5 Self-Sabotaging Things Unconfident People Do

Self-doubt won't cause you harm if you understand these traps.

Posted Jun 19, 2018

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Source: Unsplash

It's not necessary to have sky-high self-confidence at all times. In fact, there are benefits to having periods of self-doubt. In my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I write about how I've come to accept personally experiencing alternating self-confidence and self-doubt, and how I think this actually helps me produce the best work. 

Why You Don't Need to Fear Self-Doubt

There are tangible benefits to feeling unconfident. It can propel you to work harder, to look out for your own blindspots, and to identify ways you can improve. Self-doubt can also make you more open to outside ideas, prepare you to accept change, and make you more appreciative of support from others (because when you feel self-doubt, you may feel like you need other people more). 

The trick is not to fear self-doubt. It can be somewhat unpleasant to experience, but it only causes more extreme suffering if you panic about it. Self-doubt doesn't necessarily mean anything catastrophic. Just because you feel unconfident doesn't mean you're, for example, "useless," making poor decisions, or unliked by other people. Doubt is a generally useful emotion that some people simply experience more than others.

What Is the Problem With Self-Doubt?

While self-doubt itself isn't a problem, it can lead you to some problem behavior patterns. If you can avoid these traps, then you can avoid experiencing any negative impact from self-doubt.

Here are five self-sabotaging things that unconfident people sometimes do:

1. Unconfident people keep their good ideas to themselves.

If you lack self-confidence, you probably dismiss the skills or knowledge you have as unimportant, or you assume everyone else knows what you know.

Don't assume that everyone else has the same strengths and thinking processes you do. In teamwork situations, you may very well have thought of a point or idea others have not thought of or have forgotten about. Speak up. Don't assume everyone has already thought of whatever you're thinking (also see point #5 here). 

A trigger for your self-doubt may be that sometimes, in group situations, it can seem like one particular type of skill is valued more than others (for example, all the engineers at your company are valued more highly than people in other roles). Remember: Diverse brains and backgrounds create the most effective groups and teams, even if people don't always recognize this.

2. Unconfident people overthink rather than directly asking for what they want.

It's easy to tie yourself in knots overthinking an issue, without realizing that you haven't actually asked for what you want. Asking may provide a simple solution, but if you have self-doubt, you might not feel entitled to even express your preferences. I had this situation recently when I was trying to book some hotel nights using rewards. The only rooms available using points had one king bed, and I needed a room with two queens. By simply calling the hotel and asking, I was able to get them to manually change the room type on the reservation. Before you overthink a situation, make sure you've directly asked for what you want. Do this before you start trying to think of other solutions and workarounds.

To be able to ask for what you want, you need to have some hope of possibly getting a "yes" response, while also realizing you have the capacity to handle being told no without spiraling into rumination about it. It's mentally healthy to believe you're entitled to ask for what you want, if you can accept not always getting it.

Check any false beliefs you might have about being assertive: for instance, that asking for what you want makes you obnoxious or will automatically be perceived negatively by others.

3. Unconfident people defer decisions to others, even when they have more investment in the outcomes of those decisions than whomever they're deferring to.

If you're not confident in certain areas, you may try to offload decisions in those domains to other people, even when your instinct tells you their decisions are wrong. For example, you're nervous about investments, so you tend to take the advice of an investment advisor who works for your bank. Logically you know that the investment advisor's job is to steer you into the bank's products, and that they're going to be more concerned with doing that than with whatever is in your best interests.

Of course there's a case for deferring to someone who has expertise in an area, but it's also wise to use your own judgment. This is when doubt is a handy emotion — it can alert you to when something might be the wrong course of action. 

Look out for any situations in which you're deferring a decision to someone who logically won't be as motivated or invested in making a good decision as you are.  

4. Unconfident people ruminate about how to absolutely ensure other people will have a good reaction to their behavior.

There's a limited extent to which you can control other people's reactions. For example, you might want to propose a new idea to a teammate at your workplace. You overthink and overthink about how to say what you want to say to ensure that your idea will go down well.  

Or, you need to submit a proposal, and you want to make absolutely sure the person you're pitching will like your idea. It takes you weeks to submit anything, because you're mentally going back and forth about whether any of your ideas are good enough to absolutely guarantee a positive response. Instead, you could submit several ideas and just find out what the other person likes best.

The trick here is to accept that you can't perfectly control how someone will respond, and realize that trying to do that will result in decision paralysis. Think about all the external and situational factors that affect how someone responds to an idea, such as their own biases, their mood at the time, and other circumstances that you might not even be aware of.

5. Unconfident people let mistakes from their past hold them back from taking important actions today.

Let's say you made some poor investment decisions ten years ago. You're scared of making a mistake again, so you do nothing. As a result, you're not doing anything to save for your retirement and even missing out on some employer-matching opportunities. Or, a long time ago you made a decorating choice for your home that you regretted. You'd like to do some updates in a new home, but that one bad choice you made years ago is hanging over you.  

Of note, this type of avoiding action often causes relationship tension when your spouse/partner wants to move forward with an action, and you're too scared to do anything.

Instead of total avoidance, identify the number-one thing you need to learn from your past mistake.

Also, keep in mind that we often learn more from taking action than from thinking and research. Experiment with small or conservative actions where the impact of mistakes would be minimal, and make sure you consider the risks and costs of inaction.

Pushish Images/Shutterstock
Source: Pushish Images/Shutterstock

Wrapping Up

Periods of self-doubt are nothing to be afraid of. They can have considerable benefits, but they're also associated with some particular behavioral traps. When you understand these, you can utilize the positive aspects of self-doubt and minimize the negative. If you're interested in learning more about common forms of self-sabotage and how to overcome them, you can also check out this article on 30 common types.

Get the first chapter of The Healthy Mind Toolkit free when you subscribe to my Psychology Today blog posts.