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The Soul of Therapy

Crossing the River of Self-Doubt

Photo Credit: Stock /Getty Images Plus, Joze Flajs

In this week’s The Soul of Therapy, psychologist Kevin Anderson, Ph.D., shares how to tackle self-doubt and low self-esteem.

Q. I find painting helpful in dealing with my emotions and stress. But whenever I spend time painting there’s a voice telling me my painting isn’t any good, someone else could do it better, it’s not high enough quality to share with anyone, etc. This voice shows up not just in painting but in many parts of my life. How do I silence this constant self-doubt?

A. Welcome to the worldwide club of creatives across the centuries who have been well-acquainted with self-doubt! It may be helpful to know that many celebrated artists have heard the voice of doubt and did their art anyway. Vincent van Gogh wrote: “If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” Leonardo da Vinci said, “I have offended God and humankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” Claude Monet offered a rather harsh assessment of himself: “My life has been nothing but a failure.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, says that every time she starts a new writing project her self-doubt shows up again. She tells her self-doubt that it’s welcome to come along for the ride, but it’s going to sit in the back seat and it will not be doing the driving. Julia Cameron, whose book The Artist’s Way has helped many creative people like you, suggests that artists write daily in a “morning pages” journal the doubts and other garbage that gets in the way of their creativity. Once the blockages to creativity have been expressed on paper, we are free to go ahead and create.

I, too, have experienced doubt as a frequent companion in life and the creative process. Here’s a “nested meditation” I wrote about my struggle with doubt:

Doubt is a croc!

Doubt is a croc
waiting daily near the riverbank.

Doubt is a croc
waiting daily near the riverbank
where the wildebeests of my dreams pause and gather.

Doubt is a croc
waiting daily near the riverbank
where the wildebeests of my dreams pause and gather
their courage for the crossing.

Writing this nested meditation helped me see that it’s OK that doubt is waiting for me every day at the riverbank. The only question is whether I have the courage to cross the river each day. I wish you as well the courage to see your crocs of doubt and to keep crossing the river so that the paintings waiting on the other side can find expression through you. If you enjoy painting and it is healing for you, that is enough. Nothing more is required to justify the time you put into it.

Q. It seems there is no end to my list of personal difficulties. I struggle with my marriage, with sex, with body image, low self-esteem, comparing myself to others, and with depression and anxiety. Is there a diagnosis that covers all that? Sometimes, I think my life is just a total mess!

A. Well, life is totally messy for all of us when we identify with what I call the small self or the little ‘i.’ That version of us struggles constantly and is prone to all of the shadow energies you mentioned and more. The leader of a training on mindfulness I attended held up the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and said, “I have a touch of everything in this book; I consider myself polymorphously pathological.” He went on to say that diagnoses are just one language for human suffering, and they are not his preferred language.

Freud believed we all have an unconscious id that contains our deepest, darkest fears and cravings. I suggest to my patients that we also have what I call a “higher unconscious”—a large-I Self that is centered on peace, self-compassion, gentleness, and non-judgment. For those whose spirituality includes a belief in God, the large-I Self can be thought of as a filament that flows with the energies of the Divine. For those who do not use God language, the large-I Self is the version of you that lives with the highest energies possible for human beings. When we spend time getting more familiar with our large-I Self, we see the messiness of the small-i self and realize that it will always be buzzing around us like a robber bee at an elegant outdoor banquet. Eventually, though, we don’t put our attention on it so much. We may even smile as the small-i bee lands on our plate to get a bit of nourishment. Keeping our focus on the large-I Self helps us remember that it’s OK there is always a ‘b’ in the banquet of life but there is a lot more to the banquet than just the ‘b.’

Medications help some people with emotional struggles, but I prefer to go through life heavily meditated. Meditation for me is “I-contact”—a time to remember that the large-I Self is real and accessible to me in each moment. Accessing it in the moment is increasingly likely when I become more and more familiar with it through my daily meditation practice.

Send your questions to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.

Want more advice? Check out Kevin’s last column to discover how couples can regain their spiritual connection.

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