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John Longbottom

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Self-doubt can hit like a summer storm, arriving out of nowhere with no warning. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and suddenly, “Wham” – the sky turns black, the wind whips across the face of the day thrashing the rain against windows and roads leaving mere humans to wonder about the impotency of mankind in the face of the raw power of nature. Self-doubt is tenacious, obsessive and abusive, attacking the mind, body and soul. Coiling, like the fabled serpent of old, around our self-image, it can cripple the body, entangle the mind and swallow the soul.

I know this. I have been at its mercy numerous times throughout my life. Enough times for self-doubt to leave its haunting echo forever ringing in the back of my mind. Question the reason. Question the ability, the suitability, the availability. Question the question. Once a crack in the armor appears the blade of uncertainty will be thrust through the chink to worry the wound and demand submission and eventually surrender.

I cannot remember when we first became acquainted, when I first succumbed to its Siren’s call. Whenever it was, I would not have seen its face, I would not have known its name. I would have called it nerves, when it wormed its way into my subconscious at big swim meets where I was a stranger out of my comfort zone. My hard youthful body would soften, my arms would feel like jelly and the will to win would wilt leaving self-doubt to replace me on the winners’ podium. I would call it denseness when it would seep like a malevolent mist into the classroom when I was taking important exams at school, causing teachers to remark that I was not doing my best.

There was, there is – for it is still lurking about – no rhyme nor reason for when self-doubt does or does not strike. Although I find, casting a poetic nuance on such a beast, overly flattering. The unpredictability of self-doubt is both legend and perplexing. Like a familiar ghost, its absence is just as baffling as its appearance leaving you to worry when it is not around. For instance, I don’t recall its presence when I was in my first band and because I was not very good, self-doubt should have taken its rightful place next to me on those youthful stages, yet I don’t recollect the doubt. The will to play a guitar combined with the desire to be a musician was strong enough to keep doubt at bay.

Was it absent the first time I fell in love? Love, especially first love, conjures up multiple and often competing emotions and character traits. Is it self-doubt or shyness that makes those first words so painfully difficult and clumsy? Is it self-doubt or lack of experience that causes the awkward pause following those fateful first words?

Song lyrics, like jingles and nursery rhymes before can become powerful motivational devices. Pieces of them stick in our minds like limpets to the hull of a ship. Do they subliminally direct our actions, or do we imitate their stories? The incongruity of teenage behavior. I thought I was independently unique, yet I was desperate to fit in. Obviously, it was not as apparent to me then as it is to me now, but my actions, perhaps even my thoughts, were the same as countless other teenagers. I was oblivious then. Now, when I tell the tale, I can smile at the similarity between my experiences and those of several songs from the 1960s.

I first saw her from the top deck of a double-decker bus. And that was it. My heart went…ba-boom, like two kicks on the bass drum, my mind went blank and wow all at the same time. She was standing at the bus stop at the bottom of her street in her school uniform, brown skirt, white blouse and the most stupid hat. I suppose it would be called a beanie, but it looked like the “cup” that holds an acorn – round and brown complete with a little twig thing sticking up from the center. A Convent girl. She wasn’t a novice nun, thank goodness, she was a pupil at Scarborough Girls Convent, a private Catholic school. She had that private school air about her – a little bit snooty, which made her all the more alluring.

Her hair was Celtic black, and brown were her eyes. She had what would become for me, “the classic look.” All the main loves of my life have had variations on the same theme. In later years I have wondered about this, I have questioned this particular attraction. I can no more stop it or avoid it than I can the onslaught of self-doubt. Is it in my genes? Is it preordained? Is it a sub-conscious past-life memory? (Tricky waters, those last two.) Or, and this is the doozy, did my birth mother look like this? Did she have the same hair color and similar facial features? Do I, again sub-consciously, remember my birth mother’s face and subsequently in true tragic, Greek theater style, seek out my mother? I dare say Freud would not be the only one to have a field day with that one. Leaving all psychological texts and classical Greek mythology aside, was I, am I, jut a lost little boy searching for his mother?

But I digress.

I see the damsel.

I am stricken.

She ignores me in a way that only certain women can. I was too young, too naive to recognize the tactic. Who is she? What’s her name? Does she catch this same bus at the same time every morning? I have to see her again. Everything else drained from my mind except her. Infatuation, the first stage of first love, is like a lobotomy. Credit could be given, I suppose, for instilling in the sufferer a certain single-mindedness of purpose. I was a late bloomer. Other kids that I knew had had girlfriends for quite some time. I had not. I went to an all-boys school and was unused to and decidedly uncomfortable around girls of my age. It wasn’t that I was uninterested or that I was unaware of their appeal. When I was in primary school, two girls tried to drag me into the girls’ bathroom. I squirmed and struggled, putting up a convincing pretense of a good fight, but oh how I wanted to be dragged into the girl’s room. How disappointed I was when they gave up and let me go, in a fit of giggles. Some of my other school friends had active romantic lives I, for some reason did not, and I don’t think I can lay that at the feet of self-doubt. It was more a family thing. Whatever the reason, thanks my bus stop girl, I finally joined the world of adolescent romance.

I wanted to, I HAD to see her again, but there was a problem. Normally, I rode my bike to school, every day, rain, snow or shine, or all three together. This was in England after all. Why I was on the bus that day I have no idea. Why I was permitted to ride the bus, was more to the point. My parents did not want me riding the bus every day. It cost money. It was two bus rides, one to the bus station at the town center and then another bus to the school. How was I going to find out about this young woman without riding on the same bus every morning? How was I going to convince my parents into letting me ride the bus without spilling the beans about the mystery girl? Love can make us do many things and being devious is one of those things. Love also, in this case at least, seemed to provide a perfect antidote to self-doubt.

What happened?

I did manage to ride the bus to school more often. I did see her on a regular basis. It took me an extremely long time to muster the nerve to talk to her, which was more due to inexperience and shyness than self-doubt. When I finally did break the ice, she was more beautiful than ever. Eventually, we became “a couple,” enjoying all the thrills and spills of teenage love and that’s when self-doubt decided to visit again this time bringing its ugly sister, jealousy. We rode out the storms, patched up the rifts and basked in the all the glories of first love until my bus stop girl, being a year older, left to go to college, leaving me at home to finish my final year of high school. We broke up and I found another girlfriend, or two or three. I was, after all, in a band and awakening to the glorious mysteries of romance and sex, yet still dueling with the demons of self-doubt let loose like the dogs of war.

There is a difference between self-doubt and lack of self-confidence. The latter, although debilitating, can be controlled if not successfully conquered, whereas the former is furtive, erratic yet totally ruthless and it seems to thrive with age. You can grow out of low self-esteem, but self-doubt grows with you. It flourishes in both our failures and our successes. Am I good enough? That one simple question can instantly sour the sweet taste of triumph and once imbedded in the mind it will linger like a virus. But this is a sneaky and choosey virus, it will not affect every endeavor or achievement it will lurk in the shadows like a cancer until you think you are rid of it and then it will strike. Try as I might, I have never found the antidote, the cure. Alcohol, so-called Dutch courage, provided only temporary relief until it nourished rather than starved doubt’s voracious appetite. Self-help, spirituality, counselling all have been ineffective. Like a shapeshifter, self-doubt masquerades as a healthy ego until the attacks on its being subside and it feels safe to show its true nature once again.

But enough is enough. I have given self-doubt more than its due. It is time to turn off the spotlight and exit stage left. The next act is about to begin.

Will it be good enough?

© John Longbottom 2021

Photo by: Michael Steele

‘Self-doubt’ is an excerpt from ‘I Was Born In The Rain’ – an autobiography/memoir currently in the works. I have not yet finished writing about the past and the past has not yet finished writing about me.

7 comments on “Self-doubt

  1. Ellen Callahan says:

    Wonderful essay–so true and so very eloquent. Best wishes, Ellen

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  2. dolphinwrite says:

    I don’t know if this will help, but a pastor said that doubt is a person. He’s one of the few pastors I believe thinks through what he says.

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    1. Thank you. I think even Jesus was acquainted with self-doubt.

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      1. dolphinwrite says:

        He trusted in his Father, all the way. I remember when he asked that the cup might be taken away, he then say, Thy will be done, Father. I think that’s why many trust him.

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  3. PRPAL says:

    In some ways, your essay mirrors what I – and so many of my women friends experienced, particularly in our professional lives – that hobgoblin cousin to self doubt called the “imposter syndrome”. It was always there, skulking just under the horizon of self-confidence and attainment, that sense of not quite belonging, or being qualified, etc. I finally kicked that nagging voice to the curb when I retired – and looking back now I realize that I was always exactly where I needed to be.

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  4. Dear PRPAL: Thank you for your very interesting and enlightening comment which, of course, led to further investigation. Intriguingly, I had just started writing a new story about a man – a college professor – who adopts a whole new persona to bolster his self-image. Inevitably, the new persona takes over and eventually he has to struggle to rediscover his true self. Food for thought – thank you. John

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