Self-doubt plagues almost everyone at one point or another, but for many people, it’s a daily way of life. Even people with a high level of achievement can spend a good deal of time questioning their own abilities—hence the imposter syndrome. But what most people don’t realize is that self-doubt is caused by a chronic pattern of thinking that, once you know how, can be shifted.
Self-doubt isn’t harmless. It stops you from being confident enough to dream bigger and take the actions that would lead to living the life you really want to live. It keeps you from going for that dream job, that better relationship, or that big move you’d like to make. At a more extreme level, it can create feelings of being overwhelmed, filled with anxiety, and unable to make decisions.
There are two basic patterns of thinking that contribute to creating self-doubt: 1) negative self-talk and 2) selectively filtering the environment for evidence that matches up with your negative self-image. It is inevitable that if your head is filled with a loud inner critical voice and you are always looking for evidence to confirm that self-view, you will be filled with self-doubt.
Below are some practical and effective strategies for shifting these patterns of thinking.
1. Stop the negative self-talk.
Negative self-talk is the inner critical voice that berates you and says harsh critical things that you would never dare to say to anyone else. I am such an idiot; I am a phony; I never do anything right; I will never succeed.
The next thing you want to do is talk back to it. Tell your inner critic to be quiet. Tell your inner critic that you have decided not to listen to it any longer and that you are working on being kinder to yourself. Every time you do this, you gain a little more power over it.
Lots of people I work with are reluctant to give up their inner critic. They believe, it is the voice that speaks to the reality of who they really are and think they need that voice to push themselves to be better. They worry that without their inner critic they might become slackers. What they don’t realize is that the negative self-talk is creating self-doubt, which makes them want to criticize themselves even more. It’s a vicious cycle.
The thing to keep in mind is that the inner critic isn’t your authentic voice. No baby was ever born with an inner critic. It is a voice that you internalized from outside influences, such as other people’s criticism of you, or societal and peer expectations. The inner critical voice is a learned pattern of speaking to yourself and the important thing to know is that you can unlearn it.
2. Start proactively looking for reasons you can trust yourself.
Whether you realize it or not, you are viewing the world through a lens that is uniquely your own. We all have a cognitive filter through which we process events and information. Once you start to see your filter, It’s sort of like wearing a pair of sunglasses that you forgot you had on, then you take them off and realize the world isn’t really that color.
Your filter or lens is made up of your beliefs. You selectively filter your environment for information that matches up with what you believe to be true and disregard evidence to the contrary. For example, if you believe you are not attractive and you go to a party where 10 people tell you that you look great and one person asks if you are feeling ok because you look tired, you will likely go home and forget about the 10 people who said you look great and instead fixate on the “you look tired” comment. This filtering process reinforces your negative belief.
When your inner critic has been very active and unchecked for a period of time, you start to believe what it has been saying and you develop a negative set of beliefs about yourself. As a result, you will selectively sift the environment for evidence that matches up with your negative view of yourself and discount positive events that occur. If something good happens you will say you were “lucky” but if something bad happens you will say “it was my fault.”
The process of negative self-talk and negative filtering causes you to create a self-concept of self-doubt and never feeling good enough.
The fix for this is to deliberately and proactively change your filter.
Because trusting yourself is the opposite of self-doubt, to change your filter you need to start looking for evidence that you can trust yourself. There are likely lots of examples in your life of reasons why you can trust yourself, but they don’t stick to your self-concept because you’ve been filtering them out.
A simple but very effective exercise for doing this is to create an ongoing list where every day you write down three reasons why you can trust yourself. Such as, I do my best to think through decisions or I have survived some difficult situations in my life or others seek my opinion for help. List some examples to go with each item. As you add three new things to your list every day, you start to grow a very long list of evidence against your self-doubting beliefs. Make sure to read the whole list to yourself at least once a day.
After about the third day, most people find it a challenge to find new things to add to their list. This is when the real growth and change starts to occur. When it is difficult to do, your mind is being forced to stretch. Similar to doing physical exercise, if it is too easy you don’t get any benefit. In the same way, mental exercises need to be challenging in order to get the result you want. If you’re really stuck, ask someone you know well to help.