seems fairly clear that Gobkeli Tepe comprised some sort of "temple complex": in other words, it seems to have been built purely as an expression of some early (animist) "faith" – that predated organised society. Whatever the specifics of this "faith", the evidence is fairly unequivocal that it was not a place of human habitation – ie. it was not a "settlement" or part of a "society" - at least not in a sense recognizable for at least half a millennium. It seems that it was faith, not agriculture and settlement, that gave humanity impetus to move towards technology and civilization.

How faith still informs a skeptic's actions today

Even if you are a skeptical atheist (as I am), I think you'd be surprised at just how much a certain kind of "faith" still informs your daily actions. "Oh surely not!" you might protest. But think about it:

How often have you motivated, or at least attempted to motivate, yourself through "positive thinking"? How many books, posters and headlines do you accept – usually without hesitation – about the "power" (or at least utility) of such positive thought?

How many sports psychologists, motivational speakers, self-help gurus, CEOs, wise friends, teachers and (now) internet memes tell you that your best chances of "success" lie in "creating positive mental pictures"; in "believing in yourself"; in realizing that "nothing is impossible"; in "never giving up" (or, as our dojo kun says, "persevering despite all obstacles")?

I'm fairly sure you will agree, that such advice is ubiquitous – and almost universally uncritically accepted.

"Faith in yourself" vs. reality

But what if you have absolutely no basis upon which to sustain such belief? What if (and I'm not going to mince my words here), basically, you suck?


You're about to enter a martial arts tournament. It's your first one. It involves full contact. You've competed a bit in the dojo, but never with strangers. And the guy you're now facing is an experienced fighter who is more highly graded, is 6 inches taller, weighs 40 lbs more and looks a whole lot meaner than you have ever been. What possible reason do you have for "believing in yourself" in this instance?

Heck – take any other sport or field of human endeavour, eg:
  • you're competing for a job with someone with far better qualifications, experience and connections than you;
  • you're vying for government funding with a far more affordable and politically attractive alternative proposal; 
  • you're racing against competitors who all have personal bests at least seconds faster than yours.
If the odds are clearly stacked against you, why would you possibly persist in "self-belief"? Why believe in something that is, at best, wishful and at worst delusional?

The answer lies in this simple truth: because (short of a "Steve Bradbury moment") this advice still gives you your best chances of success. Is this not "faith" – often of a kind that is manifestly "blind"?

 Steve Bradbury's "miracle" gold medal win
In a way, even we modern skeptics appear not that far removed from our Gobekli Tepe ancestors; we rely on a kind of "unreasoned" or "unreasonable" belief on an almost daily basis, whether it is a sense that we won't miss the bus (even though we're running later than usual); that we'll pass the exam even though we haven't really done enough to guarantee the result; that we'll get well soon, even though we know from experience that influenza typically affects us for longer than others; etc.
And when "the chips are really down" we redouble our own internal monologues: "You're going to make it!" "Don't give up!" "You're going to ace this!" "C'mon!"

You see this with outmatched tennis players when they win a point against the top seed - even though they are trailing 0:5 with two sets already lost. We are all prone to doing this sort of "self-affirmation" - precisely when logic should tell us that we have little reason to be optimistic.  Well I'm not about to suggest that we should do any differently. This sort of "positiveness", however "unjustified" in bare logic, might well make the difference - and here is why:

Not adding your own obstacles to those already in your path

Life throws plenty of obstacles in your path. It will do so on a daily, if not hourly, basis - from the moment of your birth (if not before) to your last breath. Yes, sometimes good fortune will smile upon you in the form of a "Steve Bradbury moment". But you can't rely on this. Mostly life is a path strewn with big boulders and sharp thorn bushes, interrupted by gorges and deep, rushing rivers and beset by threats from either side.

So why would we - any of us - place additional obstacles of our own on the path? Why would you, for example, run ahead, topple a tree so that it falls across your route, then retrace your steps only so as to meet the challenge of circumnavigating the obstacle? Why would you run up the side of a hill when a perfectly good road has been cut or tunneled through it? Such additional self-made obstacles might serve us well in training. But life is not a training exercise. In life, you don't need to add to the existing obstacles. There are enough out there already.

And yet, many of us will, from time to time, engage in self-doubt: "I can't do it." "He/she is too good." "I can't go on." "It's impossible." Such self-doubt is nothing if not the addition of your own obstacles.

Your own obstacles can often be bigger than those you are expecting. Even if they aren't, they can make the difference between success and failure. At the very least, it is I think true to say that whatever chances you might have had are likely to be scuttled with such thoughts, leaving you with "no chance" as opposed to "little chance".

Distinguishing "positiveness" from delusion

So how do I square the preceding observation with cold, hard logic? How do I differentiate between foolhardy self-delusion and useful self-confidence? It comes down to a subtle, but significant, difference in mental approach, namely suspending disbelief rather than believing.

What does this mean?

Imagine for a moment that you are going to the cinema to watch a movie - let's pick the 2009 film "Avatar". You know it isn't real. There are no such things in reality as "the Na'vi", "avatars" and "unobtainium". There is no planet called "Pandora" (yet). Do you sit through the movie scoffing at everything you find "implausible"? No. In order to enjoy the movie, you suspend your disbelief.

This is to be contrasted with the third option - which is to try positively to believe that what is happening on screen is real. That would be absurd.

[If this seems a little too absurd to contemplate, consider the condition labelled "Avatar Blues" reported in the global community following James Cameron's blockbuster: it seems there were many viewers who so desperately wanted to believe in the reality of the world created on screen that it put them into a state of clinical depression - one that became recognised widely enough to warrant a kind of colloquial "categorisation".]

Belief vs. suspension of disbelief

So there is a difference between "belief" and "suspending disbelief". And it is the same difference you should employ in negotiating your obstacle-strewn journey through life. As the preceding "SUCCESS" meme suggests, it is important to recognize the obstacles that are actually there and treat them with respect. But ultimately you don't want to imagine obstacles that aren't there - or at least imagine them to be larger than they actually are. Or even imagine them as they really are. Because your own imagination can create additional "virtual" obstacles every bit as problematic as the ones in the "real world". Imagining obstacles (however realistically and objectively) can rob you of confidence. And every drop in confidence can be measured as a new boulder heaved onto your path.

Putting a check on the negative side of your imagination necessarily involves some element of "suspension of disbelief" - specifically in relation to factors over which you have no control.
That last bit is important. What stops me, a man approaching 50 who has an immune-related inflammatory illness, from entering a local MMA tournament? Very simply, the fact that I have total control over that decision. I could, on the basis of my past "hard knocks" training, convince myself that I could do well enough. I might imagine that "positive thinking" and "hard training" are all I need for "success". But we all know this would be nothing but self-delusion of the worst kind.

I say "worst kind" not because I would have no realistic prospect of doing well against 20-30 year old opponents, and not because it would be patently bad for my health to attempt to do so. I say "worst kind" because I would also be indulging in some sort of fantasy oblivious to the very real obligations I have towards my young family; obligations I would place in severe jeopardy by taking absurd risks for the sake of some mid-life desire to prove that "I still got it".

In other words, I wouldn't enter an MMA contest because it is something over which I have control. I don't have to "suspend disbelief" about my chances of winning simply because I don't have to enter the contest in the first place.

But, for the sake of argument, let us conjure an implausible Hollywood-style scenario (of the kind that seemed to confront Jean Claude van Damme's movie characters!): What if my "wife and children were held hostage with the threat of execution" unless I entered a UFC match against, say, Jon "Bones" Jones, Anderson Silva or GSP (depending on my weight division)? Well in that (absurd) scenario, of course it would pay me to "suspend disbelief" about my likely chances of being slaughtered. I'd have to do my level best to prepare - physically and mentally.

In fact, my best chances (however slim they might be) of emerging relatively unscathed (never mind landing a few blows of my own) would lie in not only suspending disbelief - but banishing it entirely.

Less extreme instances where banishing self-doubt is appropriate

There are however other, lesser, instances than the "unavoidable" in which you can and should "banish self-doubt" - the most obvious being where you have nothing to lose!

You might, for example, apply for a new job even though it is a "long shot". Why not? If you get an interview, be positive; assume you're going to get the job. Confidence can and does shine through. In this case, you should let it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It doesn't mean you should actually believe you're going to get the job: it just means you shouldn't focus on not getting it. You should be thinking about positive things and not negative possibilities. The fact that those negative possibilities remain is something upon which you simply should not dwell, because doing so won't benefit you one iota.

Somewhere between the "unavoidable" and the "absolutely nothing to lose" extremes there is the "in for a penny, in for a pound"; where you're irretrievably committed to a course of action.
Clearly this would not include being scheduled to take part in the UFC (I could and would "uncommit" myself as fast as possible)! But it would include any number of social situations in which you might find yourself.

For example, I recently went to Victoria to train with my senior James. On the final night he arranged some live entertainment - some excellent musicians who entertained the seminar attendees with amplified music in the Wu-Lin courtyard. James himself played the harmonica and mandolin with the group on a few numbers and one of his sons joined them on guitar as well. It was a relaxed, inclusive and enjoyable night.

But towards the end I was abruptly cajoled into getting up and playing something. My initial reaction was one of great reluctance if not mild terror: I have never been a good guitarist or singer. And I hadn't played my own guitar in many, many months. More relevantly, I'd only ever played in public once before - and that was in 2002.

Having committed to the task, I did indeed banish any self-doubt. I could have thought about the fact that I have rarely played a single song all the way through without mistakes. I could have thought about the fact that I might not remember lyrics. There were so many fears upon which I could have dwelt, all of them realistic. Instead I just got up and played as if I'd been doing it my whole life: as if I had a ready repertoire of songs that people actually wanted to hear and would enjoy. In that respect, (if only in that respect) I am proud of what I managed to do.

How did it work out? It seemed to go well enough. I played 4 numbers all the way through. As I recall, I made a few stumbles in my playing. I'm sure my voice wandered off key here and there. But in the end, what did I have to lose? On balance, very little. My friends and colleagues would not hold me in low esteem for not being a polished musician. In the end, "having a go" was more important than any embarrassment and ego-driven concerns on my part.


People will often talk about "the power of faith" or "believing in yourself". Unfortunately "wishing don't make it so". If it did, then some of the worst "American/UK/Australian/etc. Idol" auditions wouldn't result in completely talentless (and clueless) contestants walking away in tears, their far-fetched dreams crushed in an instant by one or more "nasty judges". You have to be realistic in life. Wishing yourself to success is hardly a realistic recipe. It is a gross over-reliance on feel-good, positive-thinking, self-help mantras.

But this is not to say that there isn't a good case for suspending disbelief in many cases - even if those doubts are objectively very plausible. Suspending disbelief at crucial times is significantly different from a positive belief in relation to something inherently unbelievable.

So what rule can one follow in discerning when a "suspension of disbelief" is prudent and when it is not? I follow this one:

You should suspend - in fact banish - self-doubt if that doubt informs an action:
  • that is unavoidable; or
  • for which there is no down side; or
  • to which you are otherwise irretrievably committed. 
Recognize the obstacles in your path for what they truly are. But don't let your doubt "imagine extra ones into existence". Life places plenty of obstacles in your path already.

[Follow-up article: "Wanting more".]

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic
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