How To Rise Above Crippling Moments of Self-Doubt, Mental Blocks & Defeat



Jul. 7 2015, Published 3:30 a.m. ET

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No matter your path in life, at some point you will inevitably come to a well-worn juncture: Do I sink below, or do I rise above?

Sinking below is easy. It requires nothing but weight and gravity. But there is also no pride in it, no accomplishment, no sense of having won the day.

Rising above, triumphing over what ails you—that requires strength of conviction. You must be able to overcome your weight and gravity’s pull on it. You must be able to overcome the urge to take the easy road simply because it is easier. You must be able to call upon your inner wisdom, and do what is right.

When you don’t know what is right, though—that’s when you tend to sink. When you don’t know what is right, taking the time to puzzle it out becomes a struggle on a struggle. You fall toward what is easiest because finding a way to rise above feels impossible.

Of course there are ways. There are always ways. For a juncture to exist, there must be a choice. It is possible, sometimes, to not see it: to look past it, close your eyes to it, or simply not know where to find it.

Not all solutions can be enumerated here; it would take too many pages to write them all, too many hours to read them all. Instead, I’ve taken the things that are hardest to overcome, the things that are most liable to make someone flounder when they’d rather do the breaststroke.

Now, let’s go and teach you to swim.


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“Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own.” —Harold Coffin

Everybody knows somebody who has something they want: a landmark of career success, a loving relationship, a Pinterest-worthy home, a burgeoning family, a higher degree of wealth, a beautiful face or body. There will always be something you lack that someone else has, and the impulse to covet that thing, to want it and to resent the person who has it, can be strong.

The problem with jealousy is that it focuses energy and attention outward, on someone and something over which you have no control. If there is something you want, you must go after it with that energy.

Jealousy will get you nowhere. It will run you in circles, chasing someone else’s things instead of something entirely your own. Robert L. Leahy, Ph. D. wrote that “jealousy seeks certainty,” and you can make that for yourself, by going after what you want with all the strength you can muster.

But Leahy also wrote that it’s possible that “you may have problematic beliefs about how to feel secure,” but that “uncertainty is a part of life and we have to learn how to accept it.” Once you make peace with the idea that you may never have the exact vision you see in someone else, you can begin to feel more secure about the vision you’ll make on your own.

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Jealousy feeds off insecurity. If you want to rise above jealousy, look within and see what it is you’re truly afraid of. Is it a mediocre career? Being alone? Not looking the part? Missing out on a rewarding experience? Not meeting your goals? Being undesirable?


Yes, good. Challenging yourself to find the root of the cancer that is jealousy means that you’re a step closer to eradicating the fear that has caused it, to begin to befriend the fear, and to ultimately overcome it.

By then, you’ll be so used to focusing on your own self-growth, that it will be easy to make the life you want for yourself. You’ve taken the first steps already.


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“Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” —Suzy Kassem

Self-doubt is that little voice in your head that says you’re never going to be who you want, do what you want, accomplish what you want. It’s the enemy of everything positive you want to achieve. It can eat you from the inside out, assuring that all your worst thoughts about yourself are the God honest truth.

It also happens to be a liar.

As Bill Knaus, Ed. D. says, “You can’t change your height, your age, or what you thought about yourself when you were six-years old. You can make the decision to change beliefs that hold you back, such as I must only make perfect decisions. (Good luck on that!) You can decide to change behaviors that glue you to your doubts.”

Doubt is normal, especially when faced with challenges that are directly tied to things you love and want for yourself. But doubt, as Knaus says, is not unchangeable. It is a mindset that you can get into—and out of. Focusing on your achievements every day can serve as an eraser for the doubts. Every new thing you think you accomplish is proof that the doubt has no purchase over you.

And if you continue to doubt, remember the words of Richard Eyre, English film, theatre, TV, and opera director:

“I can’t think of anyone I admire who isn’t fueled by self-doubt. It’s an essential ingredient. It’s the grit in the oyster.”

Make this your mantra. Make the doubt your reason to succeed. Prove yourself unquestionably and undeniably wrong.

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Mental Blocks

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it,” —Michelangelo

There will be days of unprecedented, uninterrupted flow, and there will be days when you hit a wall—hard. Coherent thought will become scarce. Productivity will halt. Whatever trail you were following will go cold without so much as a by-your-leave.

What do you do when the well has run dry? When suddenly a blockade has erected itself where empty space, and freedom to run wild ought to be?

Brad Waters, MSW says, “Just for today, consider a pause in the trying-so-hard of figuring out what to produce next. Just for today, if you’re feeling frustrated about your progress, pause the rules you’ve created for yourself.”

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Think of your block as a real, brick-and-mortar wall. You’re standing in front of it and need to get around or else over. It would seem counterintuitive to walk away from the wall when the job requires you to get to the other side, but it’s equally ridiculous to pound at it, bash your head against it, or scrape up your hands trying to jump up and climb it.

Instead, you can sit with your back to it for a while. Saunter away from it or along it. Think of other things, any other things. Eventually, improbably, the wall will evaporate or crumble. According to Jennifer Haupt, “Counterintuitive as it seems, it’s possible that the less focused you are, the more you are able to explore inventive possibilities.”

So unfocus. Let go. Give yourself permission to stop seeing the wall, and eventually the block will pass.

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“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” —Malcolm X

Then there are times you simply fail.

You prepare for weeks for a job interview and then completely bomb. Your prepared responses fall out of your head, and you can’t get your way through a sentence without falling all over your words.

You train for a half-marathon or mud run for weeks, then when the day comes to put your feet to the ground, your body gives up on you. Not only do you not win—you can’t even finish.

You start a new project without thinking the steps through first and end up skipping one, sabotaging hours of work. Making yourself look bad. Making yourself feel bad.

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The way you can make yourself feel as a result of failure is almost worse than the failure itself. You recognize what’s happened with a palpable shock. You deal with the aftermath, letting the shame marinate into your skin. And then you sit and think and stew and beat yourself up, continually reminding yourself that you screwed up.

How do you bounce back? How do you rise above when you’ve done something to cause yourself to sink?

As Don Greif, Ph.D. says, “Failure looks both ways. One view gazes towards challenge and growth: opportunities to learn, to improve, maybe win next time. The other view is towards retreat, the illusory safety where feelings–not necessarily conscious–of shame and humiliation dominate.”

So how do you look the first way, begin to take the steps toward learning, improving and winning?

First of all, put the defeat behind you. It’s already done, and can’t be undone. The only way out is through. So focus on the next defeat, or the fear of it.

According to Guy Winch, Ph.D.,

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Failure can make you feel demoralized, helpless, hopeless, and anxious (both consciously and unconsciously) but you can fight back. Break down the task or goal in question to those aspects that are in your control and those that are not. Then go through the list of aspects that are not in your control and figure out how to take control of them—by improving your skill-set, planning, relationships, knowledge, preparation, etc. Now focus solely on those aspects that are in your control. Feeling in control is a literal antidote to feelings of helplessness and demoralization that will motivate you to try again, minimize your chances of another failure, and increase your likelihood of success.

By thinking about what you can control, you remind yourself of the things you are able to succeed at. Once you imbue yourself with the idea of success, defeat feels farther off, and less likely to happen again.

Hopefully, now you know how to keep yourself from sinking. There may be points of jealousy, self-doubt, mental blocks, and even defeat in your life, and you don’t have to ace them all. This is a process, not a switch to flick.

But perhaps you can doggie paddle now, or do the breaststroke. Maybe you’ve succeeded a little in learning to swim. And when the next big thing comes to drag you down, you’ll know something of how to rise above.

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