A few weeks ago a wave of self doubt overwhelmed me like a particularly bad case of the flu.
I struggled to make important decisions, like whether to watch a movie or take a nap. The consequences were clearly enormous, and I was afraid of getting it wrong. When I did finally manage to choose something, I made up for my momentary success by spending more time second-guessing my decision than actually carrying it out.
Nothing I did felt good enough, and I was critical of every effort I made. I looked for evidence of failure everywhere, and when I found that I did something with less than optimal consequences, I chewed on my mistake like a dog on a bone and snapped at anyone who tried to take it away from me.
The worst part was, when I realized what was happening, I turned it into more fodder for my self doubt. I know better, I thought. I can’t believe I’m doubting myself again. I proceeded to beat myself up for beating myself up.
An Epidemic of Doubt
Self doubt is incredibly common in people who are struggling to find their purpose in life or who feel trapped in jobs they don’t like.
For example, one woman I spoke with recently has a job that she knows isn’t sustainable physically, financially, or emotionally. She wants to move into something that’s more enjoyable and rewarding, but she worries that she won’t be able to successfully transition into a new industry, fears failure, and finds the tasks necessary to make a change overwhelming.
Beyond these common symptoms, however, self doubt has an even more destructive component. It erodes our ability to be true to who we are.
When things aren’t going the way we’d like in our external lives—in our jobs, families, friendships, or other pursuits—we start to believe the corrosive voice in our heads that tells us that there’s something wrong with us. We turn on ourselves, and instead of embracing the things that make us unique and allow us to work through our challenges and contribute great things to the world, we condemn them, seeing irredeemable flaws not just in what we do, but in the fabric of who we are.
The Love Letter
It would be easy to condemn self doubt itself as another irredeemable flaw. I would propose a different way of looking at it, however.
Self doubt comes from our desire to be good. It’s a sign that we care about ourselves and our world. It’s misguided, yes, but it’s also a sign of a beautiful heart. If you didn’t care, if you didn’t want what’s good for yourself and others, you wouldn’t doubt. And as I mentioned in my previous post, wanting and caring are key to transforming not just your life, but also the world for the better.
Perhaps because of this, self doubt is also one of the best guides I know of to help you find your path. It points to the exact place where your gifts are needed and where you’re likely not sharing them freely.
I can probably explain this most clearly with a story from my recent meditation retreat.
The Gift of Self Doubt (Based on a True Story)
I’m a loud meditator. I meditate in a tradition that encourages you to become aware of and then surrender to whatever emotional, physical, or spiritual energy is moving through you. You’re also invited to express it through sound and movement. Over the years, I’ve found that my energy often wants to express itself through deep and relatively loud noises. The group I meditate in, however, is filled with other noisy meditators, so I’m usually not the loudest one in the room.
Then last weekend I found myself in a meditation retreat where the group was much quieter. My urge was to override my energy and remain silent as well. My teacher, however, encouraged me to stay true to whatever energy was arising within me. To my constant dismay, that meant making loud sounds.
The first night I was filled with self doubt. I could almost hear the other participants’ internal judgments and feel their irritation through the walls. I convinced myself that the only reason I needed to be loud was because I’m an emotional mess and can’t manage to get my $#*! together like everyone else.
The next morning I shared my doubts with the group. They were encouraging, but I wasn’t convinced. When we paired up for the next meditation, I was with a woman who was new to this particular practice. She was dealing with a lot of sadness but having a hard time letting herself feel it. As I settled into my meditation, I felt energy rise within me and want to be expressed. I will not make a noise, I thought to myself. The teacher came over and put her hand on my back. I knew she was trying to assist me in moving energy, but all I could think of over and over, was I will not make a noise. I will not. I will not.
Suddenly I had the image of the entire energy of the earth beneath me knocking on a trapdoor at the base of my spine. “Will you open the door and accept this gift?” it seemed to be asking. Part of me didn’t want to. Part of me desperately wanted to keep that door shut. But I knew enough to know the power of the gift being offered, so I opened to it.
A wave of incredibly strong, rooted energy immediately flowed through me. I opened my mouth and let it all come out. Aware of the power of the energy, I extended it to the woman in front of me, offering it to help her as well in any way it could. I sat with her for what felt like a long time, feeling connected, compassionate, powerful. And loud. I was very loud.
When we were done, the woman looked up at me in tears. “You energy was so strong, and so helpful,” she said. “I felt it there assisting me the entire time. I’ve never felt so held, so surrounded by support.” She said she was finally able to access some of the sadness she had resisted earlier. “I finally feel like everything’s going to be okay,” she said at the end.
What I learned about self doubt in that moment is that it is wildly inaccurate, almost humorously so. I also learned that it has the ability to point us to both the exact thing that makes us unique and the best way to share our gifts at any given moment in order to help those around us. All I had to do was resist the temptation to turn on myself, embrace the very thing that felt worthy of shame, and go in the direction the doubt was trying to steer me away from.
Not easy to do, sure, but a signpost couldn’t have been clearer in helping me find my way.
There’s no easy way to work with self doubt. Positive affirmations work for a lot of people, but they’re never worked well for me. Or at least, not by themselves.
In my experience, you can’t talk yourself out of self doubt. That’s always my first instinct, but it rarely works for long. There are other things you can do, however, to transform it into self love and a powerful gift to give to others. Here are some ways I’ve found to work with self doubt:
1. Listen for the story the doubt is telling.
Self doubt is born from the stories we tell ourselves, consciously or not. Get curious about what these stories are saying about who you are. You can often do this by paying conscious attention to your thoughts or through stream-of-consciousness journaling about whatever situation is triggering the doubt.
Is your doubt saying that you’re too (strong, weak, loud, quiet, selfish, lazy, fearful, indecisive, impulsive…) or not (calm, generous, clear, productive, enlightened, loving, selfless…) enough?
As you’re listening for the story, it can be very helpful to feel the fear as well. Usually self doubt comes up when we’re scared about something. Admitting to yourself what that is and letting yourself feel the fear (I do this by getting curious about where I feel it in my body and then letting it be there without trying to get rid of it), can be very powerful in transforming the doubt.
When I was doubting myself the other weekend, the story I was telling myself was that I wasn’t doing enough to take care of my house, my marriage, my family, my health, or anything, really. I was scared that I wasn’t the type of person I wanted to be, and that I would lose what I cared about most. The basic message came down to “I’m a lazy, selfish person, and I’m going to lose everything I love because all I want to do right now is lay around and take a nap.”
2. See the truth beneath the story.
This can be tricky, because the doubt can feel so convincing. See if you can look at the situation as if through the eyes of someone who loves and respects you very much. Can you find any evidence that the opposite of what the doubt is saying is true?
In my case of feeling I wasn’t doing enough, I began to remember many things I had done over the past week to take care of the people and things that are important to me. I could also see that my house, overall, is in good shape, as are my relationships, my health and well-being, etc. Once I started looking for it, I found evidence that not only do I do a lot, but I’m pretty darn effective at taking care of what matters most.
What my doubt was missing was that while taking care of business is well and good, it’s not the most important thing. Staying in touch with the present moment, my Inner Wisdom, and my connection to something larger than myself, is actually what’s most important to me. It’s what allows me to move away from ego and towards my true self, feel greater joy and serenity, tap into my creativity, share my gifts with the world, and grow towards health and wholeness. It also requires lots of space, rest, and time to be and not do. For me, that often looks like moving slowly, not getting much done, and yes, taking naps.
Self doubt is like a giant arrow pointing away from your most powerful and unique strengths. Go in the opposite direction of the arrow, and you’ll find your greatest gifts like a pot of gold at the wrong end of a confusing rainbow.
3. Get others to help you.
If you’re having a hard time seeing what the truth really is, ask someone you trust for help. Compassionate family members, friends, or colleagues who get you can help you find a new, more objective perspective than you might be able to access on your own. They are also usually able to recognize and articulate your talents and gifts when you simply can’t.
Other people can also help in another important way. A lot of times we feel self doubt because we haven’t done something before. Chances are you aren’t incapable of doing what you feel called to, but you may need some time and help to learn new skills. Other people can help you navigate learning curves, whether as teachers, coaches, mentors, or peers. Asking others for help can not only speed up the learning process, but make it much more enjoyable as well.
4. When in doubt, experiment.
Instead of believing your self doubt, which tells you that you’re incapable or unworthy of getting what you want, find out the truth for yourself. The best way I know to do this is to conduct experiments.
It’s hard to convince yourself that you can do something without actually doing it. But when you try it and find that you don’t fall flat on your face, it provides evidence to the skeptical part of yourself that you may not be such a nincompoop after all.
So the next time your doubt is trying to talk you out of something, come up with a way to do an experiment and test your hypothesis that you’ll ___(fail, be rejected, embarrass yourself, find out you’re not as good as you thought you were, etc.)____. In the case of the woman who felt stuck in an unsustainable job, this might be signing up for a class or volunteering for an organization in a new field she’s interested in. For me the other weekend, it might have been taking a nap when I worried I should be doing something more productive.
No matter what experiment you decide to try, be like a scientist and observe your experience carefully. What thoughts, emotions, and body sensations arise during the experiment? What happens as a result? Do things fall apart? Do you fall flat on your face? Or does something good actually come about?
Pay attention to your expectations as you do this as well. (This is true for everyone, but especially for those of us with a tendency towards perfectionism.) Are you allowing yourself to be a beginner and get more effective over time, or are you expecting yourself to be a prodigy and pick this up in a day, week, month, or even year?
5. No matter what, be extra kind and gentle with yourself.
In many ways, the antidote to self doubt is self love.
That means being compassionate with yourself, recognizing that this is something that everyone struggles with in one way of another. It’s also not something you should already know how to do. Learning how to be true to yourself despite fear and self doubt is a lifelong process, and we’re certainly not taught anything about how to do it in school. Rather than getting in the way of progress, I actually believe it’s one of the most worthwhile things we can spend time on while we’re here.
Loving yourself also means being kind and gentle. Allow yourself to go slowly. Let yourself make mistakes. Do all the things you can think of that feed and nourish you. For me, that’s walking in nature, spending time with animals, connecting with loved ones, taking hot baths, napping, doing something creative, reading fantasy books, and watching funny movies.
You don’t have to wait until you’re confident or over your self doubt to treat yourself well. Often confidence comes once we’ve made the decision that we’re worthy of a little kindness and tender loving care.
Support for Transforming Self Doubt
I don’t have any openings right now for individual coaching clients, but I am thinking about starting another group coaching cohort this summer. If you’re interested in working in a safe and compassionate community of peers to transform self doubt, identify your calling, and take steps towards work you love, you can find out more and apply for the program here.
Over to You
What self doubt is coming up for you right now? What gifts is it pointing you towards? What action feels most important to take in order to transform it?
Please share in the comments below.