Doubt is healthy. We need to doubt everything; it’s part of how we hold ourselves accountable. Doubt the government, doubt what you read. Doubt yourself. Doubt, when coming from a healthy place, raises questions. The bigger the change, the more doubt and the harder the questions. But really, in any major change in life, the only question we should be taking care to ask is, “Could we go back?”
Lately, the question for me has been about whether I could go back into education. I miss it, there are things about it I found more than satisfying. Could I go back? No. For a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is the setting: schools are stifling, gendered, regimented places. Reflection tells me that if I did work as an educator again, it wouldn’t be in a school.
Coming to that answer was a complex process of distancing, healing, and being brutally honest with myself. At the point of leaving my teaching assistant job, I couldn't have told you any of that. And the same was true when I escaped my ex and assumed my new queer life: I had no idea why I couldn’t go back. I just felt good leaving the old behind. I would doubt — who doesn’t?
"I BELIEVE IT’S A SYMPTOM OF GATEKEEPING CULTURE, BUT WHATEVER IT IS, FOLKS IN TRANSITIONAL SPACES CRUSH DOUBT IN THEMSELVES AND OTHERS."
The transitional world tends to quell doubt. I believe it’s a symptom of gatekeeping culture, but whatever it is, folks in transitional spaces crush doubt in themselves and others. But we do need to doubt. We absolutely must evaluate. Always forward, never backward, but not without a glance back; we need the context of where we were.
A challenge with doubt is knowing whether we are reflecting or ruminating. Reflection is important; examining where we were, where we are, what we are and how we feel about it is one of the most healthy things we can do for ourselves. Rumination is not. Rumination is a thought loop that feels like reflection, but we don’t really examine anything. We don’t branch into broader contexts, we aren’t being honest with ourselves. It’s sometimes really hard to know the difference.
At this point, I can’t comprehend going back. I don’t remember how I was, except that it wasn’t a great time. A lot of bad things happened, but I also now recognise that the struggle I normally associate with just being weird was also pain management. Now that I’m living life properly (as I understand what’s proper; it definitely will change again), I just enjoy being strange. I wouldn’t want to go back — being weird would be a coping skill again. I’d rather revel than survive.
Asking oneself whether they would go back is a good way to work out whether an existential thread is actually productive. For me, that was how I could tell if I was ruminating versus reflecting: could I go back? No? Then this loop doesn’t matter. Set it aside and distract myself; maybe it will come up in a way that is helpful, maybe not. But for now it’s not helpful.
This could be seen as an ultimatum. Brinkmanship isn’t the best way to do things, but when stuck in a struggle over my identity it became necessary to cut through the clutter of my mind and just ask the question. When working with clients, I would always want to get at the ‘bottom line’, because I found it formed a solid foundation for them. Closed questions like, “Are you comfortable?” formed the basis for earthing someone out. Feet on the floor; a fixed point for the mind. “Can you go back?”
“OK, then what can we do to go forward?”
With so much to think about, it pays to be reductive in our questioning before launching into the bigger, more complex questions. The answers are always nuanced; there are always caveats. It’s OK to start with the dualistic before allowing the depth to creep in. It keeps the mind focused on the issue at hand. It prevents rumination.
The technique is useful for any serious recognition: I can’t go back to the state I was in before I understood what I was. I can’t go back to how I was before I realised I was abused. Understandings of this kind changes a person, even if they don’t act on their new state of being. Once the information surfaces, it will never go away.
"IT’S IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT UNDERSTANDING IS NOT AN OBLIGATION TO CHANGE AT ALL."
It’s important to note that understanding is not an obligation to change at all. One might understand they’re transgender and let that understanding be. One might ask the question, ‘Can I go back?” and discover that actually they can. That doesn’t mean their understanding is false. It just means they understand themselves differently from those that couldn’t go back.
Often it’s enough to understand that the stress of staying the course is less than the imagined stress of change. The closed answer of yes or no is just a nugget: a conversation starter. Whatever answer you get has an elaborate underpinning of thoughts, feelings, motivations and history. All the same, beginnings are important.
In the game of change, we can never really go back. We might be able to restore much of what was: we can return to a job sector we left, we can move back to a place. We can assume an old social role. The understanding never goes away. Our experience means we never return to a place; change is never undone. Even if we don’t change our bodies or lives, our way of thinking changes.
I find doubt comforting. It means I’m doing what is necessary; I’m not just rushing forward. Could I go back? No, I couldn’t. Always forward, never backward, doubting all the way but secure in the knowledge that I’m growing. My process might look breakneck to others, but I took all the time I needed.