- Overcoming self-doubt begins with challenging our assumptions.
- Experiencing more joy helps one summon optimism and resilience through difficult times.
- Acting with kindness and gratitude shifts our perspective, creating a virtuous cycle.
Everyone feels plagued with self-doubt from time to time. Am I good enough? Do I belong on this team? Is my work acceptable? Am I worthy of this dating partner? Self-doubt is a natural part of new experiences. Will I be able to learn to rock climb? Will my new boss like me and/or my work? Can I make friends in this new community? When faced with uncertainty, it is natural to doubt our ability to withstand scrutiny, stress, and increased demands.
Creative people face self-doubt frequently. When you create something new, the process carries an inherent insecurity. There is no guarantee that this new thing will be good, useful, or acceptable to anyone. It takes courage to try something new, start a business, move to a new place, or attempt to make something original. Often, we need support to carry us through the doubt so we can keep moving toward our goals and dreams.
A client, I’ll call Dee, turned her small gift boutique into a vast international business with a combination of brick-and-mortar and online stores. Over the previous 10 years, she held a vision of where and how her business could grow. She made a plan, worked her plan, and saw the fulfillment of that plan. Unfortunately, Dee didn’t see it that way.
When I complimented Dee on her business acumen, her brow furrowed, and her mood plummeted. “I can’t sleep. I keep thinking at any time someone will point out what a fraud I am,” Dee said. “I don’t deserve this. I don’t have an MBA. I just had the right timing. It’s pure luck that my idea took off. I keep waiting for my luck to end,” Dee worried.
Imposter syndrome, also called the imposter phenomenon or impostorism, was first coined by U.S. psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 (Huecker MR et al., 2023). Those who suffer from impostorism often see-saw between perfectionism and procrastination. They overprepare for every contingency. They feel an intense fear of making mistakes or being exposed as a charlatan. This fear inspires them to work harder and longer than anyone else. When they do achieve success, they deny and minimize it.
Dee believed her success was a fluke and she could be exposed as a fraud at any time. She found it challenging to give herself credit for a job well done. She often felt anxious about her success while anticipating an embarrassing fall from grace. Doubts and indecision tormented her. I offered Dee three ways to shake off the self-doubt and feel happier. The first required Dee to rethink her assumptions about success and failure.
Your thoughts about success and failure are not unassailable truths. One tends to assume that success is good and failure is bad. Yet failure is necessary for success. Both success and failure can appear in bittersweet combinations of mixed emotions and events. You make a big sale the same day you learn your good friend was diagnosed with cancer. You get laid off at work the same day your child wins a prestigious award. Author Susan Cain writes, “We’re built to live simultaneously in love and loss, bitter and sweet.” And, I would add, success and failure. It helps to accept the struggle as normal and universally human (Cain, S. 2022).
To overcome crippling self-doubt, begin by loosening the attachment to your beliefs about success and failure. Instead of considering success and failure as measurements of your worth, look at success and failure as descriptions of a moment in time. For example, after a big win, instead of saying to yourself: “I’m now officially a winner!” Say, "This is a moment to savor.” Money or success does not define you. You are greater than the sum of your achievements or failures.
Could you do the same for failure? Instead of saying to yourself: “I’m such an idiot. Of course that new product wasn’t going to sell. I’m such a loser.” Instead, say, “It’s good to know what products sell big and which fail to move.”
Failure is just good information. It can help you make a better decision in the next moment. Then there will be another moment, and so on. You observe the moment in time, but that moment is not your identity. We can count on the certainty of change. So we must loosen the belief that our identity is tied to any momentary measure. Our personality, talents, emotions, intellect, and relationships encompass much more.
The second way to overcome self-doubt requires connecting to experiences of joy. It’s not enough to merely think differently; we must also invite new experiences, especially joy-filled moments, that expand our optimism.
Tackle Your Joy Deficit
Most people with impostorism experience a joy deficit. Without joy, we hurtle headlong into depression and anxiety. Dee badly needed a break from business to give attention to neglected areas of life like her relationships, fun, hobbies, and health. She had not taken a real vacation from her work for years.
I asked her about the last time she experienced real joy. “Years ago, when my husband and I were in college. We played soccer together and dreamed about the future. We laughed a lot,” she said. “When was the last time you and your husband played soccer together?” I asked.
“It’s been years,” she replied.
“Is that something you would like to do again?” I asked.
“I think it would be great to do that. But maybe, get away from the house and the business for a while. Go somewhere else so I don’t feel sucked back into work,” she said.
Dee devised a plan to bring more joy and laughter into her daily life. She made a date with her husband to visit a comedy club and planned her first real vacation in years. As Dee discussed her plans, her face softened into a delighted smile. Her mood shifted immediately.
“Notice how you seem to feel lighter and happier just talking about planning something fun,” I said.
“You’re right. I feel like maybe I can do this. I can enjoy myself,” she said.
The third way to overcome self-doubt is to change our behavior. Acts of kindness and gratitude fuel our relationships with vitality and optimism. They create a virtuous cycle of uplifting momentum.
Dee learned how to tackle her impostorism by strengthening her gratitude. She lived in constant fear of something going wrong, of humiliation. It impeded her ability for clear self-reflection. I suggested that she cultivate a gratitude practice.
Numerous studies show the many healing benefits of gratitude. It enhances well-being, encourages self-improvement, strengthens social connectedness, and increases humility (Armenta, CN, et al. 2017). I recommended a couple of gratitude interventions for Dee (Seligman, MEP et al. 2005). First, I suggested Dee write down three things she feels grateful for daily and what caused that good thing to happen. For example, one day, Dee wrote:
In addition to her daily gratitude journal, I recommended that Dee write one letter a week to someone she appreciated. In that letter, she should write a detailed description of what she enjoys about that person. I encouraged her to send a letter to a new person each week.
Soon Dee reported: “It was tough to focus on gratitude. Figuring out what caused the thing I feel grateful for felt difficult. But after a few days, it became easier. The hardest thing was making myself send out the letters. It felt so embarrassing. But now I see the value in it. It helps me see more that my business isn’t about me. It’s about this community we built together. I’ve written letters to six people working for me, and the response has been amazing and unexpected. They started thanking me!” She said.
If you feel plagued by feelings of unworthiness or self-doubt, try these three things:
- Untether your identity from success or failure.
- Make joy, fun, and play a priority.
- Practice gratitude.
Remember, you are more than your thoughts, feelings, failures, and successes. Every experience is an opportunity to learn and grow. You can take time to enjoy each ride around the sun.
Armenta, C. N., Fritz, M. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2017). Functions of Positive Emotions: Gratitude as a Motivator of Self-Improvement and Positive Change. Emotion Review, 9(3), 183–190. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073916669596
Cain, S. Bittersweet. Crown, New York, New York, 2022.
Huecker MR, Shreffler J, McKeny PT, et al. Imposter Phenomenon. [Updated 2022 Sep 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK585058/
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410