It’s Not Just Thomas: A Framework for Thinking About Doubt

In 1978 two clinical psychologists coined a phrase to describe a common phenomenon. “Impostor syndrome” is something that happens in high-achieving individuals when they can’t internalize their achievements. Imagine teaching at Harvard, all the while doubting that you really deserve to be there. These individuals feel like impostors or frauds and live in fear of being found out. I know I have felt that way from time to time, and I’m certainly not working at Harvard. From this combined with years of hearing the same sentiments from my clients I can safely surmise that

Doubt visits all of us, even those who appear to “have it all together.”

It probably also happens to people who do, in fact, “have it all together,” but I’m doubtful those people exist.

This has two implications. The first is that your teens likely experience doubt. The second is that you also do. 

My previous post covered the basics of shame and why teens are so susceptible to its effects. It has a lot to do with where they are in their development. They need trusted adults to model vulnerability for them to help them move past it. For more, you can check out the full article here.

While shame attempts to keep us quiet about “secrets,” doubt is often the secret itself.

Students have doubts but tend to keep them quiet.

Research by Fuller Youth Institute (the creators of Sticky Faith) indicates that about 70%, a significant majority of students, experience doubts about God and their beliefs. These students also reported the desire to talk to a leader or mentor about their feelings, but less than half of them did. Why?

The likely culprit is shame. In some circles, it is not acceptable to have doubts about spiritual matters. Sometimes I listen to sermons pretending that I am a teen or new Christian. Over the years I have heard many casual remarks that could potentially leave me thinking that my faith is insufficient if I have any doubts at all.  What happens if as a newcomer I believe that to be in this new environment, I have to have a “strong” faith with no doubts? I will probably hide my doubts and experience shame about them. I probably won’t talk about my doubts for fear of being cast out. I may decide I don’t fit in this new place and leave altogether. When a majority of students growing in faith regularly report experiencing doubts, we should start calling that “normal” and act accordingly in youth ministry.

Embracing doubt as part of the process is important.

Brain development and doubt

In the same way that teen’s development leaves them vulnerable to shame, it also leaves them likely to doubt. During adolescence, teens develop the ability to think abstractly and use logic. Teens are actively examining many things during these years and coming into different ways of viewing them. Suddenly well established “facts” about life, their families, and even God, come into question. If this process did not occur, there would be cause for concern that brain development was off track. This means it’s extremely important for youth leaders especially to be prepared to handle doubt! In reality, doubt is often an indicator of a faith poised for growth! You have to engage with something before you can come to doubt it, so it shows that teens are thinking.

Freedom for these thoughts to be expressed shows that a ministry is working with the natural process of a developing mind rather than against it.

Be vulnerable and honest

Fuller Youth Institute research also reveals that the issues commonly causing doubt in teens are routinely on the minds of adults, too. One of the best ways to build trust is to share appropriately about our own doubts. Safety encourages sharing and openness and will help teens feel comfortable opening up about their own thoughts. The same techniques we use to combat shame can be used to handle doubt. Think back to your years as a teen or new Christian. What burning questions did you have? How did you resolve those? These are very appropriate to share, as they are likely similar to the thoughts teens are having.

Being vulnerable provides an example for our students and can help them be more willing to confront their own thoughts and feelings. 

When we acknowledge our own doubt we give our students a model of a person who has faith and doubts.

This busts the myth: “Faithful people never doubt,” which is the kind of thinking that drives doubts underground in the first place. This also acknowledges that faith is complex, and something that develops over time. We can’t expect to have all the answers! Be authentic. If you don’t know the answer, tell them you don’t know! This helps students set appropriate expectations about a life of faith. No one has all the answers.  

Doubt is important in a maturing faith

Once students are comfortable with their doubts being out in the open, or at least disclosed to a supportive adult, research indicates that they will also tend to feel better about God. They often reported feeling closer to God and more supported by God. In addition to this, they often ended up with a more mature and consciously built faith. Individuals who were faced by a crisis which led to a conscious grappling with faith ended up stronger in the end. The take home here is that we don’t have to be afraid of doubt, but we should be prepared to deal with it openly.

Your own doubts are the hardest.

Given that everyone experiences doubt on some level at some time, it’s important to examine how you are responding to your own doubt. Do you push it back down each time it pops up? Do you share your feelings and thoughts in a safe environment? Do you pursue further study in these areas to aid your thinking?

Make sure that you are allowing yourself to acknowledge and deal with your own doubt so that you can aid your students in handling their own.

After all, even John Wesley acknowledged his own doubts quite openly! The more comfortable you become with your own thoughts and feelings, the better you will be at helping your students navigate theirs. With a little honest reflection about your own thoughts you can help your teens normalize doubt and begin to share about them.

Megan Dinnel

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