How to Transform Self-Doubt From Enemy to Ally
*Modified from my book, The Book of STUCK, release date TBD
If you are reading this, you have just taken a pretty big step. You might not think so, but any time you have the guts to question the way in which you view yourself and/or how you process your internal landscape, you are chipping away at anything that holds you back in life.
CONGRATULATIONS!!! You are not the type to be held back!
And so, I offer to you this journey into self-doubt. First, I will tell you about my dance with self-doubt and how I transformed the way I use it. Then, you will have the opportunity to engage your self-doubt through a powerful writing exercise.
Here we go!
During one of my school auditions for Master degree programs, all auditioners were herded into a small auditorium where we were given a lecture on the necessity of removing any and all doubt surrounding our career choice. “If you have any doubts about this as your career path, you might as well leave now,” the stern speaker relayed. Was I the only one shifting uncomfortably in my squeaky chair? What if I had doubted my career choice from the beginning of College? Was I doomed to failure? Could they see it on my face or hear it in my playing?
In the years since that frightening lecture, I have come to realize one very important thing: self-doubt is one of the most valuable tools ANYBODY has in their tool belt, and most of us are trying to suppress it. It is not the enemy. It is an ally.
It makes sense that we would want to suppress self-doubt, right? It’s not a cozy, cuddly place. Self-doubt triggers us to feel bad about ourselves and the choices we have made. Who would want to hire a professional who isn’t sure of their career choice? Also, if I admit to my self-doubt but everyone else around me only talks about their confidence, does that mean I AM in the wrong place? My perspective from experience: in the almost 30 years I have been a musician, I have not met a single completely self-assured, full-of-confidence, never-doubter fellow musician. The specifics may vary slightly, but the theme is always the same. Self-doubt exists within us all.
But when our efforts are focused on suppressing self-doubt, it tends to build up energy like a champagne cork after shaking the bottle. On some level, you will know the energy of self-doubt is always there, and with one small trigger, it can come exploding out of you, either directed toward yourself or someone else. I’m pretty sure when I got home from that audition day, I spent a significant amount of time crying and feeling like I needed to look into other career options. Fortunately, I recovered and carried on.
What drives us to suppress self-doubt so vigorously? Some perspective on this comes from our culture. A quick Google search on self-doubt will produce various articles about how to pivot as quickly as possible away from self-doubt. Replace your negative thoughts. Fake it ‘til you make it. Focus on your strengths. Surround yourself with people who will be your cheerleaders. Etc. But if self-doubt has taken on chronic proportions in your life, a quick pivot may not have the transformative power that you need. It may not be even possible! Yet.
After the lecture and right before I had to actually play my audition, I wondered, “why can’t I be confident just like everyone else?” The question I needed to be asking was “from where is my confidence coming?” For example, how long did you remain confident about yourself after you won that audition, got an award, or played really well in a concert? If you are anything like me, you immediately started looking for the next thing to make you feel confident. Or what about when someone gives you a compliment? Sometimes a compliment can uplift my spirits for an afternoon. But by the next day, I’ve usually forgotten all about it. Unfortunately, those fabulous moments of bliss coming from the outside world will not do anything to create an everlasting feeling of unwavering confidence. Let’s put self-doubt to the test in this way as well. If someone insists that you are unworthy of something, you might get defensive for a while, but you are probably going to let that one float away. I hope! In some cases, you might decide to prove them wrong, fueling your achievement! In other words, everlasting self-doubt, like self-confidence, comes from the INSIDE. It is something you can feed and nurture. But before you can do that, it is important to look at what self-confidence is trying to tell you.
Self-doubt is spoken in the language of self-reflection. It asks a lot of questions. But sometimes we interpret those questions as meaning that we are weak or wrong in some way. Here are some of my self-doubt questions: Am I capable? Am I worthy? Will I succeed? What if I don’t? What if I DO succeed? As long as I am aware of the meaning I am attaching to these questions, I can use them to self-reflect. I must accept that these questions do not represent REALITY. I allow the questions to arise and then pose some questions to the questions. What makes you think I am not capable? What makes me unworthy? What is success? Challenging ourselves this way helps to go beneath the surface of self-doubt. Now we are using self-doubt’s gift of self-reflection.
Self-reflection is the mirror that’s held up for you to understand from where these questions are coming and why they are being asked. Self-reflection, if we’re paying attention, can lead us to self-awareness, self-doubt’s next gift. self-doubt asks the questions, we become self-reflective, and then we become Aware of our own thoughts, beliefs, values, and feelings about whatever we are trying to accomplish. Years after the now well-worn audition story, I took another audition for an orchestra job. At the time, I had not taken any auditions in a while because I had started a family and by necessity needed some time off. By that point, I had developed more of a sense of what I wanted and needed in my life (babies tend to be great clarifiers!). When my self-doubt kicked in, I was ready to observe the questions and discern which ones were coming from the outside or the inside. I could also challenge the questions and access my inner confidence to fuel my self-reflections. The result of the audition? It was a success. I did not get the job. But I did have access to my inner confidence and did NOT succumb to interpreting my self-doubt as an indication that I needed to give up.
Returning once again to my school audition, imagine If we all followed the advice to remain certain and confident or else choose a different career. Would anyone persist in their profession, musician or otherwise?
It is important to share that questioning your abilities prior to a performance or career experience is healthy and normal. It is understandable that self-doubt would come up for any of us because we are putting ourselves out there! We are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and to be criticised. Our self-doubt wants us to be SAFE, which is it’s third gift. self-doubt is helping us make sure we have taken every measure to prepare for whatever it is we are doing. As they say “preparation is key,” right? And self-doubt wants you to think about what you can do to prepare. One tiny little detail about that same school audition. I did NOT prepare for the ear-training/sight-singing portion of the audition. I was so focused on preparing for the flute studio audition that I did not prepare for anything else. My self-doubt was trying to alert me to that not so little detail. Again, your self-doubt is an ally.
There is always a CHOICE to follow self-doubt down a disempowering path or to reflect on the questions self-doubt brings up for you, allow them to be there without judgment, and then ask yourself whether those questions are serving you in any way.
This takes practice! So, let’s get to it.
For this exercise, you will want to first carve out some uninterrupted time for yourself, get centered (take a few deep breaths), and have paper and pen handy. Ready?
Think of something in your life right now in which you are experiencing a lot of self-doubt. Take a moment to think about this situation and write about it.
What questions come up for you related to this self-doubt? (Am I good enough? Am I worthy? Am I a right fit? etc.)
Challenge your questions. How true are they? How rooted in reality are they?
How reasonable is it to believe that these questions are NOT rooted in reality.
What do you think these questions of self-doubt are asking you to consider?
In what ways are these questions holding you back in your life?
What are those questions telling you about what you WANT in your life?
How worthy are you of getting what you want?
If you could have a conversation with the part of you that is doing the questioning, what would that conversation sound like? Be aware of how you respond, always checking in with how the truth of those responses resonates within you.
What did you learn about yourself in this conversation?
No worries or judgment if nothing came up for you or no revelations occurred. This thought exercise is something that I have had to practice and work toward. It was not an overnight ability that I perfected while sleeping. It took some time and effort, and I’m still working to get better at it. Start with a small self-doubt and build from there.
Here’s a nice summary on what self-doubt can do for you:
Self-doubt leads to self-reflection.
Self-reflection leads to self-awareness
Self-awareness is the light that illuminates your capacity for greatness.
So, the next time you face your self-doubt, be mindful of the questions it brings up and the answers you bring forth. When you create your life from a place of full self-awareness, you will break through barriers you thought insurmountable.
Best wishes to you as you continue in your quest for self-knowledge and open up to the possibilities waiting for you right now!