How to Use Self-Doubt to Catalyze Positive Change

A brief essay on curiosity, experiential engagement, and gradual transformation.

Posted Aug 05, 2018

Self-doubt is commonly synonymous with lack of confidence, low self-esteem, and a belief in one's own inefficacy. Lack of faith in oneself makes it very difficult to engage constructively with challenges. Doubt and faith, on first examination, exist in opposition to one another, but they are really synergistic.

Self-doubt is generally considered a negative trait. Yet doubt is intellectually and emotionally essential. Questioning is adaptive for survival, allowing for testing the environment for safety and for navigating social currents. Questioning is at times a matter of survival, when it represents the first awareness that, without change, disaster awaits. In the social sphere, it is important to learn to gauge trustworthiness, and gullibility makes one a target for misuse. For people with narcissistic issues, self-doubt can be particularly threatening, and difficult to use for growth.

Questioning experiential avoidance

Questioning goes hand in hand with curiosity, and helps with cognitive flexibility. Flexibility, in turn, bolsters resilience and is associated with better mental health. If things are pretty good, there isn’t much reason to tip the apple cart, but when things kind of suck, curiosity is the tinder which re-ignites development.

Curiosity and experiential avoidance are inversely related. Experiential avoidance is a psychological concept associated with pathology in many research studies. Avoiding one’s own experience is a way of avoiding paying attention to oneself. Experiential avoidance covers all the bases—thoughts, feelings, self-recognition in many forms, creating blind spots about oneself and others. When people use experiential avoidance as a defense, whatever it is we are fending off tends to come out in other ways, often in the form of maladaptive behavior, and emotional and physical symptoms.


Curiosity shines a light on unawareness, and may be a revealing spotlight or gentle illumination, allowing us to grasp aspects of ourselves and our lives which have not been available. But curiosity is often accompanied by anxiety about many things, particularly when it comes to contemplating important areas shrouded in uncertainty. Curiosity is the foundation for experiential engagement.

Self-doubt is a useful tool where curiosity is concerned, and can remedy experiential avoidance. Questioning oneself is an examination—not in the sense of a test—but a cautious and thoughtful examination someone in a helping profession might make as the first step in assessment.

Making the unconscious conscious

The edge of the unconscious mind is a shifting surface and curiosity is a catalyst which acts on that unconscious ocean to convert it into conscious experience. As curiosity can take any form the imagination desires, it can flutter gently over the surface, be warm and soft as living fur, pierce, diffuse into, etc., even, jump discontinuously around until patterns begin to form out of formlessness.

When curiosity encounters a road block, self-doubt comes in handy. This is just one example, doubting psychological blocks. What is really going on around here? Are they actual blocks, or just illusions, mental phantasms given their power by fear? Maybe they are a self-protective ruse, used on oneself. With gradual, persistent application, self-doubt can erode through barriers to self-development. Curiosity is the antidote to ignorance and blame.

Self-doubt is a process which might be running in the back of the mind all the time. It works well when combined with an element of compassionate humor about oneself, without rancor. Self-doubt works best in the presence of a secure sense of self, but paradoxically is also required to arrive at a secure sense of self.

Doubting negativity, doubting false optimism

When doubt doubts doubt, i.e. when constructive self-doubt begins to undermine destructive self-doubt, we become curious whether self-doubt is always corrosive. Doubting one’s own essential badness is as important as believing in one’s basic goodness. Avoiding avoidance, engaging with experience—without getting caught up in self-referential obsessing—may be be challenging, but may also lead to better ways of being. At the very least, we can doubt our convictions that it is impossible to change.

Please send questions, topics or themes you'd like me to try and address in future blogs, via my PT bio page.