A few weeks ago I posted here on dealing with negative thoughts, and the response was significant: most of us deal with negative thoughts every day and find them distracting and, in the worst cases, debilitating, so it’s no wonder the topic was relevant to a lot of people (myself included, which is why I wrote about it in the first place).
A particularly troublesome subset of negative thoughts consists of self-doubt, a constellation of self-critical thoughts and feelings that question our worthiness, abilities, accomplishments, even our very right to exist and to be happy. With the pace of change accelerating on a daily basis in practically every part of our lives, it is more important than ever to inoculate ourselves against self-doubt and embrace the unknown with courage, grit, and determination. Nonetheless, we still plague ourselves every day with thoughts like these:
– I’m a complete failure and I’ll never be good at anything
– I may have succeeded in the past, but that was just a fluke – I’m just an impostor and it’s only a matter of time before people discover what a failure I really am
– Everyone else is more successful than I am
– I shouldn’t even try anything new because what’s the point – I’ll just fail anyway
– I don’t have any right to be happy or successful
– It’s just too hard and I’m not strong enough (fast enough, tough enough, smart enough) to do it
A recent article in the New York Times addressed some of these concerns and cited recent research on why it’s actually better for us not to be so hard on ourselves. It’s not so easy, though – we’re going against tens of thousands of years of evolutionary adaptation and neural hard-wiring that makes it difficult to stop doubting ourselves and focusing on our flaws instead of our positive attributes and successes.
Over the past couple of years, as I left the 9-to-5 behind and focused on self-development and the creation of greater personal freedom for myself and my family, I’ve pushed myself way outside my comfort zone. When you live most of the time out here, experimenting with new ideas, places, people, and activities, you run the risk of failure and a lot of attendant self-doubt. So, I’ve had to develop a set of techniques to help protect my self-confidence and keep self-doubt from stopping me. Here’s a baker’s dozen techniques culled from my arsenal that I use and that you might find helpful in your own daily battle against your inner voice of self-doubt.
– Don’t compare yourself to what you want to become, but rather to what you were, noting all that you’ve accomplished to become the person you are today (Dan Sullivan of The Strategic Coach warns entrepreneurs to say out of “the gap” between where you are and where you want to be because it leads to self-doubt and paralysis.
– Write down an “achievement reminder,” a brief, bulleted list of (1) all your positive qualities and attributes, (2) all the people who love you and support you, (3) a summary of what you’ve accomplished in your life and the contributions you’ve made at home, at work, and in your community. Print it out and keep it where you can see it every day as a reminder that you’re not at all worthless or undeserving but have a wonderful life after all.
– Practice gratitude every day. In addition to your “achievement reminder,” remind yourself every morning of at least 3 things that you’re grateful for that day. It’s very difficult to doubt yourself when you realize how many things you have to be grateful for, no matter how small, in your everyday life.
– Practice some kind of meditation every day, where it’s a more formal practice like Transcendental Meditation or a mindfulness meditation in which you focus on your breathing for five to ten minutes at a time. Meditation has been shown to have tremendous benefits in increasing our personal calm, focus, and composure, all of which help keep self-doubt at bay.
– Work from the outside in and change your behavior to lessen or eliminate the impact of self-doubt. Dr. Robert Filewich of the Center for Behavioral Therapy says we should treat everyone (including ourselves) as if they are good, valuable, worthwhile, important, loveable, deserving, and strong. Changing your outward behaviors and acting that way every day in interactions with other people and the way you treat yourself gradually reduces and in many cases even eliminates negative self-talk and self-doubts.
– Avoid perfectionist, black-and-white (success or failure) thinking and focus instead on incremental progress daily. Thinking about things in an all-or-nothing way almost guarantees that we’ll beat ourselves up constantly for not achieving our goals, since it is impossible to do everything perfectly all the time.
– Embrace the process, not the goal. Too many of us link self-esteem and self-importance with the achievement of goals – however, we don’t spend most of our time achieving goals, we spend most of our time working toward them, so as a result we spend most of our time doubting that we’ll ever achieve anything. Instead of fixating on the goal (and berating ourselves for not achieving it), it’s healthier and more productive to embrace the process of working toward the goal and crafting that process in such a way that we enjoy it and find it meaningful.
– Conversely, recognize it’s OK not to be working toward a goal all the time. Sometimes we need a break from the process and from our goals – it’s OK to take a detour on our journey and to head sideways for a while. Your process and goals will be waiting for you when you get back, and you may even decide to change them depending on what you learned on your detour.
– Focus on what you can control – your own thoughts, reactions, and the processes you create in your life – and not on what you can’t control – other peoples’ words and actions or the final outcomes of your actions. This advice comes from Epictetus, the Stoic, and if you practice it every day, you will gradually free yourself of worry and self-doubt.
– Don’t compare yourself to others: remind yourself that what shows on the outside is not what’s on the inside (someone who appears successful in every respect may harbor tremendous feelings of inadequacy, like the handbag designer Kate Spade who tragically committed suicide recently), and that everyone is free to define success in their own way – including yourself.
– Overcome feelings of self-doubt that get you “stuck” by applying a simple technique to get “unstuck.” Whenever you find yourself wallowing in self-doubt and unable to continue on a task that you’ve set yourself, use this simple technique adapted from David Burns, MD in his seminal work, Feeling Good. Write down three things on a piece of paper: (1) what you’re getting stuck on, (2) how much time you think it’ll take to do what you need to do to make some progress, (3) how you think you’ll feel when you’re doing it. Then, do the task and, when you’re done, write down three more things on that same piece of paper: (4) how much time it actually took you, (5) how you actually felt while doing it, and (6) how you felt when it was done. Invariably, people get stuck because they think something is just too big, or too hard, or too uncomfortable to do or that it will take too much time, and when you’ve actually done it and reviewed your notes, you will almost always discover that it took less time, was more enjoyable, and that you felt a whole lot better when you were finished.
– Think of yourself as an artist and your life as your work of art: there is no judgment, just the creation of a marvelous, ever-unfolding masterpiece meant for you alone, regardless of what other people may say about it (Georgia O’Keefe famously said that she “settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.”).
– Finally, keep in mind the famous Stoic dictum of “Memento Mori:” remind yourself every day that you, too, will die – hence it’s important to live life to the fullest, without doubts or regrets, starting right now.
Image courtesy of TheAwkwardYeti.com