What To Do With Doubt & Discouragement
I don’t know about you, but I’m in shock that it’s September. Where did the summer go? The season is changing. School is starting, sweaters are on sale, and there are just a few months left of 2011.
It’s a time of transition, and it tends to make us question ourselves. Are we where we hoped we’d be? Are we doing enough for others, being enough?
In August, my husband and I faced multiple stressors: overwork, fatigue, illness, death, mourning, (minor) injury and car breakdown among them. It was enough to leave me weary…and when I get tired, doubt and discouragement tend to come knocking.
But when they do, I think of something else I witnessed in August, something that trumps that list of stressors. A small breakthrough, something I never thought I’d see.
My family and I were gathered at the home of some close friends, celebrating their son’s second birthday. Willie was with us at the party, but he kept to himself, watching his DVD player. He likes to see our friends, but he prefers quiet to socializing. I checked in with him a few times, to keep him company and to make sure that he wasn’t feeling agitated or overwhelmed. He was relaxed and calm, and I felt relieved.
Then, when it was time for dessert, he came in to the living room where we were gathered. My parents had called him in and asked if he’d like to play a song on our friends’ piano. But I felt myself tense up; would he feel thrown by the unexpected request? What if he made a mistake? He’s a perfectionist; one wrong note could be a disaster. What if he threw a tantrum and broke the piano? (There’s precedent.)
But he didn’t. He played well, and we all applauded. Yet still, I couldn’t relax. Would the loud noise of the applause irritate him? Would the attention bother him?
Then, as the birthday boy was about to make his entrance, my mom said, “Willie! How about if you play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the piano while we sing?”
As you can imagine, I was tense beyond all reason by this point. But Willie was not. He was in his element. He played ‘Happy Birthday’ with stateliness and pride, and, though he jumped off the piano bench as soon as he was done, I could tell that he was pleased.
I’d underestimated him. True, he’s struggled with noise and attention and perfectionism in the past. (Frankly, so have I.) But in that moment, he showed me: he’d grown. He’d changed. My parents had allowed him the dignity of risk, and he’d been up to the challenge. And I had tears in my eyes.
Yes, he still struggles with (regular) outbursts. But he’s far from where he was a few years ago, when I was afraid to be in the same room with him. When he couldn’t stop himself from hurting us. When he was in so much pain that every day was a torment.
There was a time not so long ago when I thought I’d lost my brother, when I thought I’d never be able to feel safe with him, much less proud of him. As such, watching him play the piano at the party felt like a miracle to me.
It also reminded me that our smallest actions, when done with love, have the power to liberate others. To literally set them free from their doubts and help them to believe.
But how to get there?
As Brene Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Overcoming self-doubt is all about believing we’re enough and letting go of what the world says we’re supposed to be and supposed to call ourselves.”
Here’s the thing, though: that can’t be done in a vacuum. We have to do it in the context of relationship. It’s too hard to let go of ‘not being enough’ if we don’t have someone, somewhere, who believes we are enough. Who has believed in us when we didn’t have the strength to believe in ourselves.
Willie has started believing in himself because my parents have never given up on him. In turn, I’ve started believing in myself more because of the amazing comments and encouragements I’ve received from you. Though we may never have met, you have helped me to be braver, to be stronger, to write when I feel empty, to hope when I feel like giving up.
So even when you are down– even when you are sad– encourage someone else. Pay it forward before it feels like it’s even there. I promise, it will come back to you.
If you’re not at a place to offer encouragement right now, that’s okay. Resolve instead to ask a loved one for help. Offer compassion to yourself as you’re struggling. (As Liz Gilbert wisely wrote, “To thine own self be very, very kind.”)
Wherever you’re at, set an intention to set an example. Act with kindness when someone else is being rude. Share your strength with someone who is weak. Tell the truth when you’re tempted to hide. Just as Willie’s playing gives me courage, your act of bravery may make an essential difference to someone else.
Who knows? The life you change just might be your own.
Finally, I heard a beautiful song this weekend, “Crushed and Created” by Caitlyn Smith. (You can listen here.) I share the chorus with you in hopes that it will embolden and empower you as it has me.
We are crushed and created
We are melted and made
We are broken and built up, in the very same way
What I thought I could handle
What I thought I could take
What I thought would destroy me leaves me stronger in its wake.
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About Caroline McGraw
I'm a would-be childhood paleontologist turned full-time writer, digging for treasure in people and uncovering sacred stories in ordinary days. I grew up in New Jersey (think peaceful suburb, not Newark), graduated from Vassar with honors, then served as a live-in caregiver and program director at L'Arche Washington DC. Nowadays, my husband renovates our historic 1901 home in northwestern Alabama, while I try (& fail) to keep our cat Bootsie from developing an epic tuna fish addiction. It's a beautiful life. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.