The Flow and Ebb of Hope and Doubt



My husband and I stayed in a house right on the east coast of Australia for the past week. It was a bad news, good news kind of trip. We arrived just as one of the biggest and most durable wet weather events hit this part of the coast – the same series of superstorm cells that have ravaged parts of Eastern Australia with some of the worst flooding in a century.


The stormy interlude, though, provided lots of time to watch and think, and therein lies the good news. Here’s what I learned while watching and thinking.


I tracked a lot of waves. A lot. The waves flowed in, over and over, and just as inevitably, they ebbed. Sometimes calmly, sometimes furiously, but ebb they did. Flow and ebb, flow and ebb, that’s really the only job a wave has, from what I can tell.


This reminded me of the interplay—the ebb and flow if you will--between two states of mind I sometimes see at war. That of hope versus doubt.


“I hope something good will happen...but nah, I doubt it really will.” “I hope I make the team...but I doubt it will happen.” “I hope this idea works, but what are the chances?” Hope giveth, doubt taketh away. Hope flows, doubt ebbs.


That’s how I see it often playing out for those who are stuck...but wonder if even this understanding serves us or not. Let’s start by uncoupling the terms.


The Problem with...and the Buoyancy of Hope.


Here’s a funny thing to start. I could argue that hope in and of itself is a suspect emotion for many of us. It so often gets a bad rap as something soft and not to be trusted. The gritty would say, “hope is not a plan!” It too often gets partnered with dreams as being ephemeral and unsubstantive. We pin our hopes not on hope, but on the something that comes after.


Yet, hope—hope has a life force of its own, if we allow it. It’s a pathway toward what we think is possible. A vision of something better. Hope is inherently optimistic. No big ventures emerge from hopelessness. We might imagine the inventor Thomas Edison, famous for failing over 2000 times before discovering a workable filament for his lightbulb, standing over his work table thinking, “I hope it will work this time!” Over and over and over.


So, instead of dissing (or dismissing) hope, is it really about making hope more buoyant and durable? Supporting its right to exist? Hope must be strong enough to endure many a failure, especially if our hope – whether it is to master a new skill in our sport or build a thriving business venture from scratch – is worth pursuing.


Hope’s the trajectory toward what is possible, even if we don’t know how to get there...yet.


So how do we support hope to make it more durable?


Getting behind and owning the possibilities we see. Thomas Edison had such a strong vision of what he wanted to have happen, to him, it was just a matter of time. Instead of questioning our fit for the purpose of hope with a “why me?” we support our hope with “why the hell not me?” Every innovation ever innovated came from a place of hope that was stronger than any ensuing doubts.


Having good people in our corner who can remind us of our hope when we are flagging. My husband has my back every week as my erstwhile newsletter reader, grammar checker, and idea generator. I’m also super fortunate to have a best friend who doubles as my book editor. She is a river of hope, not only as my friend, but as someone who has shepherded other authors, so in addition to her unconditional positive regard, her hope offerings are credible to me. I trust her hope implicitly.


Keeping in mind, too, that hope is not a guarantee. But then again, what is? Even the hugely confident get it wrong sometimes. So to recap, hope may feel or sound wishy-washy, but that’s only real if you buy into the negative hype and start letting cynicism and pessimism erode its power.


[Spoiler alert, cynicism and pessimism are the real enemies here. Doubt as we will learn, is an ally.]


Of course, on its own, hope is just the gateway. We have to do the work to give hope a hand-hold. Thomas Edison was tireless in his pursuit of his eventual success. So, if hope is the vision and buoys us, what are some things we can do to start swimming in hope’s direction?


The Problem...and Power of Doubt.


If one way to start to align the conflict between hope and doubt is to bolster and make hope more durable before following up with some action, the other starting point is to renegotiate our relationship with doubt.


While I earlier painted a hopefully evocative picture—using waves as the metaphor for the presumed give and take of hope and doubt--hope being the gift and doubt being the thief, don’t believe everything you read. Just like the tendency of some of us to be half-assed or dismissive of our hopes, we, too, can overplay doubt into the enemy if we are not careful.


We are not trying to ditch or eradicate doubt. Some might take issue with this idea, thinking that the only way to really deal with doubt is to get so good at what you are doing, or work so hard for so long, that any doubt dies from lack of oxygen. I won’t disagree that this may be a possibility for some, but for others, doubt tends to grab us by the throat and strangles us well before we get to our desired outcomes.


Others try acting as if doubt doesn’t exist. But if doubt is our brain’s (sometimes unhelpful) way of prepping us for that worst-case scenario, the more we ignore it, the greater the uncontrollable tendency of its return with the volume turned up. The real enemy here is our attitude toward our doubt— the stories we tell about it that can undermine our agency and trust in ourselves.


Here's one doubt storyline...see if this rings true. “Doubt is bad, I want and hope to be great. The existence of doubt is incompatible with my vision of who I am supposed to be. Doubt robs me of hope.” Imagine that it’s the day of your Olympic final. You have worked your butt off for years to put yourself into this position. Suddenly, a doubt flits in. “What if I screw up the start?” This doubt is but a thought until your mind gets hijacked by the notion that doubt can’t be here, starting a chain reaction of disbelief, internal conflict, and almost inevitably, more doubt. In my experience, we never win a fight with doubt.


Instead (and well before our Olympic final), we learn to live cheerfully with doubt. And always answer the questions that doubt asks. “What if I screw up the start?” is the question. One possible answer? Good question, mind! What will I do? Dig in, correct my technique, relax my upper body, and use my legs like pistons to make up for lost time.


Whatever the answer we come up with, doubt needs to be welcomed in as a good friend, not the enemy. The questions it poses need to be addressed thoughtfully and calmly. We don’t befriend doubt at the front door only to push it out the back. Rather, we listen to it and allow it to show us those uncomfortable negatives that can lurk in the bowels of anything worth doing. “What if I fail?” is not a rhetorical question and one worth answering as honestly as possible. But short of that, our doubts can shine a light on the niggling details or they can help us iron out the kinks in our plans...if we are willing to listen.


Befriending doubt in this way calms the ebb that follows the flow of hope. So rather than giving into doubt and stopping the wave altogether, we learn to empower and harness hope’s potential and befriend, learn from, and live well with our doubts.


If this struggle sounds familiar, and you're stuck...or stuck in some other way that is keeping you from getting where you want to be, let me know. I can help.


In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com

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