Five practical ways to overcome self-doubt

A life that says “this will have to do”

A life where tomorrow is remarkably similar to today.

A life that closely resembles those of parents, friends and colleagues.

Phew.

Self doubt is working.

Imagine the awful things that would have happened in a life where tomorrow was full of surprises. Where the whims and twists of the imagination were indulged. Imagine the ridicule, the awful “I told you so” of a life where something was ventured and nothing gained.

It’s far less humiliating to stay within the lines.

Why else would self-doubt run so strong? The protective voice that maintains safety and puts a stop to any risky or outlandish behaviour.

It promotes survival, acceptance through conformity and treading the path well-traveled.

It saves you from the humiliating experience of finding out that your fear was founded. You are flawed. You are not good enough. You were an idiot to even think you could make it work.

If only you could accept this fate – the safe one. Can you though?

The wiring for growth, discovery and creativity doesn’t let up.

Self doubt butterfly at the window
Photo by Andreas Haslinger on Unsplash

There’s a strong force inside us that needs self-expression and challenge. This is the counter-force to self-doubt.

It’s the energy that moves forward into the risky territory of creation (launch the business, brave the open mic, leave the job to start from scratch).

This energy is capable of standing up to self-doubt when it whispers, shouts and etches into stone all the reasons you’re not up to the job. All the reasons you will most certainly fail.

The steps below do not remove self-doubt. They do not make the risky path easy. But they DO guide you through and beyond the dreaded limbo, which can otherwise become a trance-like resting place for years at a time.

Here we go.

1. Grab self-doubt it with two hands and pull it into the light

The insane thing about self-doubt is that so often we don’t even realise it’s getting to us.

The thoughts and feelings connected to it become so automatic that we stop noticing them.

They’re like the tatty wallpaper that we thought we’d paint over when we first moved in but have kind of stopped noticing as life got busy.

Self-doubt can have an impact on us externally without us having fully paid attention to it internally. We say no to that idea, we don’t complete that project, but we barely even ask ourselves what stopped us moving forward.

So the first way to deal with self-doubt is to make it fully conscious. To catch it in the act and slow it down.

Train yourself over time to notice the feelings and thoughts that come with self-doubt for you. Be aware of what triggers it.

Perhaps you can just about catch an internal dialogue where you’re telling yourself the reasons you aren’t as well-equipped as other people who are running successful businesses in your niche.

Maybe you get a message from a client – or even a comment on social – where someone’s not 100% happy with the service you’ve provided. You get a tug at the chest and swiftly go about assassinating your whole career, all within the ‘safe’ confines of your own head.

So catch these thoughts and feelings early, make a habit of noticing them.

Self doubt camping torch night
Photo by Rahul Bhosale on Unsplash

2. Give your self-doubt MORE space, not less

You captured your self-doubt in the previous step, so now it’s time to get out the magnifying glass.

It’s tempting once you’ve identified the doubts to say “ok, nailed it” and move on. But really it’s worth doing more.

Doubts are like stubborn weeds: you pull up the plant at the surface and the flower bed looks great, but within a week the weeds have grown back stronger because you didn’t dig deep enough.

So get your gardening gloves on and dig in.

Give the stories and feelings some space. Expand them.

If the self-doubt is coming up most strongly for you as thoughts and stories in your head, then write them down and meet them head-on to diffuse their power over you.

  • Do a brainstorm of all the connected thoughts and associations you have.
  • Make sure you catch the stories in full, just as they are without worrying too much about how to change them right now.

Just see them in the cold light of day.

If the self-doubt is appearing strongly for you as a felt-sense or emotion in your body, then this is where to meet it first.

  • Spend a few minutes with your eyes closed.
  • Focus on your breath.
  • Find the place in your body where these feelings reside and perhaps place a hand there. Keep breathing. You don’t need to wait for the sensation to change, you don’t need to do anything except acknowledge it.
  • When you open your eyes, jot down anything you noticed.

You may find that once you’ve given some space to the feelings, you can hear the thoughts and stories more clearly, so you’ll want to get those down now too.

3. Give self-doubt a clear voice

A note on talking to yourself and to the voices in your head.

This is sanity, even if it feels weird at first.

If you feel self-conscious about it, no worries, that’ll die down when you start to experience the value of it first-hand.

If you’re willing to hand the mic over to your self-doubt, you will find that it has a whole personality that you might not have expected. A voice that could be really helpful to hear.

To get acquainted with it:

  • Clear some space and time where you won’t be disturbed
  • Spend a few minutes focusing on your breath, meditating in whatever was works for you
  • Invite your self-doubt to join you for a conversation

Say hello to your self-doubt as if it was another person sitting in front of you. Start asking some questions and then answer them as if you were your self-doubt (like a role play where you’re playing both parties in the conversation – even better if you can get a non-judgy friend to help you).

Some good questions are:

  • What is happening for you?
  • What are you most afraid of?
  • What are you hoping to protect me from?
  • What do you see as your main role in my life?
  • What do you need?

Now, listen.

You can jot things down in a journal, use a voice recording app (honestly, you should hear my ’talking to myself’ voice memos over the years… quite something). I find I can land the most valuable information this way, but some people can remember if they just go through the conversation in their head.

You may be amazed at what this part of you has to say. It may be angry, afraid or even seem quite young and vulnerable.

See if you can send some gratitude to this aspect of yourself, even if your relationship isn’t an easy one.

If your self-doubt lets you know that it needs or wants something from you, then this is gold dust.

Perhaps it’s something surprising to you. It may be the key to change. Is it something that you can offer?

My self-doubt has told me that it needs to know I can take care of myself. That it needs reassurance from an adult part of me. That it needs to know I can handle criticism without dying.

I was able to offer all of this. And keep offering it. From my adult self to the vigilant, uncertain part of me that I’d wanted to ignore.

To make this sort of commitment to yourself is growing up. It is a powerful movement towards your risky dreams.

Self doubt reflection at sunset
Photo by Luke Leung on Unsplash

4. Pin down self-doubt with logical reasoning

It can be helpful on a more ‘everyday’, logical level to actually deconstruct your self-doubt too.

The more creative and emotional steps are so helpful, and a watertight analysis can be incredibly empowering too. Take your thoughts and your stories and question them.

  • Are they based in reality?
  • Do you have any proof that they’re true?
  • Do you have any proof that they’re not true?
  • Could the total opposite of these thoughts be true?
  • Are they in proportion to the current situation?

Are they familiar, can you think of other times you’ve thought the same thing in the past?

Scribble down some answers. Get the sharpies out. Do a mind map and doodles. Whatever works. Jot down any lightbulb moments or realisations that seem like a chink in the armour of your self-doubt.

And bring some humour and kindness to the process. You might be tempted to criticise yourself or feel shame when you realise how nonsensical some of your doubting thoughts are, but don’t over-indulge on self criticism if you can help it.

Honour the fact that these are really old thought patterns that originally stemmed from some very deep fears. And keep it light. Allow yourself to have a compassionate chuckle at how ludicrous and extreme some of the thoughts are!

5. Make a creative home for self-doubt

You probably won’t want to do this every single time your self-doubt surfaces, but it can be really useful if there’s a persistent belief system you want to change.

It’s also a great way of doing something with what you’ve learned in all the previous steps.

Make a collage or a drawing that represents your self-doubt. Think of it as a place where you can actually put your self-doubt, it’s home. You could cover a box with images that you associate with self-doubt, cut and paste some things from magazines, write with markers on a Kleenex box.

The main thing is to go through the process of creatively exploring and expressing your self-doubt.

The key outcome here is that you separate yourself from it.

You conceptualise the self-doubt (and this works even if the outcome is very basic from a visual standpoint) and you place it somewhere outside of yourself. This increases your ability to catch it when it comes up, recognise it and overcome it.

Through commitment to these steps (any of them), self-doubt becomes a transitory phase rather than a familiar home.

When these ways of thinking and addressing self-doubt become embedded and routine, it makes a profound difference to your ability to take positive steps forward.

They put a buffer in between your self-doubt and your actions.

Self-doubt can do no harm if it stays contained within your emotions and your thoughts. It can only impact your world for real if you allow it to dictate your behaviour.

So soothe your feelings and shift your thoughts consciously.

And that version of life that says “this will have to do”?

Ditch it, and keep moving forward in the direction of your dreams.

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