Doubt and Self-Compassion

“To be a better person, spend less time filling out your personal scorecard and more time being kind . . . to you.”
Philip Chard, Nature’s Ways: Experiencing the Sacred in the Natural World

No doubt about it, we’ve all experienced doubt at some point in our lives.  It’s part of being human.  And despite all the wisdom we’ve accumulated over our lives, retirement is a time when doubt can cast a shadow over our plans, our activities, our relationships, and our very consciousness.  Doubt is a state of indecision that can hold us back from the happiness of seeing who we really are and who we can be.  Recently, I read about a high school English teacher who was in her last year of teaching before retirement.  She found herself “teary-eyed” frequently, knowing that whatever she did that year, it would be the last time.  She was beginning to wonder if she really should leave her job.  Another story – this time about a newly retired physician in my coastal community.  We met him when he advertised a boat motor for sale.  As we chatted, he shared that he had been retired for a year and was miserable.  He missed his old town, his colleagues and his busy life.  He planned to sell everything and move back.

In both of these stories, the doubt related to change and a sense of loss.  The teacher and the physician were both grieving their losses and doubting they could be happy in retirement.  Doubt can also cause us to question ourselves – “can I do this?’  or even worse, “I don’t think I can do this.”    In my own retirement, doubt has affected my attempts to develop new mindful activities.  In a previous post, I talked about learning how to knit and how I hoped that this new activity would get me “out of my head” and engaged in a mindful, calming hobby.   What I have actually found is that I’m the world’s biggest klutz.  Trying to retain how to do the various stitches has not only frustrated me, it has led me to consider giving up entirely.  Some of the things that have gone through my head are, “I can’t do this.”  “What was I thinking?” “You can’t teach an old dog to do new tricks.”   Another area where doubt surfaces for me is in my meditation practice. My mind skitters from one distracted thought to another every couple of seconds.  Or I find myself hyper-ventilating and unable to establish a breathing rhythm.  I start to question myself – “why can’t I concentrate?” or “what’s wrong with me?”

Fortunately, there are some things we can do to remedy our self-doubts.  According to the Insight Meditation Center (IMC), mindful attention is an appropriate strategy, no matter how strong our doubt.  The IMC developed the RAIN formula to deal with doubt and other forces in the mind that hinder our ability to concentrate or see clearly:

R:  Recognize it.

A:  Accept it.

I:  Investigate it, be curious.  What is it like?  What beliefs or stories do we tell ourselves?

N:  Non-identification.  This is just a passing process that comes and goes, not who we are.


Instead of doubting ourselves, why not show compassion and kindness to ourselves?  It is ironic that we are told by our parents, our teachers and our religious leaders to show compassion to others, but what about ourselves?    Dr. Kristin Neff writes that self-compassion is not the same thing as self-esteem.  Relating to oneself positively (self-compassion) is different from automatically evaluating one’s abilities and efforts as positive (self-esteem).  In Buddhist traditions, self-compassion comes from the mindful recognition that everybody suffers – it is part of the human experience.  The RAIN formula helps us acknowledge, in the moment the thought emerges, that these hindrances to mindful living come and go; they are not who we are.

This is a moment of suffering.

Suffering is part of life.

Let me be kind to myself in this moment.

Let me give myself the compassion I need.

                                            Kristin Neff, Ph.D.

For me, being mindful isn’t about overcoming doubt.  It is about being receptive to doubt as a momentary, passing thought.  So, when I experience doubt and frustration in knitting, or meditating, or anything else, I use the RAIN formula.  I take a short break from the activity and then return, feeling more energized and able to concentrate.  Mindfulness is a journey that allows us to experience life in its fullness – doubts and all!

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