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Leaping before I look (How I get past self-doubt to find faith)

Thursday, October 14, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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It is in my nature to leap before I look too hard.

I follow my enthusiasm without too many questions. If something fits well with my core values, excites me and seems generally in line with what matters most to me, then I’m in. Boots and all.

Later I’ll figure out the details.

Which is not to say that I don’t go in with a plan. If a plan is called for, I’ll put together a plan. But what I won’t do is worry about whether or not it will work. On the big things in life, I waste very little time worrying.

(I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about smaller things. Like what more I could have done to save the house plant that seems to have died in my care while house-sitting. That, I will worry about until my boyfriend gently suggests that I either do something about it or *ahem* shut up about it.)

Years ago I found out that my dream job was coming up at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. On paper, I was not qualified for this job. But I knew I could do it and I knew it was the only job worth staying in New Zealand for at the time. So I put together a plan of how I would tackle the role, applied and convinced the panel (some of whom were understandably skeptical) that I could do the job.

There were plenty of people who were worried I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Some of them were happy to share those doubts with me. I, however, refused to join their ranks.

I had faith that if I kept taking the next sensible step, which included taking advice from people who had more experience than me and getting people on my team who had the skills I lacked, I would get to the finish line on time (and under budget).

And I did. Though not without making many mistakes and learning many lessons along the way.

More on that in a minute.

When I took my job in the Gaza Strip I had two weeks to pack up my life and move to the other side of the world. To the middle of a conflict-zone. To do a job for which I had no experience.

I never doubted that I would figure out a way to do it.

I leap first. Before the self-doubt monsters can get their talons into me and keep me stuck. Once the leap has been taken, and the path has been selected, momentum takes over and there is no time to indulge self-doubt or fear.

There is a job to be done. So you get on with it.

I did the same when I went to Afghanistan. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the airport in Dubai, about to board my flight to Kabul that I suddenly wondered whether I would actually be able to adjust to life in yet another war-torn country. Whether I would be able to do the job I’d signed on to do.

But even in that wobbly moment, I knew that I would find a way to manage.


Why was I so certain?

There are three main reasons. And none of them are because I’m braver, more talented, or smarter than you. Because I’m not.

But my life has equipped me with certain tools that help me beat the self-doubt monsters and have faith that everything will be okay, that even if everything is not okay, everything is actually okay.

I’ve been getting really curious lately about how I came to acquire those tools, because I want to share them with you. With anyone whose self-doubt is getting in the way of their good work in the world.

So this is not a finished, polished, wrapped-up-and-tied-with-a-bow “5 steps to beat self doubt” kind of a post. It’s more of an exploration. I’m mining my own history to see where the clues lie, and digging about a bit to see what can usefully be shared.

The first clue I came across is that I grew up in a very stable home.

Day-to-day marital disagreements and normal teen angst and rebellion aside, there was very little conflict and no violence in my home. Although my parents were by no means wealthy when I was a child, we always had enough to eat, a safe home and a warm, dry bed. My parents and sisters and I were spared any major illness or accident throughout my childhood. My parents are both alive, still together, and happy.

This is part of my story, part of my experience of the world, and it has certainly played a big part in giving me a very solid ground from which to go out into the world.

I want to acknowledge this, and to acknowledge that this is not everyone’s experience. I believe that my experience of family as a child, and now as an adult, have made it easier for me to have faith that things are going to work out okay.

But things didn’t always work out okay. In one terrible three week period – the three weeks before my wedding – my best friend (and bridesmaid) lost her brother, another dear friend lost her husband, a third friend lost her baby and a fourth committed suicide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that inauspicious beginning, my marriage ended only four years later in heartbreak and divorce.

I abandoned the faith of my childhood, left my family and all my friends and spent eleven months traveling in Africa and the Middle East only to discover that my sense of failure and inadequacy came with me wherever I went. Back home, I spent six weeks in bed – getting up only long enough each morning and evening to hide my profound depression from my housemates.

That all to say that I am familiar with the monsters of grief, anxiety, self-doubt and despair. Very familiar.

My leaps of faith haven’t always worked out the way I expected them to either.

When I finally got my dream job, in Afghanistan, I spent the first six months on the job profoundly depressed. I went through a complete crisis of faith not only in my own ability to do the job but also in the job itself – I wondered whether there was any point at all to the humanitarian work we were purportedly there to do.

Things were not okay. And yet, when I finally stopped fighting the questions and the sadness and allowed myself to simply be sad and confused, I realised that actually everything was okay. Even when things are not at all okay in the way I wanted and expected them to be okay, they are still okay.

What does that mean ‘Things are still okay’? What can that possibly mean when people in Afghanistan are being killed by poverty, disease, narco-crime and war every day? It doesn’t mean that I accept that suffering as unavoidable or acceptable. It doesn’t mean that I stop doing all that I can do to bring more justice, more kindness, more safety to the world.

What it means to me is that I can focus on what I am doing and – most importantly – how I am doing it, and then I can let go of needing to control or even worry about the outcome. The outcome is much bigger than me.

Which brings me to the third clue I came across in my excavations.

Recently I came across the notes from an evaluation of that big project I took on at the Human Rights Commission. Even now I wince at some of the harshest criticism of my short-comings as a project manager. At the time I certainly went to sleep crying some nights, but I always woke up in the morning thinking only about how I could assimilate the criticism to make the project better.

The truth is, in some areas of that role I sucked. But what the project was about – setting a new strategic agenda for human rights in New Zealand, one that included issues like poverty and social and economic disparities – was so much bigger than me that I never wavered from my commitment to do my very best.

This is the third clue I’ve found about how I get past self-doubt: I remember that what is happening is bigger than me.

One of my teachers is Seane Corn, and Seane often says to us;

“There is so much work to be done right now and the question is not ‘Who am I to do this work?’, but ‘Who am I not to do this work?’ How dare I let my self-doubts and fears get in the way of the work that needs to be done.”

This morning I was listening to Jen Louden interview Christina Baldwin for The Teacher’s Path – and Christina talked about the same thing, getting out of our own way so that we can be a conduit for the bigger thing that is wanting to happen.

“We are up to something as a species that is profoundly important right now. We need to attend to this and … my life is part of a decision that’s going on in the human race. I know the kinds of values and contributions I want to make in that decision. And that’s where I have to stand. So, when I get dragged down, I just say to myself … ‘What are you up to? What are you born to be doing at this time?’ And then I get regrounded and that voice just shuts off because I’m not in the same room with it.”

When I heard Seane and Christina’s words I recognised something that I have often experienced in my own life: I can find the audacity to do work that seems far too big for me because I know that the work is bigger than me and because I know that I’m not doing it alone.

This is what faith looks like to me right now: I am not the whole story. I am only a very small part of the story. And I need only do the work that I was born to be doing right now – with integrity, with compassion, with courage.

As Karen Maezen Miller once said: Faith is taking the next step.

So – those are some initial thoughts on the clues I’m uncovering from my own life about how I get past self-doubt and find the audacity and faith to do things I’m not sure I’m ‘big’ enough for.

What I’d love from you are reflections on your own life. How do you move past self-doubt? Where do you find faith?


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34 Responses to "Leaping before I look (How I get past self-doubt to find faith)"

  1. Brigitte says:

    Marianne – This is a profound and beautiful post. I am going to have to think on it a bit before even attempting to respond in a thoughtful way. But a major catalyst in my life was reading yet another profile of someone doing something that I wanted to do — and finally realizing I didn’t have to feel jealous any longer. There was nothing stopping me from building the life I wanted to leave.

    That’s partially why I named my blog Covet…because to me, the sin isn’t knowing what you want, it’s failing to go for it (assuming what you want is ethical!).

  2. Brigitte says:

    Um…by life I wanted to leave…I meant live. Sigh.

  3. This is beautiful, Marianne, and just what I needed to read right now while I imagine this new self-employment life I’ve stepped into. I feel a pretty strong calling to a new thing called “Sophia Leadership”, but I keep letting doubt and fear get in the way. When I remember to step out of my own way, things happen in more powerful ways than I could imagine.

    I, too, thoroughly enjoyed Christina’s interview with Jen. And I feel doubly blessed in that I get to spend a few days with Christina next week at a Circle/Story retreat.

  4. Marianne Elliott says:

    Brigitte – I’ve had that same experience! Which made me realise that it’s a good thing to pay attention to all my feelings, even the ones I think of as ‘bad’. They are always pointing me in the direction of my most honest self.

    Heather, I must confess a little envy! But mostly I’m just thrilled for you. Enjoy the circle/retreat with Christina, I just know it will be a time of great nourishment.

  5. Jemma Allen says:

    Hey Marianne – thanks for writing, as always, with honesty and clarity. One thing stood out for me – it was the language of being able to “beat the self doubt monster”… Which made me think about ahimsa. And about how my self-doubt monsters are doing their best to save me – from failure or embarrassment or some other thing they’re afraid of. And that I don’t need to beat them so much as befriend them, and help them get better oriented to the world I actually live in. They often have a very narrow and skewed view… but they seem willing to soften and reconsider when treated with respect and kindness… I think for me there is something about faith in love: that love matters, that love changes things… even the self-doubt monsters!!

    Glad you’ve found your way to shine brightly in the world…

  6. sas says:

    I love this post and relate so much to the ‘everything will be ok’ approach.
    I always had that self-belief but it was hidden under fear and doubt so I would do stuff and be scared. I think this comes from learning independence and resilience early on. I learnt at a very young age that I had to do things for myself.
    The underlying fear and doubt ceased after my mother died. I realised that the worse thing that could happen, had happened and I had come through it stronger: more equipped to deal with life, more empathic, more awake.
    Gratitude and faith play a huge part in my more evolved self-belief these days 🙂

  7. Nicola says:

    I absolutely adore Seane too. I hadn’t heard this from her, but I heard something similar from Dave Navarro recently. He said that by refusing to offer your service, you are doing a great disservice to those you could help, because of your own insecurities. He compared it to medicine and said that you wouldn’t refuse to give someone drugs that could help them if you could, right?

    That was a real wake up call for me and helped me start to move forward with my own projects to help people stuck in unfulfilling jobs and unfulfilling lives. I felt embarrassed to express how miserable it had made me to be in this situation myself, kind of like saying “poor me. I was earning tons of money and it was like soooooo terrible” while other people had real problems. I’m finally getting on with it now.

  8. Lanham True says:

    Being only a small part of the story — what a wonderfully humbling (bracing, even) concept! I also love that you acknowledged your own solid upbringing; so often I hear people of similar foundations exhorting others to just…be better (e.g., make more money). They did it, so why can’t you? Not so simple for those of us who may lack the gift of such tools. Then again, as you so eloquently pointed out: At some point, usually over & over again, we all must either bullshit our way into building a solid perch in a shifting, uncertain world, or curl up & die. Or, in my own case, & it sounds like yours, sometimes maybe a little bit of both! Tea & chocolate, anyone?

  9. Marianne–
    I really resonated with this post. Did a re-post on Finding Ground.

    Thank you–

  10. Kristen says:

    As usual, the timing to find this lovely post from you was perfect. I heard a dharma talk the other night on doubt, & what resonated with me was the direction to “hold doubt in a very big space,” recognizing that the situation – and the world in which it occurs – is far to large for my little insecurities to be an abiding truth.

    What can we do but our best? Guided by wisdom, fueled by our intention… and we will make a difference.

    Thank you, Marianne.

  11. Yuki says:


    Thank you for writing this for the rest of us to see. These 12 simple words do not fully express the life I feel in my heart right now. Off to do my yoga today. For all of this, thank you.

  12. Auren Kaplan says:

    Hi Marianna,

    A friend of mine who works now in the Gaza Strip in peace-keeping and conflict resolution posted this link.

    I found particular meaning with this quote: “There is so much work to be done right now and the question is not ‘Who am I to do this work?’, but ‘Who am I not to do this work?’ How dare I let my self-doubts and fears get in the way of the work that needs to be done.”

    I am involved in the movement of social entrepreneurship. The movement aims to use business as a systems-wide driver of critically important social good. At times I feel like the ideas I have might be too ambitious, might do too much, but I think that’s silly. The shift in humanity you mention, in my opinion is real, and I recognize now that the world is flat. There are those who act, and those who talk about those who act. We are among them, the do’ers, and I take that leap with gusto (and when I can’t I lament and sometimes beat up on myself). It’s difficult to continually push in the direction you know is right when the only prods of encouragement come from your subconscious. But it is the most meaningful work, and our efforts are resonated throughout the world. Thank you for this post. I salute you and wish you best success in your work.

  13. Roxanne says:

    Beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking once again. Re-posted here:

  14. Dear Marianne,

    Thack you for your eloquent post and for sharing your mining. I share the same kind of cliff-diving figure it out courage, where you just dive in and go for what it is your heart speaks. Yet, I do struggle, a lot, with self-doubt. I resonated with how you expressed “it will all be okay.” In Brazil, the expression is “tudo vai dar certo” and said by the right person, those are the most comforting words.

    I am a very analytical person and I was just thinking today how treating myself like my own mother (with the unconditional and huge wide love I have for my daughter) is the way for me to work with the doubt and self-criticism. For me those words, everything will be okay are a mother’s words.

    It can be really hard to reconcile the large scale injustices with the knowingness that everything will be okay. I am not sure that I can even articulate this complexity.
    I do like your reference to the bigness of it all and turning it back around inside, of doing what we can do and letting go of the big picture- very Gita vairagyam.

    Thanks for writing!

  15. Tara Bradford says:

    Beautifully-written, my friend. No doubt your experiences and wisdom will help many searching for the way forward. xoxox

  16. Tammy says:

    Such beautiful words to carry with me. I am so glad I found you (and 30 day yoga!). I am cheering for you from USA! As my husband and I finish the work we are doing now, we hope to join you wherever you have leapt to next! 🙂

  17. Mary Parker says:

    Lovely post xxx

  18. Swirly says:

    This is so fascinating! At a VERY young age, I came to the realization that if there was something I wanted in my life, I would have to be the one to create it, to make it happen. My family life was not especially peaceful or stable and I am an only child, so I think I’ve just been used to walking on this earth on my own in many ways. My bigger wells of self-doubt have to do with relationships; that is where my more difficult challenges exist.

  19. Thank you for such a powerful and moving post. I too believe that faith is about seeing beyond what the eyes can see and understanding there is a much bigger picture, bigger story where some parts haven’t even been unveiled. Yet ever step we take is crucial to our journey, being present and mindful are key. You are a beautiful soul and I am very much enjoying being part of the 30 days of yoga.

  20. Gwyn says:

    This was the first thing I came to this morning and how perfect it is. I am restructuring my goals in a business I am envisioning for myself after having all my equipment stolen. I had a major realization and recently and while journaling this morning it came clearer. This post clarifies it even more. I AM NOT ALONE. I have stubbornly been trying to change the world all by myself and never getting far because I don’t know how. Sean’s quote has resonated with me before ‘Who am I to do this work?’, but ‘Who am I not to do this work?’ Yes who am I not to, but again seeing myself as alone. What is finally getting through to me is I do not have to be alone. Like Swirly I learned at an early age that it was up to me to create what I wanted in life, but somehow that also came with the message, you are on your own. You say
    “I can find the audacity to do work that seems far too big for me because I know that the work is bigger than me and because I know that I’m not doing it alone.”
    For the first time in my life I am moving forward with the faith that I am not alone, and that my work will take me to the help I need. Thanks for the clarity and inspiration.

  21. […] morning the first thing I read was this post by the lovely Marianne Elliot. My response to her was this: This was the first thing I came to this morning and how perfect it […]

  22. grace says:

    Marianne! That post blew me away and spoke straight to me. “I can find the audacity to do work that seems far too big for me because I know that the work is bigger than me and because I know that I’m not doing it alone.”

    I’m 20 years old and feel like I have so much to do, being pulled in so many different directions, with so many expectations its hard to listen to my own, and remember what I want amongst it all. The love and unconditional support for my family and friends, despite the raiesd eyebrows, concerned looks and awkward pauses when i tell them of my BIG, SCARY plans for the future is something that keeps me going forward, despite everything. And the knowledge that I could live a regular life if I wanted to, do things as everybody else does if I wanted to, but that it is a choice. A conscious decision and process I am particiapting in – to be different, to step up and to create change.

    And, how could I forget – blogs like this, words such as these, stories and lives of people who I have not met and do not know – but share their wisdom and lessons regardless.

    Thank you!

  23. megg says:

    Marianne – so much in here hit home deeply in me. I am not always a leaper, or terrifically confident in my leaping skills. I am, however, about to move into a job that requires me to move out of my zone and will require lots of leaping and asking and learning. I think I will have a think about all of this and come back with my answers to your questions.

    As always, thank you for the inspiration!


  24. Walter says:

    Sharing your wisdom here I have learned something. Though I always have doubt about myself I do believe in the principle of taking the first step so the next will be revealed. Life is full of mysteries and we won’t be able to explore them unless we get past by our doubts. 🙂

  25. […] really appreciated Jemma’s comment on my post a couple of weeks ago about ‘getting past self-doubt to find faith‘. She said: “One thing stood out for me – it was the language of being able to […]

  26. […] she wrote a post about how to get things done when the self-doubt monsters are making their presence felt.  She […]

  27. Joe Dixon says:

    This is a wonderful post. I only just found your blog this morning. This is the first full post that I read of yours. It is inspirational and life-affirming. I frequently find myself in the mode of “who am I to do this work?” because I want to do something like you. I want to help people. But when I think about this for any length of time, I feel overwhelmed by how many people there are around the world who need help (not to mention in my own household).

    By reframing the question in terms of “who am I not to do this work?” makes it seem more manageable. Also, your notion that any problem is bigger than the people dealing with it is very inspiring and enlightening (in both senses, in that it lightens the burden of responsibility and enlightens the soul).

    Are the problems in Afghanistan, from one who has never been to one who seems to have a good deal of experience there, insurmountable? Or do you think that there is a way to reconcile Islam with Western ideals and allow and trust the Afghan people to govern themselves and reject extremist interpretations of a peaceful and loving religion?

  28. […] to feel great about your self is to have great thoughts about yourself everyday; to conquer your self doubt monsters. On the flipside, a good way to have bad thoughts about yourself, thus leading to a ‘bad […]

  29. justin says:

    i think what i’m realizing now is that i have the right to, as an adult, acknowledge that the circumstances of my immediate surroundings will be directly responsible for my success or failure, JUST AS MUCH as my own abilities and effort. so instead of just thinking, “get thing X done” i have to think “create circumstances which let thing X come into fruition.” as i type this i am stuck in this computer lab, i say stuck knowing full well that i am not “stuck” but simply refusing to exit, which has terrible fluorescent lighting, a cranked up heater making it hard to breathe, and yet i told myself i would lock myself in here and get my essay done. as a matter of fact, when I first came here it was still daylight and I was thinking of how much nicer it’d be if they had better lighting and some plants in here. i then thought of calling a friend to ask him to drive me to target to buy these things. i then recalled purposefully leaving my cell phone at home to “force myself” to get my essay done. it seems i am in a period of self rebellion. all at once i am forcing things upon myself, and then asking myself to do additional tasks for which i have not the resources.

    well after seeing your writings and printing them out i am inspired to change my surroundings and give myself another chance. so this is my lesson. yes it’s good to be determined but it’s also good to be flexible and to change the plan. actually it’s more than good, it’s necessary! thanks for giving my stubborn side an excuse to get up and move away from this situation!

  30. Kim says:

    Hi Marianne. I’ve just found your blog and I really enjoy it. It feels like an indulgence, almost, to snuggle in here on my couch and read your words. Each post is like a little gift. Thanks so much for the insight.

  31. Paul says:

    Thank you for your heartfelt and candid look back. I respect that your blog post simply shares information — deeply personal information — without promoting or selling anything. There are things you’ve said that I can use in my own journey. I hope you will continue to “think out loud” in blog format. Paul

  32. […] others feels a bit audacious for little old me.  I guess that is why I feel that a quote from this post well expresses what I […]

  33. Fiona says:

    I love this. Thank you. Very inspiring. Encourages me to find this in myself.

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