How to Second-Guess Yourself Right

Learning how first- and second-guessing yourself work and you'll wise up faster.

Posted Apr 23, 2020

If there’s one thing Freud got right, it’s that there’s a whole lot more going on under the hood than we thought. Since Freud, it’s become ever-clearer that our behavior and emotions are not under the absolute control of our conscious command. We don’t know half of what we do or why. Far more often than not, we come up with after-the-fact understandings and rationalizations for our behavior which has a life of its own. 

We tell stories about ourselves and not just on one level.

Our consciousness is not some heavy-equipment operator controlling our behavior. Your self-awareness trails behind your body’s behavior the way a handler trails behind an impulsive celebrity or a mother trails behind an energetic child, either trying to encourage better behavior or to rationalize away worse behavior. 

Is that inner monitor what’s meant by second-guessing ourselves? I’d say no. There’s our behavior. Then there are our guesses about our behavior. And then there’s second-guessing. Like this:

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Source: Created by author.

What then is second-guessing? It wouldn’t just be more guesses about our behavior. Rather, it would be guesses about the relationship between our behavior and our first guessing. 

For example, if you said “I’m honest,” that would be a guess about your behavior — a first guess. And if you said, “I say I’m honest though I’m not always,” that would be a second-guess about the relationship between your behavior and your first guess about your behavior, and therefore a second-guess. 

Second-guessing ourselves is notoriously unpleasant. It makes people self-conscious. Many people would like to be rid of it. 

There are people who act as though they are rid of second-guessing. They self-report with absolute self-certainty, as though they’re absolute authorities on themselves. They’ll declare, “I’ve got integrity” or “My intentions are good,” and assume that saying it makes it so. I’ll call them talkiswalkists. They assume that their first-guesses aren’t guesses at all. They’re fact. 

“If I talk about having integrity, that’s an absolutely objective and accurate description of my behavior. No second-guessing here and if you doubt it, you’re just biased. My talk is my walk. My account of who I am is who I am. My story is accurate about my behavior. If you don’t take my word about who I am, you’re just wrong, bad, my enemy. Don’t tell me how I feel. Only I know how I feel!”

There are talkiswalkist wannabes too, boasting anxiously about their virtues as if to flush away all of their second-guessing and self-doubt. They say what they need to hear, hoping that it sticks. And sometimes it does a little. Fake it until you make it. But at least as often, it’s fake it instead of making it — proud talk substituting for good walk. 

Many popular psychology approaches encourage talkiswalkism. Know thyself pat. Give yourself self-affirmations and believe them with all your heart. No apologies. Act like you are the master of yourself and you will become the master of yourself. You are the heavy equipment operator. Resolve to be your best self and you will become your best self. 

Meditation is a different approach to reducing the unpleasantness of second-guessing, though what meditation is supposed to achieve varies depending on the account.

By some accounts, meditation is how you come to discover that you’re not a self at all. No self, no behavior, no monitoring your behavior — it’s all just the universe happening or not even the universe, nothingness.

By some accounts, meditation helps you come to reside only in the realm of your behavior, just feeling rather than guessing. Quiet the self-conscious mind, no first nor second-guessing. Just being. It’s like aspiring to become a well-adapted animal, behavior freed from the turmoil of self-awareness. 

By still other accounts, meditation enables you to penetrate to your authentic true core self. A first-guess story about your behavior that won't be a guess but the last word on who you are. You'll "find yourself."

By still other accounts, it’s the way to discover the highest possible truth about all of reality — not a guess but an absolute oneness with the last word on the whole ball of wax.

Mindfulness meditation encourages you to reside in your behavior but with tolerance for the coming and going of any thoughts — thoughts about yourself will arise as will thoughts about yourself thinking those thoughts. That’s fine. Notice them come and go. 

Schools of thought about meditation rarely address the distinction between behaving, first-guessing, and second-guessing. The different schools rarely attempt to explain how meditation is supposed to work. It supposedly just does. People who meditate achieve this or that benefit. Just go into yourself. Introspect by means of one of these meditation practices and you will gain well-being and happiness naturally and automatically. Never mind how. 

Now is introspection first-guessing or second-guessing? 

Introspection isn’t about diving into yourself. Rather, it’s stepping out by means of language. When we introspect, what we’re really doing is imagining ourselves standing outside of ourselves observing, describing, and explaining our behavior. With first-guessing, we can create a word picture of our behavior. And then, with second-guessing, we can create word pictures of our behavior and its relation to our first guessing word pictures.

With second-guessing, we observe the relationship between our walk and our talk. Second-guessing is unpleasant because of imposter syndrome, pangs upon noticing that our walk and our talk don’t match. We feel self-conscious, often blaming ourselves for being incompetent heavy equipment operators, unable to get our behaviors to do as we command.

Second-guessing is where the conscience resides. Conscience is the shepherd that works to keep corraling our behavior and our first guesses into alignment so that we walk our talk. Like many a Shepherd, conscience falls asleep but the unpleasant pangs at failing to walk our talk will wake a conscientious person up. When we describe someone as having integrity, we're crediting that person’s shepherd with keeping their behavior and first-guessing aligned. They walk their talk and talk their walk. 

In contrast, talkiswalkists talk a good game but you can’t trust them. They’ll insist that they’ve got integrity instead of having it. Their self-reported self-flattery is a big, bright, red flag. The more that they insist that you should trust them, the less you should.

They might have a rationale for claiming to be exactly who they say they are. For example, they might claim that they have integrity because of the jersey they wear, the team they're on. They’re a member of this tribe and this tribe’s members all have integrity. 

They have a meta-rationalization — a rationalization for their rationalizations for their behavior. Meta-rationalization is their second-guessing not acting as a shepherd trying to corral talk and walk into alignment. Rather it’s a cheerleader, a spin-doctor, a yes-man that’s rationalizing claims about their behavior. 

It’s like a dictator’s spokesperson. The dictator makes all sorts of claims about what his government is doing for the people. When people challenge him, he sends in a spokesperson to say “No, our leader is absolutely right, and here’s why.” 

Conscience, then, is having a second-guesser acting like a shepherd trying to keep talk and walk aligned. Talkiswalkism is having a second guesser acting like a spin doctor, insisting that one’s talk and walk are aligned, which is a great way to keep them from having to be in alignment. It’s like having a shepherd who pays no attention to the flock but assures their boss that the flock perfectly corralled. 

Talkiswalkists insist that it’s not guessing but reporting objectively on their behavior. It is guessing, however. It’s always guessing and here’s why.

Could you ever land firmly on the ultimate reality of your behavior? Can you ever achieve the absolute last word truth about your nature or the nature of the universe? 

No. 

With words, there are no last words because other words can always be said about the words said. For every story, there’s another story that could be told about the teller of that story. There’s first and second-guessing, but there’s no reason one couldn’t have a third-guess about the relationship between one’s behavior, first guessing and second-guessing, for example saying, “I sometimes wonder if I’m as honest as I claim to be, but I think that’s just a chip on my shoulder from childhood.” About which a fourth-guesser could say, “that sounds like a rationalization.” 

At some point, we get so strung out on meta-meta-meta-narratives that they become comical. Indeed, humor often plays with the hall of mirrors of self-reflection. Like saying, “that’s my story and I’m sticking with it,” or my podcast name: Negotiate with yourself and win!

Walkistalkists sneer at second-guessing as psychobabble, mostly to pretend that it’s unnecessary. They claim they can stick to the basics, their behavior, and their unexamined insistent narrative about their behavior. 

That’s the red flag for me. I prefer the company of people who can tolerate the pangs of their second-guessing consciences trying to shepherd their walk and talk into alignment. I prefer the company of people who are multi-level headed. 

My podcast: Negotiate with yourself and win!