January 23, 2018

Doubting Yourself? How To Change The Cycle of Self-Criticism

How to overcome self-doubt and not let it affect your goals

Everyone doubts themselves at one time or another. And that’s not a bad thing.

A flicker of doubt makes you think twice about what you’re doing and why. You doubt whether you can successfully do something for the first time because you don’t have a reference point or a past experience to compare against. That seems reasonable.

But if you doubt yourself and your skills most of the time or at times when you shouldn’t be, that’s different.

Self-doubt hurts you more than you may realize, especially over time and more than just in one moment; your future goals and plans are impacted too.

Without a justifiable reason for self-doubt, you’re holding yourself back. And if you doubt yourself, others will likely notice and doubt you too.

Since there are barriers between you and your goals, ones that already exist and aren’t always in your control, why create more barriers for yourself by adding self-doubt to that list?

We don’t want self-doubt to plague you. You and your goals are more important. Whether you go through phases when you lack confidence in yourself or feel like you’ve been under a heavy cloud for too long, we’ve got some tips for countering self-doubt.

The cycle of self-doubt: experience mindset future action

Since self-doubt and self-confidence are internally focused, only you can control these feelings and how you respond to triggering situations. It’s like a loop that feeds into itself, a cycle that may seem unbreakable.

Your experiences shape who you are and how you feel when confronted with similar future situations. Some of these experiences sprout the seeds of self-doubt and those memories are super easy to refer to in the future when you’re in the same or a similar situation since our brains are wired to remember negative events more easily.

So even though mistakes are really opportunities for growth, it doesn’t feel that way in the moment.

Your mindset after a difficult experience may be overly critical. It changes from “I can do this” to “I can’t do this,” “I’m afraid of what others will think,” or “he’s better at that than me, so I shouldn’t try.”

But this isn’t going to help you achieve your goals. Below are examples and four common experiences that create self-doubt, the typical mindset after those experiences, and the consequences on your future actions:

  • Experience: Made a mistake or had a bad experience.
    Mindset: Question your skills and knowledge, tell yourself you can’t do it.
    Consequences: Avoid similar future experiences, consciously or unconsciously.
  • Experience that creates self doubt:  Experienced success, but doubt that you will be able to replicate that same level of success again.
    Mindset: The first time was a fluke and you didn’t deserve the success; discredit yourself.
    Consequences: Hesitate or procrastinate starting on new project because you’re afraid you won’t be able to do as well.
  • Experience that creates self doubt: Compare yourself to others who are similarly situated and don’t believe you’re of the same caliber.
    Mindset: You’re not as good/smart/knowledgeable/experienced.
    Consequences:  Let the opportunity pass you in favor of the person you’re comparing yourself with.
  • Experience that creates self doubt: You’re new or are considering applying to a position.
    Mindset: Your past experiences aren’t a 100% perfect match and you assume that means you won’t get it.
    Consequences:  Avoid trying something new, and don’t apply for the job.

The impact of self-doubt

Self-doubt feels bad in the moment. No one likes to be stressed and worried about looking like a failure. But the impact of that self-doubt spreads much farther than the minutes or hours you spend worrying about one specific thing. It quietly drifts into your entire life.

Doubting yourself means:

  • You defer to the status quo. If you don’t think you can do something, you’re probably not going to try. You’ll turn down an opportunity to take on a new challenge or you won’t apply for that higher level position if you’re telling yourself not to and that you can’t. Self-doubt can freeze and immobilize you in your current state.
  • You’re more likely to be anxious and stressed. Physically, you may not feel well and you’re also more likely to be ambivalent and indecisive when making decisions, second guessing yourself.
  • You assume the worst. Rather than asking for feedback or constructive criticism, you just assume others think you’re incompetent or assume you didn’t do well because ______. But that interpretation may be completely wrong! Assuming the worst is easy, but not always accurate.

Measuring your self-confidence

Sometimes, you misjudge things. Everyone does. You go to jump a puddle and misjudge the depth, ending up with boots full of water. It’s easy to do the same thing when evaluating yourself and gauging how confident you are because looking inside yourself and being objective is so difficult.

For example, I don’t see myself as a confident person, but taking two different confidence tests yielded the opposite result. To see where you fall, measure yourself through an objective test:

  • Confidence Code’s confidence assessment is a thorough and detailed quiz. After submitting your response, you’ll receive an email with results. The results are careful to point out that even if you fall within the confident category, periods of self doubt still occur.
  • Mind Tools is a similar but briefer self-confidence test, focusing on self-efficacy (how well you handle and perform specific tasks).

No matter where you fall on the confidence spectrum, we pulled together strategies for how you can overcome self-doubt to become a more confident you below.

How can you overcome self-doubt?

With practice, you can overcome self-doubt so that it doesn’t negatively impact you or your goals. Here’s how.

1. Practice self-compassion

Sometimes, the things you think or say to yourself you wouldn’t say to a friend because they’re so negative and hurtful. And even if you did say those things, the other person would probably respond to defend themselves. But when you say those same things to yourself, who comes to your defense? Being self-compassionate counters feelings of self-doubt.

UC Berkeley’s Greater Good In Action offers three tools to help you build self-compassion. I liked the self-compassion break because it was quick, could be done at any time of the day, didn’t require anything but myself and my thoughts (plus memorizing a few phrases), and was easy.

2. Incorporate mindfulness to get through periods of doubt and to build confidence

Mindfulness is a way to practice being in the moment, being aware of how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking in a nonjudgmental way. Often, when you doubt yourself and your abilities, there’s an internal dialogue playing out in your head that is negative and hurtful. Mindfulness is a way to recognize this dialogue and stop it from continuing in a detrimental way.

If you’re new to mindfulness, there are many options available, but the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center is free and easy, providing weekly meditation podcasts available to the public. Try the May 1, 2014 meditation podcast titled “Obstacles: Working with doubt.” For mindfulness emphasizing self-compassion, try the May 19, 2016 podcast titled “Cultivating Self-Compassion.” Both start off with approximately 4-5 minutes of quiet air time for meditation and are live broadcasts.

3. Reframe your thoughts and mindset

Reframing your thoughts is hard; it forces you to be more mindful and aware of what you’re feeling and thinking. In the moment and before you let your thoughts run away from you, reframe them in a positive way:

  • Experience that creates self doubt: Made a mistake or had a bad experience.
    Reframe your mindset: Instead of questioning your skills and abilities, remind yourself a mistake or a bad experience is a learning experience. Think it, write it down, draw a picture – whatever helps you internalize this message. For example, write the problem or mistake in your planner, and then list what you could have done differently, what you did right, and what you will do next time. This will help you not make the same mistake twice and turn negative thoughts into a positive and memorable exercise.
  • Experience that creates self doubt:  Experienced success, but doubt that you will be able to replicate that same level of success again.
    Reframe your mindset: Instead of thinking that the first success was a fluke, remember all of the time, energy, and hard work you put into achieving that success. Don’t gloss over the details! If you received positive feedback from others, refer to those comments as friendly reminders of how awesome you are.
  • Experience that creates self doubt: Compare yourself to others who are similarly situated and don’t believe you’re of the same caliber.
    Reframe your mindset: Instead of comparing yourself to another person and thinking you’re not as ____, see that person’s skills as an example of where you want to be. If appropriate, let them know you admire their skills and see if they have any tips or ideas they can share with you.
  • Experience that creates self doubt: You’re new or are considering applying to a position.
    Reframe your mindset: Instead of thinking your past skills are not comparable, see if you can spin an experience or skill the other way. For example, you don’t have experience with a specific software system, but you have worked with other systems and were able to learn how to use them quickly.

Self-doubt is powerful, but you can be stronger

Don’t let it get in between you and where you want to go, whether professionally or as a person.

It might take some time to overcome and retrain how you talk to yourself, but your goals are worth it. We hope the strategies we shared in this post help you. Share how you get through periods of self-doubt or let us know if you need encouragement at [email protected] or on Facebook.

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