The Healthy Kind of Self-Doubt

Jay Michaelson
April 14, 2022

Last week, I was recording psychologist, Dr. Luana Marques, for Teacher Talks, the podcast I host in the Ten Percent Happier app. Although it wasn’t the main point of her talk, a couple of lines in a script of hers really jumped out at me:

“You’re not good enough!”  “You are unlovable.” “You will never accomplish your dreams.” Although we think we are being rational, the reality is that these thoughts are coming from our emotional brain, which is sensing danger.  Shifting our perspective means really understanding that when our brain is in fight-or-flight, what we see in front of us and what we say to ourselves may not actually be reality.

This simple paragraph expresses, I think, a central insight of mindfulness: that it’s not about repressing or silencing our inner-critical voices, but learning not to trust them quite so much.

On one level, Dr. Luana’s point is pretty straightforward: when we’re under stress, we think, say, and do things that we would never do if we were calmer and more centered. That may seem obvious, but actually changing our behavior is a lot harder than simply hearing someone talk about it.  Behavior change takes work – like the work of meditation.

In meditation, you can see these patterns directly, in real-time, and you can see how they cause you to get stuck.  For example, you might be hungry, tired, or restless, and you can watch your mind spin insane stories about you, meditation, life, the universe, and everything.  Or maybe you’re meditating and a traumatic memory arises, and you can feel your body and mind re-triggered.  Perhaps you hear the voice of the inner critic, like in the quotations above, and feel the pain that it causes you.

If you see this again and again and again and again, eventually the mind learns – the brain learns – not to take the bait so much.  You learn to become a little more skeptical of every thought that pops into your head, especially the ones that are cruel to yourself or others.  You develop the healthy kind of self-doubt – not doubting your self-worth, but doubting your opinions about your self-worth.

This has ethical, even political, consequences as well.  We’re living in a time that dignifies “gut” reactions, a political world that rewards infantile behavior, rage, and over-simplification of complex issues.  But I can tell you from personal experiences that my gut reactions are often profoundly wrong – colored by, among other things, the racial, sexual, and class-based prejudices in which I was raised, as well as by a host of personal biases.  I’ve learned the hard way what John Kerry pointed out in 2004: “You can be certain and you can be wrong.”

Of course, it’s important to listen to our intuitions, but we don’t want to believe everything that pops into our brain, whether it’s about politics, science, or the kinds of people we are. Realizing that we might be feeling a certain way because of stress, bias, or literally just being hungry can stop us from making all kinds of mistakes, from the profound to the ridiculous.

But the most important thing about Dr. Marques’s teaching is what she doesn’t say: that these voices will go away.

In my experience and in the experiences of every teacher, student, and wise person I know, that doesn’t happen.  The inner critic still rages.  The inner adolescent still reacts.  The inner child still cries.  All your parts (to invoke the method of Internal Family Systems here) continue to play their roles, maybe a little less intensely than before, but with a surprising amount of resilience.

The difference is that you don’t hand them the microphone.  Or if you prefer a transportation metaphor, they don’t drive the bus.

That’s how you get ten percent happier – not by magically making the bad parts go away, but by respectfully, self-compassionately noticing them for what they are, and not allowing them to dictate your behavior. 

You don’t have to repress or scold your inner critic (which generally backfires anyway).  You can just recognize her for who she is, and remember, in Dr. Luana’s words, that “what we say to ourselves may not actually be reality.”  Likewise, you can notice anger, neither repressing not expressing it unwisely (in fact, expression is just another way of making it go away so you don’t have to feel it).  You can notice that anxiety is present, and even if you don’t calm down, you can take simple steps to counteract it.  And so on.

This approach is different from a lot of what’s out there in the ‘wellness’ space today.  Some teachers appear to promise that you can stay chill all the time, find your zen, and go to your happy place whenever bad stuff happens.  Which, you know, sometimes is a good thing – but other times is avoidance or self-delusion.  Moreover, constantly treating stress with more Serenity Now doesn’t address the reasons you’re stressed in the first place.

Other teachers tell you to squelch negative self-talk so that you can manifest joy with the power of positive intention.  Good luck with that.  Still, others shame you for being anxious or angry – as if the world doesn’t provide ample reasons to feel what you feel.  Come on.

Admittedly, it’s perhaps a subtle difference – the distinction between calming down and being okay with not being calm.  But in my experience, it’s the difference between a temporary bubble bath and an authentic happiness that is engaged with the world and other people.

Human beings have evolved to feel a lot of feelings and think a lot of thoughts. Some are helpful, some not so much.  We can’t and shouldn’t repress these fundamental human tendencies.  But we can acknowledge them with wisdom and compassion, accepting them as they are, without letting them get the better of us.

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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