Your Guide to Self-Doubt and the Best Ways to Break Free from it

Recently, I discovered the show Alone. It’s a survival series that delivers its participants a “fresh set of dangers and challenges” as they are left alone in the wilderness to survive. Ten participants compete to see who “taps out” first. The last one standing wins $500,000.

I was immediately impressed by the skills each participant had – from foraging wild mushrooms, berries and roots, to building shelters by hand and crafting fishing poles out of wood.  As I watched each episode, I found out the participants in this show have had a lot of practice with these skills throughout their life. Some do survival activities professionally as a career. They are experts in this niche – no wonder they signed up!

However, no matter their level of expertise or experience, many of them had an inner critic that just wouldn’t quit. “Oh, that was stupid” I heard one say or “I don’t know what I’m going to do now,” another uttered when something went wrong — and things went wrong quite often. To be fair, I also noticed a lot of mental resilience in the contestants too but for now, let’s focus on the all-to-familiar inner critic.

No matter how impressed I was watching them from my couch, the act of actually doing the survival activity put most of them (even as experts) in a headspace of self-doubt at one time or another. When it comes to our own goals, no matter the confidence or expertise we gain throughout our own lives, self-doubt can still creep in.

What is Self-Doubt and Why do we (even experts) have it?   

If you look up a definition from the dictionary, you’ll find self-doubt defined as:

“a lack of faith in oneself: a feeling of doubt or uncertainty about one’s abilities, actions” or “lack of confidence in the reliability of one’s own motives, personality, thought, etc.

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time relating to this definition. I don’t believe I have a “lack of confidence or faith in myself.” But just like the highly-skilled survivalists on Alone, I’ve had the inner critic creep in when I’m taking action — even when it’s something I’ve studied and practiced a long time.

Having coached some highly ambitious leaders I also know that my clients, despite their life-long endeavors have also experienced self-doubt. The first step in breaking free from self-doubt is to recognize just how common it is.

So, why do highly skilled and experienced experts still experience self-doubt at times?

There are a whole host of reasons why we might experience self-doubt. A few of them are:

  • Growing up with a narcissistic parent is a likely cause for self-doubt, according to psychologists. This type of relationship is one where a parent may have repeatedly told you were wrong, too sensitive, that you should not question them, or that you were not good enough. It’s easy to understand why self-doubt could be a result.
  • When you’ve had previous experiences which resulted in failures and you judge yourself harshly, self-doubt is surely at play.
  • Comparison to others. In the age of social media, it’s nearly impossible not to compare ourselves to others. However, as the famous Roosevelt quote goes, “comparison is the thief of joy.”
  • The human brain is protective. Our brains act in a number of ways to preserve our safety. The inner voice is your consciousness taking control of the situation in order to keep you safe. Things that are unknown/new are inherently “unsafe” according to your brain and the survival instinct.

Knowing the why self-doubt pops up one thing, but how can you be on the lookout for signs it’s holding you back.

Signs Self Doubt is Holding you Back

Listen to your inner dialog. We all have that voice inside that is our constant narrator. Our consciousness has a voice and becoming aware of what it’s saying can be a good first step in not allowing self-doubt to hold us back. Here are a few ways it may show up:

  • Self-fulfilling prophesy: If you hear your inner voice saying “I can’t do that” you may be setting yourself up for a fall. Like Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
  • Selfsabotage: Intentionally doing things that undermine your performance and lead you to eventual failure may be sabotaging. You may take actions that set you up for failure. Staying out too late before an important work project or procrastinating is a form of self-sabotage. Why might you do this to yourself? It makes it easier to accept shortcomings. For example, it’s easier to blame traffic than take on the responsibility of having left too late in order to be on time.
  • Unworthiness: Perhaps you relate to not celebrating your wins or hearing “it’s not good enough” with every project you complete. Being harsh to yourself about your accomplishments no matter how hard you worked, lacking self-compassion, and feeling stuck in self-doubt may be due to feelings of unworthiness.
  • Impostor Syndrome: If you find yourself belittling your success or not giving yourself credit for what you have accomplished you may be feeling like an impostor. Another good indicator is if you hear your inner voice say “who am I to do that.” Chances are this is an inaccurate reflection of your earned success.

Ways to Break Through Self Doubt

1: Speak to it – Try thinking of that inner voice as another person. Would you say what you said to yourself, to another person? Likely not. Try to catch yourself and rephrase the inner critic voice into something with more compassion. This may sound silly, after all it’s all in your own head but “thoughts are things” and if you’re striving for goal achievement, those negative thoughts can only hold you back. Once you notice a negative thought pattern come up, ask some questions. For instance, if you hear a negative comment about your performance you might ask, “how true is that really?”

2: Affirm it – On a daily basis we can create a new script for that inner voice. If we cut it off before it starts, rewriting and creating a new inner voice we are strengthening our resilience. Create some affirmations that you like to say and edit your inner voice.

3: Get connected – Connection to others is a powerful antidote to low motivation from negative self-doubt. This may look like finding an accountability buddy that you speak to on a regular basis. Of course, working with a coach can be a powerful way to break free from self-doubt. A good, professional coach will kindly make you aware when the inner critic pops up. Let your coach know that you want to change this behavior and how you’d like to be made aware when they hear it from you.

Final thoughts on Self-Doubt and the Best Ways to Break Free from it

Having an inner critic, gremlin or self-doubt (which are all really the same thing) is a normal part of being human. It doesn’t discriminate. We all have that inner voice and due to our humanity and self-preservation, that voice will fight you for control to keep you safe. Just like the experts on the show Alone, when the contestants found themselves starving for days without food they didn’t give up, their only choice was to keep going, keep trying and continue to fight for their chance to eat to stay in the competition.

Try the top three tips to break free from self-doubt so that you too can stay in the game of life and reach your most self-actualized, and happiest version of yourself.

Coach Kery
Author: Coach Kery

For more than 15 years I worked in: -corporate -government -nonprofit and -higher education. In all of these roles, I was a writer and storyteller. I wrote corporate communications, press releases, newsletters, city communications, product copy, video scripts, PSAs, creative promotional campaign materials and many other examples. I see stories everywhere and I've researched their power to engage, connect and influence. As a communication coach and consultant I help you find the story you need to tell right now. I'm your thinking partner, strategist and creative coach to telling your story in the most compelling way possible that maps to your goals.

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