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Self-esteemSpiritual Health

The Unhappy Marriage of Confidence and Doubt

By October 9, 20115 Comments

As far as ministry is concerned, this week was a great one for me. On Tuesday I spoke at a women’s event at my church that went incredibly well, and on Friday I delivered my first class lecture. Following each teaching opportunity, I received wonderful feedback and encouragement from those in attendance. I felt like God not only used me well, but affirmed my gifts in the process.

In light of these affirmations, one might assume that I’ve been walking on air all weekend, basking in the glow of my successes. It always feels good to be praised. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be much farther from the truth. Although I received tremendous reinforcement in one corner of my ministry, I also experienced great doubt about my calling as a writer. Critiques from editors and comparisons with those who are more successful all combined to discourage me as I wondered what I’m even doing with my life.

To some extent, those doubts about my call are always there in some form. I am constantly grappling with why I should bother writing when there are so many incredible writers out there already (not fishing for compliments here, just being honest). I often wonder why my contribution matters, or if it matters at all. I am usually able to keep those doubts in perspective and press on, but every now and then they eclipse my vision and it’s all I can see. This week has been one of those weeks.

Ironically, this crushing doubt arrived on the heels of success, but even more strange is that this combination of confidence and doubt is emerging as a pattern in my life. Throughout my ministry, praise has never served to fortify me with unshakable confidence. On the contrary, criticism is often hardest for me to handle immediately after great personal accomplishment. When success is the backdrop, disappointment hurts much, much more.

In the midst of this present funk, I’ve been thinking a lot about why self-confidence and self-doubt are always such a packaged deal. In my life, the two almost always come together. But why is that? Why has this odd couple made so many joint appearances in my life?

There are probably a number of answers to that question, one being God’s providence. Perhaps God perfectly orchestrates their pairing, such that I neither despair nor become puffed up with pride. However there is another reason that speaks to the ordering of the two–why it is self-doubt that follows self-confidence, and not the other way around–and that is idolatry.

To give you a metaphoric visual of how this dynamic plays out, imagine a strong tower in a field. That tower is God, and it is where where my heart resides. Think Rapunzel’s tower (except for the part about being trapped), tall and protected from intruders. My heart is there up top, totally safe and totally secure.

Then one day I look out the window and notice another tower, one that looks even stronger. It’s shiny and bright and promises even greater security than the safety I already enjoy. So, I descend from my position of strength, exit my strong tower, and walk through the field to find refuge in this new tower.

However as soon as I open the door to enter the tower, it vanishes. It was an illusion, a mirage. And now I find myself far from my strong tower, standing in the middle of a field, completely vulnerable to harm. When  the Enemy inevitably attacks, I am helpless to defend myself against him.

In my life, that illusory tower is personal praise.

To be clear, encouragement is a gift that I value highly. Through the uplifting words of fellow Christians, I detect the voice of my Heavenly Father. That is a good function of the Body of Christ. But there is also a temptation within encouragement. Positive feedback invites me to leave the strong tower of God and seek refuge in the praise of others.

Knowing this temptation, I suspect my self-doubt follows on the heels of self-confidence because I have temporarily abandoned my strong tower. Responding to encouragement in the wrong way, my heart surges toward this attractive alternative, only to leave me completely vulnerable when disappointment comes my way. The very same criticisms might not have hurt me so much on any other day, but on this day I am helpless before them.

My false tower is related to ministry and writing success. For others it is financial success, which is why Proverbs 23:5 warns, “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” The tower of riches is just as likely to vanish, to “sprout wings and fly away” as my own tower of praise.

For women, I think there is a particular temptation to chase after the tower of beauty. This is partially due to the fact that many women compliment another’s hair, outfit, or shoes more often than they compliment godly character. And while I whole-heartedly believe we should affirm one another’s physical beauty, outer beauty should take a firm backseat to the affirmation of Christian faithfulness.

Proverbs 18:10 tells us, “The name of the LORD is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” This verse reminds us that we can run to God’s tower, or we can run to another. If you’re like me and your life is marked by the unhappy marriage of self-confidence and self-doubt, remember that God doesn’t have the only tower in town. In both bad times and good, to which tower are you most likely to run?


  • Carol says:

    This is an excellent word picture Sharon. You have described a situation that many of us-all of us perhaps?-have experienced. The illusory lure of praise from others has to be balanced by the understanding that God is indeed at work. As long as we don’t leave His “tower” we can have confidence that God will use us for good. That confidence is properly placed in His sufficiency and protection. We rejoice in the fact that God blesses others through our ministry. You have blessed many through this thoughtful blog!

  • Emily says:

    Great post, Sharon! I’ve seen this dynamic in other areas of my life and never knew that others related to it. It’s scary when you realize the tower you are seeking isn’t real. Also, your writing, honesty, and leadership have challenged me more than any other woman I know… so keep it coming. 🙂

  • Tim says:

    I’ve experienced the same phenomenon, Sharon, but never been able to put it so well as you have. I’ll finish teaching a class or writing something or giving a talk somewhere or preach the occasional sermon and (to put it in the vernacular) I get rave reviews. The next thing I know, something shoots me down right off that high I was on. Was that a lesson in humility? I don’t really know the why, but I do know the what: this cycle of events has happened to me repeatedly for decades.

    Now, on to the issue of what editors say about your talents, I’ll pass on a story I read about one of Fred Astaire’s early screen tests. The casting director wrote down his impressions as follows: “Can’t act, can’t sing … can dance a little.”

    To me you’re Fred Astaire, Sharon. Don’t let the critics and naysayers stop you from pursuing what you love and do for the glory of God. Because as long as you’re doing it for his glory, you’re golden.


  • Jamie says:

    I don’t think you are the only writer out there feeling doubtful. It comes with the territory. With all the words already being said, I often wonder, am I just contributing to the noise? Or I just feel like a tiny squeaking mouse in the midst of it. Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird (a book about writing) that “Lighthouses don’t go running all over the island looking for boats to save. They just stand there shining.” When I feel defeated, overwhelmed and useless this quote reminds me to rest on God and focus on shining for His glory. He uses us even if it is only for a handful of boats or for a half dozen other mice hiding out in the floorboards. So keep lifting your light up to the Lord even on days when you feel like blowing it out. I’ve found that even if nothing obvious comes from it the act of faith of offering it makes a difference in me.

  • Sharon says:

    Jamie, thank you for those beautiful words from Anne Lamott–I’m actually in the middle of reading Bird by Bird right now! But I love that lighthouse visual. What a wonderful way to think about ourselves. Thank you for this!

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