The gist: Self-doubt is hard to overcome but can be done by anyone who knows the steps to take. Follow this guide to stop letting your insecurities hold you back.
Self-doubt is a special kind of hell. A small failure makes you question your abilities and, next thing you know, you feel like you aren’t good enough or smart enough to do anything. And that’s when you stop trying.
We’ve all been there but, not everyone handles it the same.
I want to tell you a story about a young genius who, despite having every reason to be crippled by self-doubt, learned to share his talents with the world:
A four-year-old boy sits at home, playing with his toys. He’s hungry, but he doesn’t tell anyone. He’s tired, but only his posture reveals it. Four years old and he can’t (or won’t) speak. Every day, his family wonders, “What’s wrong with this boy? Is he disabled?”
When he starts school, his teachers and classmates think him a dunce. They try to teach him art and languages, but he doesn’t pick them up like the other kids. He’s only learned enough German to get by.
In high school, he repeats his sentences to himself. Everyone thinks he’s slow. He applies to college, but fails the entrance exams. Eventually, he earns his degree but can’t get the teaching job he wants so he spends his days working in a boring patent office.
But, through the many years growing up and thought of as a nobody capable of nothing, the young man told himself a different story. He knew he was good at something, and that something was science.
The young man was Albert Einstein and, in 1905, he shared four ideas that would become the foundation of modern physics.
Einstein was a genius. We all know that today, but it was far from obvious in his formative years.
Did he make the impact on the world he did just because he was smart? Does intelligence shine through despite the odds? Probably not. Lots of brilliant people never overcome the hurdles of feeling they like they don’t belong.
Brilliance was one critical ingredient in the Einstein formula, but an equally important element was his ability to overcome his self-doubt and keep working.
Today, there’s convincing evidence that how well you perform in life depends a lot on how much you believe you can improve when it seems like you’re not achieving anything.
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How Self-Doubt Sabotages Your Performance
A Stanford-backed study of 643 Australian high school students reveals some interesting data about how the belief you hold when you’re in the self-doubt death spiral affects your ability to perform and achieve goals.
The study looked at 3 distinct beliefs that students held about their own intelligence:
- Intelligence is a fixed trait; I have a certain amount of it and I can’t do much to change it.
- Some people can increase their intelligence, but I can’t increase mine.
- Intelligence is generally malleable and how smart I am today doesn’t indicate how smart I’ll be in the future.
The data was clear: the kids who believed their intelligence can change achieved higher test scores, got better grades, and were more motivated and engaged learners.
Basically, the kids who thought they could get smarter actually did.
This wasn’t the case for the ones who didn’t believe in themselves. Sadly, neither was it for those who thought intelligence can change, but that they couldn’t change theirs.
If you’ve ever experienced the dreaded self-doubt death spiral, you know what that feels like, too. Everyone around you is getting better and better and you’re stuck in the same place (or getting worse). The anxiety and dread that comes with it is a special torture.
So what’s the prescription? Just decide you’re smart and capable and you can be the next Einstein, too? Hardly. When you’re stuck in the dread of self-doubt, you know as well as anyone you don’t just talk your way out of it.
Here’s what you do instead.
Strategies to Overcome Self-Doubt
Q: What do basically all motivational talks have in common?
A: They don’t work.
Those high-flying “be your best self, you can do it you handsome devil, you” inspirational sermons are great for people with high self-esteem. They’re just what you need when you believe in yourself and you need that little push over the edge to amp up your performance. It’s like the words activate a hidden energy in your cells that inspires you to spring into action.
But when you’re stuck in a rut and your confidence is shot, it’s more like having Pinocchio tell you how incredible you are.
What studies have shown is that we’re pretty bad at talking our way out of a rut (but we can get better with help). So what actually does work? Like Einstein and the students from the study above, how do you get yourself to believe you’re capable of more and then actually boost your performance to match that belief?
There are three important things you can do, and none of them are particularly intuitive, especially when you’re having a pity party for one.
1. Take action rather than trying to convince yourself to change.
It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. One of the key principles of psychologists who help people struggling with depression is to get them to downplay everything they’re thinking and convince them to start doing things, even if those things don’t feel right at first.
Rather than try to convince yourself you can do better, just give it a shot. Even if you fail, action is motivating and encourages you to try again which—of course—increases your odds of success and gets your thoughts headed the right direction, too.
2. Focus on past successes.
Psychologists have discovered that how you remember your past determines how you feel about yourself in the present.
Do you focus on the negative—the failures you’ve experienced? Or the positive—the successes you’ve engineered?
Your answer has a big impact on what actions you’ll take next and how well they’ll turn out for you.
I often wake up on Monday mornings and find it difficult to write. I’ll have a good idea, but not a clear path for how to write it. It’s demotivating. When this happens, though, I have a nearly foolproof way to fix it. I look at another recent article I wrote that I’m happy with. It reminds me I’m capable of producing quality even when I’m struggling. I know it’s true because the evidence is right in front of me. And that’s just what I need to get the job done now.
3. Build momentum by celebrating small wins.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. It’s a lame, overused figure of speech. Why? Because the answer is both true and timeless.
When you’re stuck in the pit of self-doubt, your attention is consumed by it. Even if it’s not true and not a big deal, you make it true and turn it into a big deal in your head. You create the elephant. And just like it took a series of small but important actions to sink to that level, it takes small but important actions to climb out.
Small wins are motivating because you see real progress being made, and the momentum built by those tiny changes adds up quickly.
Self-doubt is hell to overcome, but it can be done by pretty much anyone who knows the steps to take.
- You have to believe you can perform better to actually perform better. Duh, but it’s incredibly easy to forget when you’re in a rut.
- To believe you can perform better, you have to draw your motivation from the right well.
- The “right well” mostly means focusing on actions that get results and motivate more actions.
What it really comes down to is placing yourself in the right circumstances, even when you don’t feel like it. Getting out from under the funk of self-doubt depends on finding a small action to take that you can succeed at and will build on the next one. When you do that, you become unstoppable and success is more a matter of when and not if.
Einstein holds the regard he does today because he was a relentless genius. But on the path to releasing that genius were many opportunities for it to shrink away under criticism and self-doubt.
If any one of us should crawl out from under our cloud of self-doubt long enough to achieve even a fraction of what he did, we should consider ourselves a great success.