We all know that voice. The one that tells you you’ll never be successful, or beautiful, or thin, or creative, or married, or it tells you it’s not worth attempting something new because you’ll never be good at it anyway. So what do we do about it? Can we actually overcome self doubt, or do we just have to learn to live with it?
It’s time to get introspective, folks.
Step 1: Noticing the Voice of Self-Doubt
Noticing our own patterns is a difficult thing to do. For that reason, you might want to keep a little journal handy, or just keep notes in your phone. You could even team up with a friend and be each other’s accountability buddies, so whenever you say something that screams of self-doubt, you can point it out to each other.
The important thing is to start thinking critically about your own mindset, and the main point to understand here is that a lot of your thoughts happen habitually. You don’t actually have that much control over your thoughts. Humans are prone to thought patterns that become so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t notice them happening, which can lead to anxiety and depression, or can also be a cause of anxiety and depression.
So what kind of things can we actually start to notice?
Look out for subtle out-of-the-blue negative thoughts.
For example, if someone asks if you saw their email, and you did see it but didn’t realise there was something in it that you were supposed to reply to, are you likely to think “ugh, I’m so stupid”? If someone asks if you finished the book you borrowed from them, do you say “ugh I’m sorry, I’m such a slow reader”? These are the kind of small, seemingly inconsequential things that can really add up. When you feel/hear yourself thinking/saying these things, take note. Write it down. Note what happened, and note what your response was.
Does giving someone else a compliment make you feel worse about yourself? Look out for sneaky never-thoughts.
If you’re out with a friend and they try on a great outfit, do you say “that looks great on you! But it would never look that good on me…” Or how about if a friend gets a new partner, do you think “I’m glad they’re happy. But I’ll never be that happy because nobody wants to date me…” Or if a friend achieves something in their career, do you say “I’m so proud of you. I’ll never have a good career like you do…”
This kind of never-thinking is damaging and downright unproductive. The things that other people have or achieve actually has nothing to do with what you have or achieve. Notice if you’re using your perception of other people’s successes to feed your inner negativity. Everyone is on their own path, and it’s not helpful to compare your path with theirs.
Take note of your negative rumination.
This one is really hard, because when we’re stuck in an unhappy situation, it’s almost always easier to stay in the same place than to try and go somewhere else. But if you find yourself constantly thinking about all the things that are making life difficult, it’s worth examining those patterns. Do you get swallowed into a spiral of negativity? Try writing it all down and see if there are any patterns. “I hate where I live, but I can’t go anywhere else because my job is here.” “I hate my job, but I can’t get another one because I don’t have any other skills.” “I’m so lonely, but I don’t have time to see my friends because when I get home from work I just want to relax.” Often these thoughts follow a pattern: first there’s a statement of displeasure, followed by some kind of ‘justification’ (note: I say ‘justification’ like that because it’s not a real justification, it’s one crafted by the voice of self-doubt, not the voice of reason, which brings us to Step 2…)
Step 2: Making Friends With the Voice of Reason
Once you’ve started to identify your negative thoughts, it’s time to examine them a little closer, and to work out if it’s the voice of self-doubt or the voice of reason that is doing most of the talking.
But first, it’s important to recognise that self-doubt comes from a real place, based on all of your previous thoughts, patterns and experiences. Your self-doubt was partially learned from the behaviours and actions of all your friends and family. Your self-doubt was influenced by things you didn’t even know you were influenced by: media, advertising, music, film, magazines, etc. Your self-doubt also has a basis in your biology, your physiology, your psychology. Your self-doubt has a rich history, just like the rest of you does. On the other hand, reason is something that develops slower over time, based on real, factual experiences. The voice of reason is logical, based on empirical truths and real-time influences; the voice of self-doubt tends to be based on speculation and emotion.
I’m not saying that self-doubt doesn’t ever have a place. But when your self-doubt holds you back, that’s probably a sign that it’s gone too far.
So how do we actually invoke the voice of reason?
Take a look at one of your negative thoughts. For example, the subtle “I’m so stupid” from before. Let’s say you did mis-read that email. Does that actually mean that you are stupid? Or is it more likely to mean that you were tired when you read the email? Or that you picked up your phone while watching a TV show, glanced at the email and then looked away because something exciting was happening in the show, and you were simply distracted? Or maybe you did fully read the email and you simply forgot to reply? Does that really make you stupid? Or does it mean that you just forgot something, like all humans do sometimes? If your friend forgot to reply to an email from you, would you tell them “you are so stupid”?
If you wouldn’t say it to someone you love, why would you say it to yourself?
Let’s look at one of the other previous examples: “I hate my job, but I can’t get a different one because I have no other skills.” So in this statement, what would it actually take to get a different job? If it really is just a matter of skills, skills can always be learned. Maybe there’s an online course you could do, or books you can take out from your local library. Maybe there’s a local college course to get you started. Maybe it’s something you could do freelance to build up a portfolio. Or maybe you don’t really know what you want to do, you just know you hate your current job. That’s fair, but let’s apply some logical thinking to the negative statement of “I hate my job.” What, specifically, do you hate about it, and is there something you can do about those specific things? Note: just saying “everything” here doesn’t work. Be specific. Do you really hate everything about the job? Then write down everything you can think of, point-by-point. Maybe you hate the way your workplace is run - if that’s the case, is there someone you can talk/complain to within the company to express dissatisfaction? Can you ask for more responsibility so that you have more of a say in how things happen? Or can you ask for less responsibility so you don’t have to worry about it so much?
Let your rumination powers really mull over each of the statements, but remember to do it with reason. Let yourself think curiously and creatively, think about the what-ifs and the maybes, but do it step-by-step, considering the facts and the truths of the real-life situation.
Step 3: Letting Go of Self-Doubt When it Doesn’t Help You
Working through self-doubt is not easy. It’s not a direct path to enlightenment or happiness, and noticing all your negative thoughts won’t just make all the painful and difficult things in your life go away. But in approaching self-doubt with a sense of mindfulness, we can learn about the way our minds work, and we can investigate what we each individually need in order to heal and grow.
Sometimes, self-doubt is useful. It comes from the same place that gives you a feeling of “hmm, maybe this isn’t a good idea” when you see a truck coming and you’re not sure if you quite have enough time to dash across the road. In that sort of situation, it’s trying to protect you. But sometimes our inner voice of self-doubt just gets a bit too big for its own boots, and it takes over our lives, holds us back, keeps us in a holding pattern of negative thoughts, and makes us afraid to make changes to move away from it.
By noticing our patterns, breaking them down into actionable points and approaching them with logic, reason, and kindness, then we can start to make positive changes in our own lives and beyond.
Important note: if you feel chronic helplessness, sadness and self-doubt, please consider finding a therapist to talk to. Find a therapist in the USA; Find a therapist in the UK; Click here to view the International Therapist Directory.