How to deal with self doubt…

First, what is self-doubt? What is it about ourselves that we doubt, and why do we do it? The answer is that we hold back in some or all aspects of our lives because we are unsure of our potential. We demonstrate in one way or another that we have no confidence in our thoughts, feelings or actions. Self-doubt might be manifested by hearing the voices of people, real or even imaginary, who may have been critical of us in the past. Or we may visualise ourselves failing, feeling or looking foolish or inadequate, or we may overthink everything and draw wrong conclusions. We may doubt ourselves to the extent that we simply withdraw: if we don’t try, we don’t get it wrong.

 But how do we deal with self-doubt?

Positivity is a good place to start. In my gym, I have several motivational quotations framed, on the wall. The one by Sylvia Plath interest me a lot. She said, ‘The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’ As a writer, I take her point – you can’t create an exciting novel or character or situation if you believe you can’t. But looking closer at her choice of language we notice something about Sylvia that explains her self-doubt. Her words are steeped in negativity. Had she said, ‘Creativity’s best friend is self-belief,’ I’d have felt a lot better. That quotation, full of the language of failure, is on my wall, framed, because it tells me constantly to see things through positive eyes. Sylvia had everything: intelligence, beauty, opportunity. But perhaps it was self-doubt that made her life so tragic.

One reason for self-doubt is our natural fear of failure. It doesn’t feel good, getting things wrong, admitting to mistakes. But as we saw with Sylvia’s negative words, we need to look at a situation positively. Failure is normal, good even, because it leads to progress. We need to take away the sting that comes with messing up. We’re all human, fallible. It’s all right to make mistakes – we do it all the time. Take away the judgement from the equation and instead, say that mistakes pave the way to learning. No-one learned to walk without falling over a few times. It’s fine to mess up as long as no one is harmed or hurt. Accept it. If it hurts a bit, just wait for the pain to stop – give yourself a kind hug, as you would a friend or your own child. Then move on, a wiser person.

Self-doubt comes to us through experience – we learn to doubt ourselves as life unfolds. One seldom sees a new baby doubting his or herself. We acquire self-doubt. We want to please, to be successful, and we all know how awful disapproval feels. That’s another negative emotion that contributes little to our wellbeing. We all have experienced how unpleasant it is when people we respect or value – teachers, parents, people we admire – tell us that we have made mistakes, sometimes unkindly. I remember as a teacher very quickly becoming aware that if a child was not innately talented at a certain subject – let’s say arithmetic – they’d very quickly either ‘rubbish’ it – which made them feel better but led to no progress, or they’d ‘rubbish’ themselves, which led to self-doubt and also no progress. Sometimes being praised for trying hard is better than being praised for being innately brilliant. Or a fair mixture of both. I enjoyed as a child being good at something – what I wasn’t good at, I needed to learn to try harder at in order to succeed, and to be safe in the knowledge that failure led to progress, not to being labeled a dunce.

There are so many images available on an everyday basis that dictate how we should be – clever, beautiful, successful, loved, popular, admired. How can we not fail against impossible standards that are unachievable for any real person? We are even offered opportunities to change our appearance on selfies, so that we somehow conform to the current trend or norm. We should instead be celebrating that we are human, that each of us is funny, gorgeous, popular, clever – we just don’t all manifest it in the same way. Why would we want to?

We also need to accept that our confidence will fluctuate. Have you ever woken up one morning and, for no reason, you feel that everything you do is a waste of time? Work, life, nothing seems right, everything we touch messes up, and then we lose hope and start to doubt who we are and why we’re doing anything. This is normal. We need to tell ourselves to take time and space – these feelings pass. Seek a friend, have a pyjama day, a massage, serial music or television, chocolate, but let the feeling take its time to fade. Then reset. It’s so important to let that feeling pass through our system, like a bit of emotional ‘something I ate didn’t agree with me.’ Let it work its way out and start again, once you’re back to feeling normal. It’s important that we realise that being a bit down and doubting ourselves is ordinary, and at that time we need to hold our space and to seek out people who will be nice to us. Good friends and family are invaluable…

It took me years to understand that we should treat ourselves as gently as we do our children or our friends. Imagine the scenario. Your child says, ‘I’m so rubbish at everything,’ and we reply. ‘Oh, you are – let me give you a list.’ Or your best friend says, ‘I look fat/ horrible/ pick a nasty adjective of your choice’ and you say, ‘Oh, you’ve no idea how bad you look – let me point out all the gory details.’ It’s unthinkable. Yet we do it to ourselves subconsciously without thinking twice.

And while we’re on the subject, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, positively or negatively. It can only end in disaster. Instead, let’s admire people or give them support, and strive to be the best we can.

We need to spend each day cultivating our own self-worth. Not by being arrogant or by deceiving ourselves, but by unconditionally accepting the people we are and telling ourselves that we are worth it. Self-acceptance is distinct from our abilities and accomplishments. It’s not something that we can have a little bit or a lot of. Unconditional self-worth is the sense that you deserve to be alive, to be loved and cared for. We deserve to take up the space we live in, to be loved, to take acceptance and to give back.

It may take a while to cultivate self-worth and the path may be stony at times. That’s fine – two steps forward, one back is the dance of life. It may take time, support, visualisation, mantras, it may take practice. But I always think of that moment our mothers held us in their arms for the first time on the day we were born. There was nothing more beautiful, more miraculous and more worth-the-entire-world than that small baby.

And that’s the person you still are, even now. Believe.


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