07 October 2008

The Plague of Self-Doubt

It would make me angry, the way so many women doubt themselves, except that every time those feelings rise I think, "But is that right, I wonder? Maybe I just see that pattern because I want to see it." Soon my anger's vigor gets swallowed up by that giant sea of uncertainty and I don't say anything.

I've doubted myself for as long as I can remember. I don't pretend to know why, but I do know that self-doubt seems endemic among the women I know. Even the strong, secure, safe ones look at themselves from time to time and say, "Or...well...I don't know." Almost every serious conversation I have with another woman entails some degree of wavering about our perceptions, our feelings, or how we interpret the world in general. I don't even know if this is truly a woman's problem or if I don't hear it in men because it comes out differently.

But I do know a few things.

The ideals of femininity expressed among today's evangelical Christians often reflects values more medieval (or victorian...some of them strike me as exceedingly victorian) than biblical. I don't want to go through the list of "feminine characteristics" here, though I'll allude to a few later on, as examples. It seems sufficient today that most christian girls grow up with an image of what it means to be a christian woman, and they feel like they never attain it.

This seems even worse when girls are influenced by contemporary society. Girls get one message at church, another at school, and sometimes even another at home. What it means to be a woman who loves God fiercely and is willing to work and fight for Him isn't clear. There's not one mold, but several, and what fits in one doesn't fit in the others. What a ripe place for confusion!

Doubt seems to help us walk the lines between the molds. Instead of heeding the call to war and girding our loins to fight the enemy in our own ways if we're so called, many women walk around the house wondering if the desire to go is good or bad. In the end, we don't go because that debate is never over, and in staying home we meet the expectations of the Christians around us. While we don't stay for the right reasons, it's the staying that's important and no one sees the restlessness in our hearts. At the same time, having had the desire to fight and wrestled with it can please a more contemporary mold. We thought about taking our place in the lines, but golly, the fighting was over before we could get there.

Along similar lines to the ones above, self-doubt makes life easier. If we're not sure what to do, self-doubt lets us stick with the status quo. If I'm unsure that God is calling me somewhere that I'd like to go but that is more risky than where I am now, then I don't have to step into that until I'm sure. If I'm never sure, well, then I never have to change. Since following a calling like that often means fighting some non-biblical images of what Christians think a woman should be, and that can be an incredibly hard fight, it might just be easier to remain unsure.

Maybe it's also easier to live unfulfilled lives if we have the reason (excuse?) of not being sure what to do. Dreams are powerful things. They can change the world, if we give them a chance and follow where God leads. They're fulfilling, but they're also dangerous. And, as christian women, we're pretty much taught to avoid danger. So sometimes we face the dillemma of breaking the mold and facing censure for that, or living unfulfilled lives. Maybe having doubt about the call or the dream makes the unfulfillment more palatable, because we're not sure we should have been fulfilled in the first place.

As you think about these things, please know that there are several things I'm not saying here.

I'm not saying that every woman needs to break the mold. If a woman's life is within the mold and she's happy, then I'm happy for her. She's fulfilling God's call on her life--what more could I want for her? On the other hand, I hear more and more frustration about these things. There are enough women wanting to somehow, please, find a new mold, that it seems worth writing these things for them (...for me).

I'm also not advocating a reckless lifestyle or living without discernment. God's voice can be hard to hear, particularly when our own souls make such a racket that we couldn't hear him if he yelled. It's definitely worth it to take the time to hear his heart before we move forward.

Finally, I'm not pretending to know every heart. I'm sure there are a million reasons to doubt oneself, and if these don't fit for you, let me know what does. In fact, I feel more like I'm raising questions than offering answers. Why do women feel this way? Why do we hesitate, hold back and shuffle our feet in the name of uncertainty?

So, friends, women of God, what do you think? Why do we doubt? Because I haven't just heard this from women at large, but from our own mouths. I heard it as we sat around sharing our stories in the middle of the night, as we shared coffee, and as we talk on the phone. It breaks my heart to hear some of the most gifted, beautiful, amazing women I know doubt themselves and their ability to hear God. I want to love others in the name of Jesus as I'm called, and I know you girls do, too. So why does this hold us back? Any thoughts?


kirsten said...

oh, dear sarah-girl. you have struck to the heart of something i think about so often, too -- something deeply important to me and something that i do believe affects us all in some form or another.

my senior-year thesis for torrey (not sure if we ever talked about this or not) was basically that what is being espoused as a biblical model of femininity in the church today is actually the victorian model dressed in evangelical language. consider the paradigms of "the angel in the house" and "the fallen woman". and who do you have left after that but "the governess"?

hmmm ... you have me thinking that i really should dig that up ...

and i would most definitely maintain that these constructs hold many women back. i know plenty of women who are so clearly meant to be wives and mothers; they can't help but thrive in serving their husbands and families. but it's not for everyone. those paradigms are so held up, so ingrained, so imbued in the culture of the church that any deviation from them is feared and maligned. what about those women who are so clearly made for leadership? what about those women who are so clearly led to blaze trails in business, in ministry, and so on? put those women in a construct that does not know how to accept or "deal with" them, and i think you have at least one reason why self-doubt is so prevalent amongst Christian women.

i can't help but think of my favorite topic: being single and in the church. what happens when true femininity or womanhood is defined in terms of the roles of wife & mother? we have a major problem there. and for the woman who dares to be happy not being married or a mother? the church views her as a creature of fiction, someone who must be putting up walls around her wilting heart.

and i can't help but think of Captivating, specifically that chapter on how the enemy has a special hatred for women. what better way to cut down the women of God than to infiltrate the church, to strike from within and use what are thought to be "Godly" ideals of womanhood and femininity?

i really think you're on to something here. i agree that those things that are at the root of self-doubt can be many, various, and far more complex than we realize. but i do think the church is one place where that might be perpetuated, knowing that the ideals we hold up as good do not fit every woman.

and so i'm wondering too: what can we do in the places we're at to mitigate those things that allow self-doubt to thrive? i think it has something to do with love and radical acceptance of others, i think it has to do with dialogue with others and calling this quiet beast out of the darkness, bringing him into the light to expose who he really is. i think this space can help do that too.

i just had a thought that gave me chills: can you imagine what might happen if the women of God embraced and grew into the fullness of who God truly designed them to be? i'm talking 'bout a revolution ...

Sarah said...

You know, maybe we did talk briefly about your thesis. I was sort-of wondering where that word "victorian" came from when I wrote this yesterday, and that would make sense. If you dig it out, I'd love to read it.

You have so many good thoughts here...they've got me thinking, even though I can't respond to all of them right now.

I can say that I'm with you on the radical love for ourselves and others and calling out the places of doubt. I think it also has to do with actively proving it wrong, with trying some of the things we doubt we can do and showing that they are, in fact, possible. I think it involves telling God and ourselves that we won't stay in the limbo where doubt leaves us, that we'll act and live even when we're not entirely sure.

A Revolution? Could we? Please...the thought makes my heart glad.

Christianne said...

Maybe it is because we live in a society, both inside and outside the church, that lives from an almost unbearably "in or out" mentality. Judgment abounds both inside and outside the church in ways that completely grieve me because they do not leave room for the unique embodiment of each human person, or "otherness," and because they do not leave room for the human person to be a continually evolving, growing, not ever quite yet perfect being. There is, simply put, no mercy or grace.

Who can blame us for being hyper-sensitive to whether we're wrong or right all of the time, constantly saying, "This is what I think . . . wait, well, I don't know for sure, please forgive me" in a self-apologetic, almost obsequious way? We fear judgment. We fear being cast out as wrong. Unfortunately, this is because judgment and rejection lurk everywhere.

This is why I, too, agree with Kirsten that the step toward the answer is found in radical love and acceptance of others. I can't get around that this is the example of Christ, and we are to embody it.

Sarah said...

We're so much a people of boxes, and people are either in or out of those boxes. It makes me so sad that a person can't be who and how they were made to be without risking a run-in with those walls. I don't know if we can help the boxes--the human mind seems to need generalizations to process information. But we need to know that they are BOXES, so we can recognize when the box is helping and when it's getting in the way of our love. It's the ability to say, "Oh, you're not like that, Ok..." and to go on from there that we seem to lack.

I think that's where I see the radical love coming in. If people, in general, are more important than ideas, then we can love the people even when they don't fit in with the ideas. And we can help them find a place where they do fit.

Christianne said...

Amen, and amen, girl.

This is an interesting point about the boxes. My initial reaction in reading your first thought of this being about boxes made something rise up in me that goes, "Yes! And we need to eliminate those boxes all together!" I started going down a thought trail that was something along the lines of, "Maybe it's about being a part of a revolution that helps people eliminate their box-like thinking."

But that's why I find it interesting that you bring up our possible need for generalizations as humans. It reminds me of one of my education classes in college that taught Piaget's notion of schema . . . we develop schema, strata, boxes, what have you, to put new information into when we get it. Is this a developmental necessity (which Piaget would say it is, and your thought here would suggest), and if so, how is it helpful and what are its limits? Maybe it's the limits we are meant to address.

I like how you put it, approaching something with an openness and an ability to say, "Oh, you're not like that? Okay . . . and let's move on."

PS: Way to channel JMNR again there with "people are more important than ideas." Ha! We love to do that, don't we? :)

kirsten said...

ah, the boxes. it seems the second a box is constructed, there is someone who is defy the boundaries defined by that box. categories are useful in terms of being able to identify people and things but so often i think we are bound and determined to fit within those categories, making it all nice and neat, that our world tilts off its axis when we meet someone who doesn't fit. it makes me wonder if our brains just aren't capable or conditioned to be able to take in every person as an individual. we all have worldviews, our lenses through which we view all that goes on around us. could these actually impose limits in our relationships with people? do we have to relegate people to categories or boxes, do we need to put them in a file in our brains?

considering Christ, i have to think that it's not necessarily the case that we are meant to make people fit into these mental constructs. i consider how he interacted so personally and individually with each person and how there was room for each person exactly as they were.

sigh. have mercy, Lord Jesus.

i say we have a box-burning party. it can be the kick-off event for our revolution.

Christianne said...

So I'm sitting here, smiling, and thinking that our particular worldview, the lens through which we see the world, is a worldview that would decry these boxes, or at least wants to help people open them up and let the stuff inside crawl on out for fresh air and new life.

Kirsten, you wondered aloud if our brains aren't conditioned to take in every person as an individual. Given the example of Christ, I can't help but wonder if maybe we can indeed be conditioned a different way. Maybe that's part of the revolution?

Sarah said...

I wonder if taking in every individual is a way we rely on him--as in, our minds don't do it naturally, but if we're seeing people through his eyes, that comes as part of it.

You know, culture is such a weird thing, full of helpful boxes and harmful ones and lots that don't seem to matter much at all. Intentionality seems so key--putting in the box what you want there. So does knowledge--yeah, we all have boxes, and maybe part of being an adult is recognizing when something upsets us only because it's outside the box.

I'm all for making new boxes, though...and burning the ones that hurt. Bonfire of the vanities?

And I didn't even realize I was channeling JMNR...how funny.

kirsten said...

Given the example of Christ, I can't help but wonder if maybe we can indeed be conditioned a different way. Maybe that's part of the revolution?

christianne, truly i think so!! remember learning about classicly "modern" ways of thinking?? it's very linear, very bullet-pointy, very sequential. and i think we're fond of it. it's neat, it's orderly, it makes perfect sense. problem is, people just don't work that way!! we're messy and chaotic and creative and beautiful, we're body and spirit and mind and emotion, and that doesn't necessarily fit into the constructs we're thinking of.

the boxes might be easier, but they're not true.

Christianne said...

Sarah, I couldn't help but think of how essential it is for us to participate with the Holy Spirit in His work on earth through our lives when I was reading your words about how we can learn to rely on Him. Super cool, as I've been thinking a lot about this recently. (Though you wouldn't know it, given my lack of blogging these days. Blerg. I wonder if I'll ever catch up someday on putting into words what has been going on in my mind and heart in the past 2 months.)

Kirsten, methinks you should be careful. You just might turn that "J" in your personality preference type into a full-fledged "P"! :P

Christianne said...

PS: This reminds me of a conversation Kirk and I were having yesterday. We were talking about the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of debating issues (any issue) with people. This got into a conversation about apologetics. While we both see the value in apologetics, I think it's totally for people who have a strong TJ bent and would be open and persuadable by rational argumentation and discourse . . . but that's not everyone. :)

Sarah said...

Kirsten--you know, I was just thinking about that modern way of thinking when I wrote my last post on WarriorWings (posted just now). I don't talk about it, but I was writing about how doing art gives my brain a break and makes me feel more aligned, and I wondered if that feeling of alignment had anything to do with thinking intuitively for a while and not just logically.

I can't help but wonder the same thing here--if we rearrange our thinking, will we realign not only ourselves, but also our boxes and those of the people around us (here we come, the Box Enforcement Police ;) ). I love the thought of the Holy Spirit changing not only WHAT we think, but how we get there.

Oh, and for what it's worth, Dave's a TP and apologetic arguments saved his faith at one point. I dunno if that helps or not...

Christin said...

Wow! I've only been away from the computer for a few hours and Blam! - thought explosion. It's hard for a gal to keep up!

Okay, lots of thoughts, but here is what I think is the important one: We doubt ourselves because our view of God is too small, or we don't truly trust him. Is he really in control of all things? Is he really in the details of our lives? Is it really God who is responsible for the outcome of my ministry/family/job/life? If the Almighty, All-Powerful, Omniscient, Loving, Personal God of the universe is calling me to something - whether battling the kingdom of darkness on the front lines or battling the kingdom of darkness by raising the next generation to love and battle for him - then the root of any self-doubt must come from the faulty assumption that the battle depends on my abilities rather than my faithfullness and God's abilities.

I feel like there is something more I should say, but my brain is somewhat fried by preparing for this conference this weekend. I'm tired.

Christin said...

PS When it comes to which one of these things is not like the other - I feel like my thoughts are always so different from the thoughts of you three geniuses.

Christin said...

PPS - Did I just exhibit womanly self-doubt?


Sarah said...

Christin, you make me laugh ;)

And I think you're totally right on--we doubt ourselves when we don't believe God can do things through us. We wonder why he'd choose us, if he's really saying what we think we're hearing, if we can do that given our box, our place as a woman in such-and-such a time and such-and-such a place.

I think this goes right alongside the talk about loving people radically. When we love despite the fitting or not fitting in the box, we say, "I believe God can do this through you (or me, or whoever)." We say that he is all those things you list, and he's the one who gets to choose, not me, not my church, and not the culture at large.

I think we also have to develop a radical kind of self-love, one that's not love of me for the sake of me, but that's love of me for the sake of the God who wants to do something in and through me, and love for me as a daughter created in particular, special ways.

kirsten said...

ha ha, i don't think the "J" in my ENTJ is going anywhere anytime soon!! :o) i was just thinking, perhaps this trait explains my propensity to create new blogs for specific categories?? as far as people goes, it is something though. if i'm not going to assign order or categorize people, that is a bit of the "P" trait coming out, isn't it? maybe it's the N-ness that allows for the flexibility ... i dunno.

but hey!! i don't need to fit into my "ENTJ" box all the time, do i?? ;o)

and you know what i was just thinking ... another traditionally feminine quality in our faith is modesty. perhaps women who have less-than-conventional "female" personalities think that when assuming more assertive, leadership-type roles that those qualities/roles are not "feminine." we're told that it's good to be this way, but that's not our natural bent. and so then we think perhaps we're selfish or sinful or prideful when really, we're just wanting to act out of our God-given giftings.

Christianne said...

Ha ha -- Kirsten, I was totally thinking the same thing after I posted that comment!! I was like, "Wait. What did I just do? I just subscribed to the box theory!! Ahhhh!! Anathema!!" :)

(Speaking of THI references, did you girls catch the one in that last paragraph? It was probably hard to miss. Ha!)

That's interesting what you said, though, about the J-ness perhaps being what leads you to start new blogs in new categories. Very perceptive. Oh wait, that's P-ness.

Ack! I need to stop this NOW! I can't seem to escape it! :)

Christin, I love all that you bring to this table, girl. What you were saying about God being too small in our little boxes is so on target and a perspective this conversation needed. You bring a necessary part all the time, is what I think.

And Sarah, I would say that the self-love is probably meant to be motivated by viewing ourselves through the eyes that God views us, which is full of immense love. When we don't tend to self-love, we don't learn that love He has for us . . . and we don't know how to give it to others, either.