man looking at the mirror in holding his face

Self Doubt Can Take You Out

It started off great. I was relaxed and feeling the music. My ideas were fresh. My execution, sharp. My trumpet tone was warm, but with just enough fire to light things up when necessary. The other musicians in my trio were in the groove like usual. Despite having tired chops from a hard gig the night before, I felt like it was going to be a good night.

A few minutes earlier, the drummer had mentioned that Matt was in the area and might stop by to sit in. That was fine with me, Matt was an outstanding player and a great guy. The only problem was that, mentally, I wasn’t sure I was ready for Matt to hear me play. Self-doubt can be a real pain in the ass.

Forty minutes into the first set, my slightly swollen lips were reminding me that I shouldn’t have been so foolish to have played so hard the day before. But still, it was a good night, the crowd was a bit larger than usual and they were enjoying the jazz.

I saw Matt pass by the front windows behind the stage area and make his way into the club.

As he took a seat at the front table, I allowed my sometimes present, mild lack of confidence to explode like a hand grenade in the dumpster.  My tired lip muscles became exhausted. My clear-thinking, creative mind crawled up under a blanket and hid.  Then it transported me back many years, to a time when I couldn’t play well, didn’t understand music, couldn’t create, & failed to execute. I had come along way since then, but it’s amazing how fast things can crumble. Self doubt can be a real crippler.

For the most part, at age 53, I’ve given up worrying about what others think of me, and I don’t usually seek their approval. I’ve also learned that no matter what you’re doing, the best results flow when you aren’t trying too hard, aren’t trying to impress anybody, aren’t overthinking, aren’t tensed up, and aren’t self-doubting. The key is to relax, and allow your subconscious to help you do what you are consciously attempting.

I had become very good at this over the years. But that night, for whatever reason, I let Matt get into my head.  I played like garbage. 

It wasn’t Matt’s fault. It was my own. Self-doubt will take you out if you let it.

After an embarrassing finish to the set (where my band mates were electric and I was falling all over myself) we took a break. Matt had his horn with him in the car, and we asked him to please get it and sit in with us. Things like this are what make jazz so fun and exciting to play. 

Matt joined us on the bandstand and was outstanding. His ear was quick as lightning on songs he wasn’t totally familiar with, and he played them as if he had known them for years. On the songs he was familiar with, he put on a jazz master class.

I had recovered a little bit from my first set foolishness, but not much. It was like I had stuck my head out from under that blanket of self-doubt just far enough to have smacked it on the table I was hiding under.

The worst part is that the whole scene was preventable. I had become lazy in my practicing. My trumpet chops were physically not where they should be, neither was my mind or my fingers. When you don’t take care of the business of preparation, it’s much harder to connect with the relaxed, unself-conscious, subconsciousness that creates flow and enables creativity and great playing.

When we fail to prepare, we open ourselves up to the demons of self-doubt.  Sometimes they pounce at the opportunity for power. 

It was a lesson that took me years to learn, and only a minute to forget.

Self-doubt will take you out if you let it.

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22 thoughts on “Self Doubt Can Take You Out

  1. Wow, I can relate. I”m a freelance writer who has to keep the self-doubt at bay, especially if I’m writing a write paper on an unfamiliar topic. You’re right; preparation can take care of self-doubt most of the time. Thanks for an insightful, well-written article.

    1. Thanks UE. It must be tough reading pieces on topics you don’t know that much about. It sounds exciting though!

      1. Preparation is key you are right Todd. I remember one presentation I had to give on the rules to follow for running and managing projects. I was confident because they are always the same, this is what I told myself. But that day I wasn’t fluent, my presentation was plenty of uhm, eh, oh yes, that’s what I wanted to say, … that’s because I didn’t rehearse even once. Since then, I always have a look at my presentation the day before. That was a lesson learned for me too. Thank you for the beautiful post!

      2. Thanks for sharing that story Cristiana! Confidence is key, and preparation is key to confidence.

      3. It’s pretty cool to get a chance to learn something new and then say you have experience on that topic. Lately I’ve been writing a lot on employee background checks, and it’s been pretty eye-opening. Thanks for responding.

  2. Wowza…can we put this wisdom on a t-shirt or a billboard? …”the best results flow when you aren’t trying too hard, aren’t trying to impress anybody, aren’t overthinking, aren’t tensed up, and aren’t self-doubting”. Yes to FLOW and you’ve reminded me how to get there. Thank you, Todd. 😎

    1. Thanks Victoria! I like the T-shirt idea- you can never have too many of them, right? 😎😁

  3. “It was a lesson it took me years to learn, and only a minute to forget.” Oh boy, you are so right. Self-doubt sits on the shoulder just waiting for the right moment to pounce! Beware, be aware, be vigilant, be diligent! It’s the only way to beat the sneaky little trickster at its own game. Oh yeah—and maybe meditate! lol

    1. Yes – meditation sounds like a great way to help keep that demon out! 😎💪🏻

  4. I hear you and have had similar experiences. I spent decades teaching at universities and colleges, and for some reason I’ve never been able to understand, I would have these moments of self-doubt before going into the classroom. On such occasions, I’d butcher something I’d done successfully many times before. I have anxiety which can explain part of this for me, but I think, more generally, we’re all still little hurt children. Deep down inside, we still suffer from those early experiences that made us feel inadequate, embarrassed, even humiliated. We’re probably way more fragile than we realize.

    Your points about need to be prepared are also very true. Sometimes preparation can get us past really hard moments.

    1. When I was teaching, I would sometimes experience the same thing as you, being suddenly nervous or unsettled to face a group I had faced comfortably many times. Maybe you’re onto something with your “little child” theory.

  5. Wow. I think many of us can relate to this overwhelming and frustrating feeling. Self-doubt crawls on you so slowly until it eats you whole. It is terrible indeed. The last few lines were a much needed reminder to push through and focus on enjoying vs. comparing. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks Lee! I like how you describe self-doubt as slowly eating us whole-a disturbing but accurate image 🙂

  6. Oh, this is such a beautifully written piece. Sentences like “I allowed my sometimes present, mild lack of confidence to explode like a hand grenade in the dumpster.” are so good for not only your point but also their fantastic descriptiveness.

    I love the point you make about preparation being a wonderful way to combat self-doubt. I heard a great description provided by an improvisational musician that 90% of what she did was stuff she’d practiced and practiced but just put together in a different way in the moment. I think that’s probably true for a lot of other practices as well.

    Great post, Todd!

    1. Thanks Wynne- I appreciate that!🙂 I think you’re probably right about the practice/recombine concept applying to other areas.

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