And start Being yourself.
Warning: Controversial anti self-help blog post ahead.
This is a new thing I’m trying out: stop believing in yourself, and just BE yourself.
What’s so bad about believing in yourself? After all, who am I to scoff at the words of motivational moguls like Deepak Chopra or Tony Robbins (who, unsurprisingly, outlines a thorough 11-step process to make you believe in yourself)?
Here’s the thing – I’m not against the good intention behind the ‘believe in yourself’ trope. Self confidence and a positive self-image are important foundations for wellbeing. However, I think that we can sometimes get so hung up on what it means to believe, that we lose sight of what we are trying to believe in. At least, I’ve found that this is the case for me. But perhaps that’s just because my thought pattern is like a complicated labyrinth folded in on itself so many times that there is no longer any entrance or exit – just endless loops. If you might possibly relate at all to that description, perhaps this blog will resonate.
I experienced a dream recently that shook me to my core and made me question the value of focusing on belief. In this dream, I was traveling along a narrow trail carved out of a steep cliff face. Below was a canyon so deep that I couldn’t see the bottom of it. I was paddling a kayak (on a trail, because, well, dream land) and feeling pretty secure in my navigating abilities. As I rounded a bend in the trail, I saw a gap ahead – a piece of the trail that had crumbled into the cavern below. I knew instantly that I would have to jump the gap, and started orienting my kayak accordingly.
“You can do this,” I thought calmly.
“But can you really?” I replied to myself.
“Of course. It won’t be easy, but I’ve got this.”
“But, maybe you don’t.”
“I don’t have a choice, I can make it.”
“But what if you don’t?”
The answer would be unthinkable.
My dream mind was echoing my waking mind, replaying an all-too-familiar narrative in which I try to convince myself that I ‘believe in me’, but deeper down knowing that I don’t. Then I get caught in the ensuing rip current of internal dialogue, trying unsuccessfully to conjure a feeling of confidence that ultimately belies my deeply entrenched fears – of failure, of insincerity, of death. I’m not proud of these fears, but they are fears we all must face, explore, investigate, and hopefully let go of at some point in our journey.
In this particular dream, I was facing all of these fears head on in a literal (at least, in the dream world) life or death moment. Using my paddle, I pushed the kayak along in preparation to leap over the crumbling gap in the trail. The dark canyon below felt oppressive, but I kept looking straight ahead. Time progressed in slow motion. I started to think, “Hey, I can do this!” And in that moment, the paddle flew out of my hands and arced away, falling down into the endless canyon. Somehow, my purse also flung out of the kayak at the same time, carrying away my wallet, my money, my license. I had just lost my means of navigation and my personal identity. I watched as they soared further and further into the darkness, then looked back at the approaching gap.
“I can still do this,” I thought, a little less convincingly.
“No you can’t.”
“Stop, I can do this. I can’t die here. That’s not possible.”
“Or maybe this is the end.”
“No way, I am going to make it across.”
And so continued my internal dialogue, as I tried to tell myself I could easily make the jump, while deeper down feeling like it was hopeless. Back and forth in my mind I went, once second feeling like I was capable, the next second not. I saw some rocks jutting out on the other side of the gap, and planned how I could grab them as I jumped out of the kayak, and how I would pull myself to safety. I visualized myself successfully jumping across, catching the rocks, and landing on the other side of the trail. I thought I believed I could do it.
Then came the jump. The kayak lifted off into the air, veering away from the trail and beginning its inevitable descent into the canyon. “Okay, I can do this. I believe I can do this.” I kept my focus on the rocks and the other side of the trail and pushed off with my legs, leaping up and out. I felt like I was going to make it – there was no other option. I wasn’t going to die here, not like this. It wasn’t possible. I reached, and told myself I could make it. I told myself it was okay to believe in myself.
The rock ledge grew closer and closer. My fingers brushed the rough, cold edges of granite and I saw the firmness of the trail continuing ahead. Then, I slipped. I had miscalculated; I couldn’t get a solid grip. I was falling, both in slow motion and at the speed of light all at once. The canyon walls around me were getting darker and darker. I realized that I hadn’t made it, and that I was falling to my death in that deep, solitary canyon.
“I told you that you wouldn’t make it,” my mind said in defeat.
“I knew I couldn’t really do it,” I replied. “I told myself I could, but I didn’t believe it.”
“This is it.”
I didn’t believe in myself, but I also couldn’t believe that I was about to die. I suffered the ultimate failure. It was the sinking feeling of realization, of being forced to accept a reality I was too scared to face. I lost myself in the blackness, and awoke with my heart racing, my chest tight in a panic that kept me up for the rest of the night.
Since that dream, I’ve thought a lot about the concept of ‘belief’. In the science communication world, you’ll often see memes, Twitter rants or blogs devoted to the idea that you don’t believe in science (or evolution, or climate change, etc.); you either accept the facts or you don’t. While I don’t think that reality is as straightforward as that – humans are naturally driven to form world views and value systems that inevitably frame our perception of reality – I do think it’s useful to consider how our beliefs color our vision, and how they might even get in the way of our true selves.
What my dream showed me is that it’s possible to get so hung up on trying to believe, of convincing ourselves of some version of reality or some version of our ourselves that we want to live in or with, that we forget to appreciate who and where we are in this moment. Who is this ‘self’ that you are trying so hard to believe in? Have you ever stopped to think about what fundamentally makes you who you are? When you strip away the job, the family, the culture, the love of vintage clothes or the passion for social justice, what is left at the core? Is that core bright, shining light? Does it have a color? Is it heavy as the earth? Is it completely hidden?
Believing takes a lot of energy. I’m starting to think sometimes it diverts energy that could be better placed toward simply being.
There are all sorts of tips and guides out there that tell you how to believe in yourself. I’m not saying these are useless or mumbo jumbo. As one site describes it: “Believing in yourself means having faith in your own capabilities. It means believing that you CAN do something — that it is within your ability. When you believe in yourself, you can overcome self-doubt and have the confidence to take action and get things done. When you’re drowning in fears, doubts, and self-sabotaging behaviors, success feels out of your grasp. All of the skills, training, and tools in the world won’t change your life.”
This all sounds great. But what I’m suggesting is that instead of focusing on the belief aspect, we reframe our internal dialogue. Some people might find great benefit in the ‘believe in yourself’ approach, and in that case stick with it. But for me, I find that I start questioning my beliefs the deeper I dig into them. I think that letting go of beliefs, even if temporarily, can have a profound positive effect on self-awareness. Instead of trying to convince myself of what I believe in (even if it’s myself), I am re-focusing on the feeling of being present, aware, and whole in the moment. Because the act of practicing belief in self is still ‘doing’, and therefore can exacerbate the fears and doubts that you seek to dissolve instead of assuaging them.
We are a culture of ‘doing’, a goal-driven, activity-based, identity-centered society. How do you learn to believe in yourself? Follow these ten steps. Do these five daily practices. Say these three morning mantras. Do, do, do. All the doing rattles my brain and adds mental passageways to the tangled labyrinth in my head. Doing can be positive, beautiful even. But can we be without doing? Who are we then? Do we have the courage to even ask?
The subheading of the article I quote above reads “The level of success you see in your life is a direct result of your belief system.” This is where I see the problem with the ‘believe in yourself’ mantra. Why do we need to see success at all in order to find happiness or fulfillment? Hinging our wellbeing on success sounds like a recipe for failure. Sure, sometimes we will succeed and we will feel good about ourselves. But what about when we fail? Or what about when we succeed but still feel like its not enough, that we are not enough? Focusing on success as a measure of how closely aligned you are with yourself is a dangerous concept, in my opinion.
So, instead of constantly creating detailed lists of my strengths and weaknesses, of journaling my hopes and dreams, of honing in on some idea of success, I am letting go, if even for a moment at a time. Sure, I still want to finish the book I’ve been working on for two years. Yes, I want to figure out how to make my dream of rescuing animals and practicing permaculture a reality. But will I be any less me if these things don’t materialize? I hope not. We will always be shaped by external circumstances, but there is a piece of us (you can call it the soul, the heart, the inner light, or whatever you wish) that is unchanging, undefined by context, is whole and beautiful and vibrant in and of itself – and we are that self. I want to feel what it’s like to just be that self. And so, I sit and breathe. It’s not a matter of me believing or not believing – but rather, just being.
The question is whether I can Be, without doing, without thinking, without defining. This is perhaps the timeless question of conscious existence. I may or may not find an answer. But that really isn’t the point. Because I am the answer. You are the answer. We just have to realize it. Sit with it. Embody it. And carry it with us as we try to make a positive imprint in the world.
Recently I’ve come up with a possible alternative interpretation of my dream. Perhaps it wasn’t about failure. Maybe instead my subconscious was trying to explore what it means to let go of everything I’ve been trying to hold on to and instead turn inward. When you are stripped of your identity, your ability to navigate the world, the stable earth beneath your feet, and the path forward, what are you left with? Maybe that deep, endless canyon was my true self, and I was finally falling into it. The experience was terrifying because I was not used to giving in to myself, of leaning back and free falling and trusting in that fall. But maybe that fall is the very thing that is necessary to reconnect with myself.
In the dream, I awoke moments before my body smacked into the hard earth at the bottom of the canyon, or perhaps just as I was hitting it. What would it mean to instead sit with that moment, to let one version of myself die so that I could finally see what remained in the aftermath? After the pain subsides, is there a euphoria of true knowledge, or of no need for knowledge at all? I imagine there is a freedom in truly letting go of all the expectations and goals and self-talk.
Maybe in my next free-fall dream, I’ll sprout wings and explore parts of the canyon I never knew existed. Who needs a ten step plan or firm trail when you have wings?