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The Upside of Self-Doubt

A little self-doubt doesn’t have to hold you back.

Photo by Anthony Ginsbrook on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Anthony Ginsbrook on Unsplash

It might surprise you to learn that having "total" self-confidence is not desirable. We actually need a balance of confidence and doubt to achieve the best possible outcome, whether it's in our work life or in relationships. I discuss this confidence curve in my new book, The Self-Confidence Workbook.

Here are some ways self-doubt helps you:

Self-doubt can help you create your best work. People who have little self-doubt run the risk of not putting their “all” into a project. They may think they know everything already and don’t take the steps needed to ensure a quality product. Author Alice Boyes, Ph.D., writes in The Healthy Mind Toolkit:

I need both periods of self-confidence and self-doubt to create my best work. Both of these states help me in different ways. Sometimes I need confidence to crank out work or take charge of a situation. On the flip side, sometimes I need self-doubt to propel me to examine where I might have blind spots and to motivate the effort involved in correcting these.

Self-doubt can help you know when you need to ask for help. This is a simple example, but it gets the point across. I was putting together a bookshelf and the instructions were less than clear. I was getting quite frustrated. I was sure I knew the way it was supposed to go together, but nonetheless, I kept running into snags where the screws and the holes weren't lining up. If I had stuck to my initial confident reaction (I knew the right way), I could have ended up spending hours on what should have been a simple project. Luckily, I was willing (eventually) to admit my self-doubt and looked online for some reviews that contained tips on assembly. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who had some issues with the instructions being confusing.

Self-doubt can help you get the information you need. A journalist I know had always judged herself harshly because she was quiet. Her journalism professors labeled her as insecure and admonished her to be more self-confident. However, when she reflected on the criticism, she realized that what was perceived as a weakness, was actually a strength. Yes, she was on the quiet side, but this helped her to listen during interviews, draw the interview subject out, know when to ask follow up questions, and get the facts of the story straight. Alice Boyes notes in The Healthy Mind Toolkit that sometimes our traits (even those we perceive as negative traits) can shape our skills. This was definitely the case for my friend.

Self-doubt can help you prepare. Imagine you have a presentation to give. If you are over-confident (i.e. no self-doubt) you may not take the steps to plan an engaging, useful preparation. A little self-doubt can propel you to do the needed work. Having a little humility can also help you connect with your audience. I talk about this in more depth in my new book, The Self-Confidence Workbook.

Self-doubt can help you get along with others. Many of my socially anxious clients, ones you might label as having self-doubt, are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They consistently are kind to others, work hard to get along, and take extra steps to be helpful. Of course, there are downsides to too much self-doubt and too much people pleasing, but evolution seems to agree there is an advantage to having at least some social anxiety. From an evolutionary point of view, being a part of a group ensures survival. Modern day research bears this out: people with harmonious social relationships fare better on many outcome measures.

Question for you: Has there been a time when self-doubt was helpful to you? I'd love to hear about it in the comments or on my Facebook page.

My new book, the Self-Confidence Workbook is available here.