When Judgment and Self-Doubt Collide
New angles on your daily reality
I’m heading down a philosophical rabbit hole. Won’t you join me? Hopefully, we won’t get lost or encounter any bats. Eventually, we’ll come up for air and sunlight, followed by a refreshing beverage, which we will certainly have earned.
(This is the third in a series of related musings. If you have time to waste,
read Part 1, What if You Could Manage Mistakes Before You Made Them? and
Part 2, A Reality Check for Your Doubt-Free Existence.)
First things first. I coach writers to understand their “why” before embarking on a big writing project.
So here’s my “why” for this little piece:
There are rational and irrational bases for doubting yourself, and it’s useful—perhaps a relief, if not a revelation—to recognize the difference. That way, the next time self-doubt comes calling, you can pull back and analyze the grounds for your doubt—and decide whether you’re being an idiot or not. (I don’t really think you’re an idiot, but you take my point.)
Now into the Black Hole of Philosophy we fall…
…beginning with a story…
Epistemic self-doubt: fancy phrase for a neat idea
There once was a doctor who was awake for 36 hours. She was called upon in this state to make a diagnosis that seemed dramatic. A colleague suggested that perhaps her sleep-deprived state had caused her to err. The doctor immediately doubted herself—her capacity to make the right call. But—importantly—she recognized that her doubt had a rational basis. It made sense, in fact, that “a maximally rational person in her situation would have a lower confidence,” says philosopher Sherrilyn Roush.
This provides us, Roush says, “with a way of representing the state of self-doubt coherently.”
What would the opposite of that look like? What if someone is in a state of self-doubt that is fundamentally incoherent (not rational)?
Take the doctor once more. Imagine that she doubts her diagnosis in a particular case not because she’s sleep-deprived, but because she was ranked last in her class in medical school. (This is my notion, not Roush’s.)
I submit to you that’s not a coherent basis for the doctor to doubt her diagnostic competence overall. There’s no convincing cause-and-effect here, as there may be with sleep deprivation’s impact on judgment.
When your judgment is pitted against your doubts, it’s not always clear which side wins. That is the very nature of epistemic self-doubt (epistemology being the branch of philosophy having to do with knowledge).
This warring state can surely turn anybody into a real head case—and send them into a doom loop.
Bear with me through another of Roush’s examples to make the effect of this really clear:
Suppose you identify murder suspect #3 in a line-up, for a murder you witnessed first-hand. You’re sure you’ve fingered the killer. But then you read a paper claiming that eyewitnesses are overconfident when they’re under duress.
So now you doubt your convictions and can’t figure out what you know or what you think you know about which suspect is the real murderer. In other words, your own judgment is suddenly butting heads with your doubts.
How do you know if what you believe to be true, is actually true? Does someone else know better than you? Are your judging faculties doing you a service…or a disservice?
Let’s drag Socrates into this, because why not?
Socrates harbored doubts about the true meaning of piety, virtue, and other nice things. He longed to possess certain knowledge of these exalted states, but doubted that he did, indeed, know enough about them.
What Socrates did not doubt, however, was his capacity to attain the knowledge he sought, to learn what piety and virtue were really all about. He was okay with being in touch with his ignorance.
I deduce from this that Socrates’ epistemic self-doubt was of the coherent variety: He didn’t know everything but he didn’t doubt his capacity to learn what he needed and wanted to know. He didn’t question his ability to believe in what he learned to believe in. So his judgment wasn’t in conflict with his doubts.
(Here’s how the universe works: Reading Barbra Streisand’s memoir, I just came across this passage, which perfectly illustrates Socrates’ attitude around doubt: “I realized I didn’t have to know all the answers [about developing a script] at this point. I just had to trust that I would find them in the process.”)
Now let’s sprinkle in a little Descartes
Descartes, on the other hand, was a total mess. He doubted literally everything about what passed for reality around him. He aimed to throw all his beliefs out the window—to the extent that he doubted his belief to form a belief. It strikes me that Descartes was made up of pure doubt, since he refused to trust his own judgment in anything except his willingness to doubt everything.
I know this is how philosophy works sometimes, and perhaps it was all fun and games for Monsieur D., but I brand Descartes an incoherent self-doubter. So there. (Philosophers can tell me I’m full of s*hit. That’s okay. I’m willing to believe them. Hah.)
Can someone please land this plane?
Yes, but not quite yet.
The good and evil of doubting
For a long time, people believed that decaying meat gave birth to maggots and that a piece of cheese wrapped in a piece of cloth eventually bred mice.
This phenomenon was known as spontaneous generation.
Louis Pasteur, the famed French microbiologist, vociferously doubted the validity of experiments purporting to prove the properties of spontaneous generation. His doubts led him to overturn this bogus theory that totally bollixed correlation and causation.
Pasteur was a good doubter. His doubts proved to be productive—for his reputation and for the world.
The flipside of this is the “illegitimate cooption of doubt,” whereby doubts are exploited in ways that are not beneficial to anyone. This arises all too often in the scientific community, when the validity of researched findings is called in question (i.e., doubted) not because the data or line of inquiry itself is inherently faulty, but because someone seeks to misrepresent the findings and raise doubts to serve their own agenda.
The belief that vaccines cause autism raises doubts about the underlying scientific efficacy of vaccines. The belief that tobacco is not harmful to humans because some people who smoke live a long time also engages in doubt-mongering.
“Doubt can delay or obstruct public health or environmental protections,” writes David Michaels in The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception, “or just convince some jurors that the science isn’t strong enough to label a product as responsible for terrible illnesses.”
That’s the evil side of doubt, right there.
Finally, some closure! And advice!
Wading through all this philosophy leads me to two observations for creative people wrestling with doubt. (Only two, you ask, after all that? Well, wisdom is hard to come by. And I think these are pretty big points.)
FIRST: Not all doubts are created equal, so pay attention.
I encourage you to examine the source of your self-doubt to determine if it is coherent or incoherent.
Meaning, can you trace your doubts to a specific, temporary cause such as fatigue, a headache, a major distraction…or does it feel amorphous and existential with no clearly identifiable trigger?
Do this on a regular basis—on different days, in different moods, while engaged in different aspects of your craft, whatever it is.
I suspect you’ll often find a coherent reason for your self-doubt. Existential self-doubt is real, but occurs less often, and I’ll have to address that another time.
SECOND: Self-doubt need not overtake self-belief.
Meaning, don’t be like Descartes; don’t lose confidence in your convictions about what matters, especially around your artform. Once you begin to doubt virtually everything, you’ll stop believing in the work you are making or wish to make.
Instead, believe, like Socrates (and Barbra!), in your capacity to pursue the knowledge that helps you achieve your goals, even if there is so much you don’t know right now. Don’t doubt or second-guess yourself on the basis of ignorance alone.
Believe in your capacity to believe in your capacity. (Don’t you love a good tautology?)
If you are still reading…
I truly want to hear from anyone who got through this entire piece. I’m tremendously thankful. I had a lot of fun making it.