Most of us experience self-doubt from time to time. For some, self-doubt may arise regarding our capacity to meet a specific challenge, such as learning to to play an instrument, fix a glitch in a computer, or do well in a class. Severe self-doubt involves questioning major aspects of our self, i.e.; our intelligence, physical appearance, or even, whether we are lovable.
For example, when I was younger, I worked for some time to overcome self-doubt that was deep and pervasive. By the time I began writing my first book, I experienced greater confidence overall, but some self-doubt regarding my ability to complete a book.
I was further helped to not feel alone with self-doubt after reading a book about writers. In The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, author Ralph Keyes provides numerous examples of authors who struggled with such doubt (Keyes, 2003). Most experienced self-doubt but nevertheless completed their works. Some used alcohol to silence their voices of doubt. And for others, self-doubt inhibited their progress and subsequently prolonged the time needed to complete their works.
I’ve learned to accept that I’ll experience some self-doubt when starting any new significant writing project. Most importantly, I’ve learned to continue writing even when hearing thoughts of self-doubt in my inner dialogue. I expect them to arise but I no longer give them any credibility. My greatest progress in diminishing self-doubt has been to cultivate doubt it.
Pervasive self-doubt and anger arousal
Heightened self-doubt contributes to a vicious cycle, becoming the cause and outcome of a harshly critical inner dialog. Such doubt can fuel and be fueled by perfectionism, the need to be right and even paralyzing shame–all of which can foster procrastination, anxiety, and depression.
And most important for this discussion, intense and pervasive self-doubt can result in heightened sensitivity to feeling threatened and anger that arises from this threat. Paul, a participant in one of my anger management classes, offers an example of this type of reaction. He revealed this dynamic in an argument he had with his wife.
Upon arriving home one Thursday evening his wife reminded him that her parents were going to visit them the upcoming weekend. Initially, he paused and became slightly irritated, thinking that they weren’t due to arrive until the following weekend. He had planned to go to a Bulls game with his buddies this weekend. Paul was irritated at not being told sooner and was quick to express his irritation and confusion. His wife, Beth, immediately responded, “I told you it was this weekend. You never listen to me!”
With lightning speed his slight irritation shifted to more intense anger–agitation in the form of yelling and demeaning her. Paul felt accused and criticized. His reactivity was fueled by momentary self-doubt about whether she had told him as well as his capacity to listen.
Of course, if asked if he had self-doubt, Paul would have completely denied it. This makes perfect sense as he had a long history eluding self-doubt–a strategy built upon early learning that real men do not experience self-doubt. He was one of the many men described by William Pollack in Real Boys, men who’ve been taught to mask doubt, anger or anxiety and instead present an image of strength, bravado and self-confidence. As such, he subsequently directed anger toward his wife, rather than experience the underlying shame resulting from his simmering feelings of such doubt.
If he had been able to sit with–accept and acknowledge–his self-doubt, Paul would not have reflexively reacted with intense anger arousal. He might still have had some irritation over the disappointment in having to change his plans. He might still have been somewhat confused regarding the scheduled visit of his in-laws. And, if in fact he was completely confident that he was a good listener, he’d have been more able to share his frustration regarding her comment with little or no irritation.
The roots of self-doubt
Self-doubt at this intensity is most often an outcome of earlier developmental experiences that stifle or inhibit genuine self-acceptance–of our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Messages that are direct as well as those indirectly expressed, whether from parents, teachers, peers, other adults, our culture, our ethnic group and our religion can leave us feeling unlovable, a pervasive attitude that can foster self-doubt.
These messages help form an internalized blueprint, often described as a “script” that serves as the foundation for our inner dialog. Feeling unlovable fosters self-doubt that then informs a self-critical and judgmental dialog. And while having self-doubt creates suffering, it is the judgment of such doubt that leads to heightened emotional suffering and can ultimately foster anger arousal.
Judgment of self-doubt; further fuel for anger
Unhealthy self-doubt contributes to emotional suffering. It is an internal threat to our self-esteem or self-worth, one that fosters the intense desire to disavow it. Self-doubt can be intensely threatening to our self-view–how we like to appear to others, as well as how we wish to appear to others.
Anger directed outward then becomes one defensive strategy for coping with this threat. Shame may prompt self-doubt but it can also be a reaction critically judging such doubt. And the intensity of this threat varies to the degree that we’ve developed shame regarding this experience. Consequently, the slightest exposure to self-doubt, as triggered by other forms of threat, may quickly evoke the “fight-fight-freeze” response-in this case a reaction to our internal experience.
Anger may then become the go-to response as a reaction to and distraction from any conscious recognition of self-doubt. As such, it’s much easier to focus attention outward than to experience the discomfort and shame associated with experiencing self-doubt.
However, taking flight from such distress only further reinforces this pattern. And while self-doubt fosters behaviors that are designed to protect self-esteem, it “does so at the cost of sustaining self-doubt” (2002). It’s no wonder then that many individuals I see for anger issues exert so much energy trying to elude the appearance or experience of having self-doubt.
Positive aspects of self-doubt
Self-doubt can be paralyzing or it can be a positive force. Most important for this discussion, developing increased comfort with some self-doubt and uncertainty can reduce our reactivity with anger arousal. Fully acknowledging and accepting self-doubt can allow us to pause and constructively reflect on how we think and feel. It frees us to be more comfortable with uncertainty. In turn, this expands our freedom to choose how to behave.
We further embrace our humanity when we accept self-doubt. Doing so helps us to be more authentic and fully present with others and with ourselves. It enables us to listen to their thoughts and feelings, as well as our own, without knee-jerk defensiveness.
Further, accepting self-doubt expands our freedom to take on challenges, pushing the envelope for our personal evolution. When we can acknowledge and accept self-doubt without judgment we free ourselves to be open to curiosity and exploration, and real choice in how we define the script for our lives.
Allowing ourselves to experience some degree of self-doubt may also help “beneficial” anxiety that can heighten our focus of attention on the details of the challenge we’re facing. It can prompt us to problem-solve and monitor ourselves in a healthy and constructive way, whether with regard to making a presentation, creating a work of art, or dealing with our personal relationships.
What you can do about unhealthy self-doubt
Clearly, cultivating increased comfort with self-doubt requires recognizing and making peace with your past wounds, hurts that have undermined your self-view and contributed to a harshly critical internal dialogue surrounding self-doubt. Such work often entails exploring core feelings of unworthiness that fuel self-doubt and the heightened threat provoked by it.
The good news is that regardless of the degree to which you experience self-doubt, you can cultivate the capacity to be more compassionate with yourself and less judgmental of it. Cultivating increased doubt about your self-doubt is an overall task for overcoming the detrimental impact of unhealthy self-doubt.
Several strategies to address this task of reducing unhealthy self-doubt include the following:
1. Recognize and acknowledge your self-doubt: Emotional growth and the expansion of our emotional intelligence begins with our increased self-awareness of our inner landscape–including our thoughts, feelings and sensations. It takes courage to pause and “turn up the volume” to hear what you are experiencing with regard to self-doubt.
2. Ask yourself “what” you are experiencing rather than “why” you are experiencing something: By asking “what” you are observing rather than trying to analyze. Asking “why” often implies there must be a specific answer. When you ask “what” with regard to self-doubt you can become more open to explore and identify specific feelings and thoughts surrounding it.
3. Recognize the role your anger plays regarding self-doubt: Be alert to how anger may help you in the short-term, by distracting you from feeling both shame and feelings of self-doubt.
4. Do look to your history: Try to identify what might be the sources of your self-doubt, experiences that may have cultivated it. In this manner, you can better learn the script that you have internalized, with and without your full awareness.
5. Look for moments of having overcome your self-doubt: Recall moments when you may have overcome self-doubt. What were you thinking that helped you to move past it? Try to identify a key word or phrase that you might have used to doubt your self-doubt.
6. Commit yourself to overcoming unhealthy self-doubt: You may work on your own and/or seek the help of a professional to address this task. There are many books available that can help you focus on re-writing your script in a way that reflects your values and who you wish to become.
Ultimately, the more you embrace your humanity, including self-doubt, the less prone you will be to intense and destructive self-doubt, judgment of it and the anger that it can foster.
Keyes, R (2003). The Courage To Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. NY: Holt Paperbacks.