Unless you’re completely delusional or utterly narcissistic, you’ve probably battled with the formidable foe of self-doubt. This enemy of progress and creativity pulls no punches and spares no feelings. He constantly nitpicks, nags, and criticizes; continually undermining the positive and the good that can come from confidence and believing in oneself. He’s ugly, passed over, and jealous, and he engages in constant character assassination. He’ll tell us we look fat in those jeans, our art is crap, our music sucks, we’re boring and stupid, no one really likes us and we have no friends.
He’ll also masquerade as the voice of reason, as healthy self-criticism. He’ll tell us that he’s just trying to help, to tell us the things our friends won’t tell us. He’ll say he’s trying to save us time and effort and embarrassment by dissuading us from taking on pointless endeavors we’re not capable of successfully completing. He’ll say he’s protecting us from inevitable failure. He’ll remind us that other people are better looking, more talented, more sophisticated, more intelligent, and more capable.
Nobody likes this guy. He’s the downer at the party, the negative influence in the room. He’s ugly and jealous but he’s persistent. He constantly talks. He waits and watches, quietly sitting in the corner, until he sees an opportunity present itself. He’ll see the possibility of success beckoning and then he’ll strike, whispering the worst things into our ears to keep us from taking the chance. When we do fail or when something unfortunate happens he lights up with satisfaction and is the first to say “I told you so”.
We ask him to leave but he refuses. Eventually it might break into a fight and we might get him to leave the room for a while but he eventually comes back. Sometimes we try to kill him but it’s not really possible; this guy just won’t die.
The sad reality is that this guy just won’t go away. In most cases he’s our companion for life.
That is how I envision self-doubt.
My ugly little companion showed up around third or fourth grade. I can remember him talking to me in gym class, when everyone else seemed to be able to hit balls, shoot baskets, climb ropes, or do just about anything athletic. He was quick to point out my physical deficiencies and to show me how much more capable my classmates were. He told me being tall made me look stupid. My parents divorced and my mother’s disinterest in me and my welfare were a feast for this guy. He ate it up and he got stronger. I was unwanted but I was useful because I provided cash in the form of child support from my father. She married one of her extra-marital affairs and he couldn’t stand me either. I was a nuisance to him, a bother, an annoying little gnat buzzing around. That internal little monster loved this guy and he was quick to point out all the ways in which I was a problem both to him and to my mother. My dad countered my ugliest of companions, he never fed the little monster anything, never helped him at all. For that I thank him. That helped keep him under control a bit, to keep him from getting too big and too powerful and consuming me completely while I was still too small to defend myself. He was a strong little bugger though, and he hung on, eating up all the sustenance my mother and stepfather could provide.
Once I got to junior high I realized I was different. I became the bane of my school, an outcast who didn’t fit in and didn’t deserve to be treated like a human being. My little monster loved junior high; he couldn’t get enough. He became fat and bloated, satisfied and full. He worked his way deeper into my head, growing roots down deep and settling in, like a parasite.
But time passes and things change. My ugly little companion didn’t like it when I got a girlfriend who not only didn’t leave me, but married me. He also didn’t like it when I had kids, despite having reproductive problems. He hated it when I graduated from high school and he was super-pissed when I learned to play guitar and formed a successful local band. He was so upset when I finished my first novel; you should have seen him! He was livid when I graduated from college and he cursed me all the way out to St. Louis during the move. When I got my first IT job he didn’t talk to me for weeks.
However, when the job went south though he was more than willing to step in and remind me of my deficiencies. When I lost my job he swooped in and talked non-stop for months. Even after I went back to work he talked constantly over the next couple years. He was persistent. He also came back last summer at my current job to remind me why I wasn’t qualified for it, to prove to me that things just don’t work out.
But over the past year or so I’ve been starving him. I’ve taken away most of his food and he’s surviving only on scraps I accidentally drop to the floor. He’s thin and gaunt; gone are the days of being happy, fat, and active. He barely talks at all now, just pathetic whispers that I mostly ignore. When I became warehouse architect at my current job it was like a knife in his belly. When I began writing again it was as if I burned him with scalding water. Truth be told, I kinda enjoyed that, given all the shit he’s done to me over the years.
I don’t think I can kill him. I’ve tried, but he’s probably going to live as long as I do. I’ve learned though that the trick is not to feed him and to be vigilant that no one else does as well. If I can keep him chained up in a dark attic deep within my mind, without food and water, he’ll stay weak, obedient, and – most importantly – quiet.
You might want to feel sorry for him; don’t. He doesn’t deserve your pity, or mine. Given all the shit he’s done to me over the years he deserves much worse. You want to know the last thing I said to my ugly little companion, my nasty little destroyer of self-worth before I locked him away to starve indefinitely?
Payback’s a bitch.