Everyone experiences self-doubt. It’s one of the most common concerns psychotherapist Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, encounters in her therapy and career counseling.
Self-doubt shows up in different ways. It might manifest as seeking advice or validation for decisions because we don’t trust ourselves, she said.
It may mean minimizing yourself, such as saying that a personal idea was something you read online “to avoid rejection in case others don’t like your idea.”
According to psychotherapist Ashley Eder, LPC, self-doubt can show up in people’s creative process. “It could be during the planning stage of a new piece of work, or before a big presentation.”
Over time, self-doubt “can lead to a persistent need for reassurance, leaving you feeling anxious unless others are providing it,” said Eddins, who has a private practice in Houston, Texas.
It can leave people paralyzed when making decisions, fearing they’ll pick the wrong choice. They might get stuck on everything from which career to pursue to which bedsheet to purchase, she said.
But, ultimately, the problem with self-doubt is that it prevents us from expressing our true selves. We might compromise our authentic voices while we seek confirmation from others, Eddins said.
Self-doubt “can lead to you feeling disconnected from important parts of yourself. Ultimately, it can lead to not pursuing what is most important to you.”
Self-doubt isn’t always negative. Eddins shared the example of giving a speech. Many of us experience self-doubt before giving a talk. We might worry about everything from whether we know what we’re talking about to if the audience will actually listen, she said.
“This anxiety-driven self-doubt then serves to create energy to help motivate one to take action [such as] research, prepare, etc. until one feels confident in his or her abilities.”
Self-doubt becomes problematic when it paralyzes us and we don’t take action or when we can’t consider alternative perspectives such as “Maybe I can do a good job,” she said.
There are many reasons why we doubt ourselves. Fear is a big one. We may fear rejection, failure or even success, Eddins said.
“Generally, self-doubt is connected to vulnerability.” When we’re open and exposed, we may get hurt or make mistakes. So self-doubt serves as protection by holding us back or asking for reassurance, she explained.
As kids, some people might’ve received and internalized the message that they’re wrong, bad or unworthy. “When we have these core beliefs about ourselves it’s difficult to trust ourselves.” For instance, a child may say they feel lonely and depressed. But their caregiver repeatedly tells them they’re wrong and everything is just fine.
According to Eddins, “Children especially rely on the messages of adults and are more likely to trust what adults say than themselves if there is a discrepancy. These beliefs can become deeply ingrained patterns of distrust of oneself and disconnection from our core inner truths about ourselves (our authentic voice).”
1. Reframe it.
“Reframe self-doubt as a mental phenomenon instead of revering it as a fortune-teller,” said Eder, who has a private practice in Boulder, Colo. For instance, accept that self-doubt is as much a part of your creative process as other stages, she said. “[A]cknowledge it as simply ‘oh, that old thing again’ instead of taking it at face value.”
2. Distinguish between realistic and unrealistic self-doubt.
Again, sometimes, your self-doubt makes sense. According to Eder, realistic self-doubt is “based in an actual likelihood that you’ve set out to do more than you can reasonably take on at this time.” In contrast, unrealistic self-doubt is “not reasonable in light of your current skills and resources.” She suggested asking yourself these questions to make the distinction:
- Have you competently done something similar?
- Have you competently done something that required you to grow or stretch in new ways, similar in scale to what you are aiming for now?
If you answered yes to the above questions, and you still have similar skills and resources, then it’s likely your self-doubt is inaccurate, Eder said.
3. Consider if it’s something else.
If you’re expecting to accomplish something that’s more or less the best achievement in history or your lifetime, then your self-doubt isn’t the problem, Eder said. It’s your perfectionism. She suggested adjusting your standards “from perfect to good enough. Don’t let perfectionism keep you from showing up at all.”
4. Stop seeking reassurance.
Pick a small part in your life where you’re experiencing self-doubt, and instead decide to trust yourself, Eddins said. She gave the example of figuring out which chair to buy: Go to the store and see which chair you respond to first. “You may still feel unsure, but see what happens if you let your gut lead you.” Be OK with whatever choice you make, without asking for validation from others.
“When we seek others’ advice over our own, we send the message internally that ‘you’re not good enough, you can’t trust yourself,’” Eddins said. “By committing to making a decision on your own, you are building confidence in yourself.”
And remember that you know yourself best, she said. “[O]nly you know what is truly best for you.”
5. Take tiny steps.
Eddins suggested taking one step forward, the smallest step possible. This helps you build confidence in your abilities without getting overwhelmed. She shared the example of a client who had to find a new job. Any time she and Eddins discussed what she wanted to do, her self-doubt would surface.
Her small step was not to make any decisions at that time, and to simply research career options online. “She could take this step while holding on to her fear and self-doubt,” Eddins said.
6. Practice self-compassion.
“If you are consistently judging yourself, seeking perfection, or holding high expectations for yourself, self-doubt will remain as a protection,” Eddins said. Self-compassion, however, quiets your inner critic and worry about others’ criticism, she said. To start practicing self-compassion, Eddins suggested paying attention to how you talk to yourself.
When your self-doubt or inner critic starts whispering or roaring, imagine that you’re talking to a friend who’s struggling with the same thoughts and feelings, she said. “What would you tell your friend? Now, see if you can reverse it, and respond to yourself the way you would a friend.”
7. Clarify your values.
Eddins described values as the kind of person you want to be and what matters to you most. When you know your values, you can use them to guide you and create a meaningful life, even when self-doubt is lingering. “Sometimes I think of this as ‘taking your fear with you’ as you move in the direction of the life you want to lead.”
Eddins stressed the importance of trusting ourselves. “I feel very passionately that is it almost our duty to trust ourselves, follow our voices and pursue a meaningful life based on our own unique gifts and talents.”
“Imagine what the world would be like if singers didn’t trust their voices, artists didn’t believe in their abilities, engineers didn’t trust their calculations and inventors were afraid to be different?”
When we find and speak our voices, she said, we feel connected to ourselves and others, and we have an important tool for navigating daily tasks and decisions, big and small.