Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Ten Tips For People Who Second-Guess Themselves

How to second-guess yourself efficiently.

Oldest psychology joke in the book:

Two psychiatrists pass in the hall. The first says, "Hello."
The other thinks, "I wonder what he meant by that."

A variation:

Two people pass in the hall. One says hello and then thinks, “I wonder what I meant by that.”

If you self-psychologize, you’re not alone. Still, you may have noticed that not everyone does. Here are some tips for us self-psychologizing second-guessers.

  1. Second-guessing can be good for your health: When we like it, we call it self-awareness or introspection. Look before you leap--it often keeps us from making one false move. A second-guess in time saves nine--it often makes us better learners, able to think about what we’ve done and whether to do it again or something else.
  2. Second-guessing can be bad for your health: When we don’t like it we call it being self-conscious. It can distract you from things that matter, it can makes us slow and inefficient, tongue-tied and weak—a pushover since anyone’s raised eyebrow can tip us easily into self-doubt.
  3. In a debate with those who don’t second-guess, you’ll lose even when you’re right: The self-certain know they’re on the side of truth and virtue. In debate they’re only mission--indeed their solemn duty--is to win by any means possible. Dirty is fine--even virtuous—if it enables them to prevail. Watch Donald Trump for a current master of self-certainty. In contrast, second-guessers have two missions, winning and advocating what’s right, which means wondering what is right. The self-certain can tangle second-guessers up in self-doubt just by challenging them, but the second guessers can’t retaliate since the self-confident will deflect all challenges. Audiences are usually swayed by confidence more than content. The Donalds of the world will win.
  4. Many people think they second-guess themselves but don’t: The self-confident follow their nose toward any kind of self-affirmation. With these folks, it’s easy to lead them by the nose into to a claim that they second-guess themselves, even though they don’t. Just ask them, “Are you self-aware?” which makes it sound positive. “Sure,” they’ll say even if they’ve never really doubted the words coming out of their mouths or the thoughts floating around in their heads. We aren’t all born second-guessers. And for those who don’t second-guess naturally it takes a whole lot of education in critical thinking before they shine their power to doubt back on themselves. Most people turn an education in critical thinking into ways to doubt others more effectively, which makes self-certainty that much easier.
  5. They can’t hear you thinking unless you let them: Second-guessers can hear themselves loud and clear, but others don’t unless you show it. Get good at editing your vocalized doubts. Get rid of that six-pack forehead you raise when you’re second guessing yourself. Bite your tongue rather than blurting your doubts and then saying, “Oops. Was I talking?” Publicized self-doubt invites doubts from others. Engage in some image control to prevent having to do damage control.
  6. Try as you might, you won’t get to the bottom of it: “Why do I second-guess myself?” is third-guessing. “Why do I wonder why I second-guess myself?” is fourth-guessing, and you can go from there, doubting every doubt and every thing. “What is the one true reason I do these things?” is not going to yield you a definitive answer because we never do anything for just one reason, and even if you come up with one, you could still doubt it. Self-questioning doesn’t stop because you’ve gotten the answers, but because you’ve gotten over the questions.
  7. The bottom of it isn’t in your upbringing: You can hire therapists to help you get to the bottom of it. Many therapists have been trained to pour over the details of your upbringing to find the true cause of your behaviors. But stop to think about it: How often do you find siblings with the same temperaments? Sure, every sib’s upbringing is different, but even when upbringings are more or less the same, sibling temperaments vary a lot. Explaining yourself to yourself doesn’t usually boil down to something that happened in your childhood, even if it happened a lot.
  8. Study the thin bottom line: The closest you’ll get to the bottom of it will come from getting familiar with the dilemmas we all face. We’re exposed to these dilemmas in a different stacking order, but by adolescence you will have encountered them all: Doubt about when to have the serenity to accept or the courage to try to change things, about when to care and when to not care, about when to try harder and when to give up, about when to keep doing what you’re doing and when to do something else, about when to hold out for delayed uncertain gratification and when to hold onto that bird in the hand rather than trying for those two in the bush. Even doubt about when to second-guess yourself and when to shut up and just keep at whatever you’re doing. There's a thin line between situations that call for one or the other of these opposed options. Study it.
  9. It takes all kinds: “Am I doing this right?” is a more pressing question when there’s only one right way. There are often many right ways and anyway you can only guess about which way will prove right in the future, since the future isn’t here today to guide your decision. You’ll do things differently from others who have a different temperament. Most of the time, that’s OK. It takes all kinds. The right way to do things isn’t as narrowly defined as you may think.
  10. You can get more efficient at second-guessing where it helps and not where it hurts: It may be easier for self-doubters to tone down their self-consciousness than it is for the self-certain to turn of their self-awareness. Time hones self-doubt. We often get over self-doubts through fruitful exercises in futility, doubting the same thing repeatedly to no good effect until the doubt becomes so obviously a waste that we just stop it. Aging helps. Wondering whether you should change something you have no practical way to change is making a mountain out of a moot hill. Eyes on the prize, self-doubting where it’s likely to pay off in saved stitches and fast learning.