When I was 32 years old, I was filled with crippling self-doubt.
I had no reason for feeling this way. Sure, I had been bullied in high school, but that was well over a decade ago. Still, I would go home every day ruminating about how I was unworthy of my blessings in life. Every night, I would lie in bed mouthing prophecies about how my girlfriend would leave me.
When my relationship did end, I quickly decided I had to change something in my life. I told myself — somewhat naively — I needed to train in martial arts. I had to toughen up, and I wanted someone to beat the self-doubt out of me. I believed what the titular Kung Fu Panda had said in the first movie,
“[The training] could never hurt more than it did every day of my life just being me.” — Po, Kung Fu Panda
So in February of 2015, I signed up to the Shaolin Temple Quanfa Institute Downtown Toronto School and started training under Master Dao Shi, a 35th generation Shaolin disciple.
I’m happy to report the kung fu training worked. While I have yet to start a new romantic relationship, virtually every other aspect of my life has improved. Within a few months of joining STQI, I found the confidence to negotiate for what I wanted at work and eventually changed employers when I felt it was right. I grew increasingly comfortable in leadership positions inside and outside of the office. I even became a natural public speaker. Here’s a picture of me emceeing a kung fu performance during the 2018 Toronto Chinatown Festival.
I overcame my self-doubt not because I endured any military-style corporal punishment — Master Dao is actually quite easygoing — but because Shaolin training has changed my relationship with myself and the world at large.
Everyone’s life journey is different. But here is a list of mindset changes that worked for me:
Self-Doubt is a Mental Construct
At the heart of Shaolin training is the Chan (or Zen) philosophy taught by Bodhidharma. Much of the suffering you experience in life is compounded by the narratives you plant in your brain.
Accept the objective facts but don’t ascribe meaning to them.
When you feel inadequate, it’s because you find yourself lacking relative to some desired state.
First, accept that this assessment is likely to be correct. A novice kung fu student doesn’t have the skills of an experienced practitioner. A typical employee’s car is less powerful than that of a Fortune 500 CEO. Most of us don’t have the charisma of Hollywood movie stars.
But the mind tends to link these facts with a series of illusory interpretations.
A novice kung fu practitioner with self-doubt could fall into the following mind trap:
- I struggle with this particular kick, and I’ve been training for X amount of time.
- So-and-so is really good at this kick.
- Therefore so-and-so is inherently better than me.
- And I inherently suck.
- And I can’t do anything right.
- Therefore my life is ruined.
When you take a step back and examine those thoughts, point 1 is most likely true, but points 2 through 6 deviate quite a bit from reality.
First of all, the claim that someone is really good at a particular kick can be disputed. As a novice, you suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. You really have no idea how good someone is. For every skill set, there’s always a higher level you can achieve. (Shaolin doesn’t have a belt system for this reason.) At best, you can say so-and-so is better than you at this kick.
Points 3 and 4 are fallacies. The fact someone is better than you in one particular skill doesn’t mean that person is better than you in general.
Points 5 and 6 are outright wrong. There is almost no association between your ability to do this one kick and how the rest of your life would play out.
Therefore, a better way of looking at the previous situation would be as follows:
- I struggle with this particular kick.
- So-and-so appears good at this kick.
- Therefore, if I want to be better at this kick, I need to improve my practice.
- Perhaps there is something in so-and-so’s training regimen that could help me.
Understand where your mind deceives you and focus on only the things you can change.
Minimize Thinking, Maximize Action
In my first Shaolin kung fu class, a senior student told me,
“When your instructor tells you to jump, don’t ask ‘how high,’ just jump.”
Plan what you need to get started. Then focus on small concrete steps.
When we struggle with self-doubt, we often find ourselves bogged down by analysis paralysis. Or, as Steven Pressfield put it in The War of Art, we’re psyched out by our Resistance.
While planning and instruction are necessary to start any new endeavor, we can only reap the benefits once we take concrete action.
In Shaolin Kung Fu, novice students would spend most of their time mimicking their seniors' movements. Typically, instructors would give at most three corrections to an individual pupil at a time. This forces the students to stop thinking and to start acting.
You’d naturally feel more confident the more times you take decided action.
I’ve seen this first hand when I attended an outdoor luncheon hosted by Master Dao’s teacher, Master Shi Guo Song (a warrior monk raised in the Shaolin Temple). A rainstorm suddenly erupted during the meal. By the time I gathered my bearings, Master Song’s students (most of whom were younger than 14) were already moving furniture indoors and setting up coverings for the things they couldn’t move. None of these kids had any hesitation. They just acted and reacted to the situation at hand.
Push Yourself, But Understand the Process Takes Time
Master Dao emphasizes the Shaolin virtues of Perseverance and Strive — to persevere through hardship and always strive to improve.
In Shaolin training, we emphasize repeating the Ji ben gong — the foundational drills. The key is to repeat the drills over a long period of time.
Master Song once compared Shaolin training to driving a car. If you try to go from 0 to 30 mph too quickly, you’re bound to injure yourself (and wreck your car). Focus instead on maintaining steady progress. Show up and train as often as you can, but give your body the necessary breaks to recover.
Or as Bruce Lee put it,
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. — Bruce Lee
Evaluate yourself every three months.
Master Dao would tell us not to dwell too much on the outcomes of an individual class. Rather, we should evaluate our performance over a three-month span.
This technique works because you’re almost certain to find that you have improved after three months of training. This is most evident for beginners who train multiple times a week.
This mindset allows you to get over your initial struggles. By getting past the negativity that comes with “sucking” at something new, you’ll find that you’ll feel more confident when faced with unexpected situations in life.
Putting It All Together
While the above technique may work for me, everyone needs to discover their own way through life. Shaolin Zen emphasizes non-attachment to rigid ideas.
That said, the principles stated above should provide a framework for overcoming your self-doubt and improving your self-esteem. I’ve certainly seen it pay dividends for many students at my Shaolin school.
- Relieve yourself of negative self-talk, particularly those that have no basis in reality.
- Focus on taking action over planning.
- Stay patient and measure your progress over time.