Self-Doubt: Definition, Causes, & How to Overcome Doubts
What is self-doubt, what causes it, and how do we overcome it? In this article, we'll talk about why self-doubt is so problematic and what we can do to get rid of self-doubts.
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Do you struggle to feel sure of yourself? Do you often question your beliefs or attitudes? Or do you often wonder if you've made the right decisions? Self-doubt can be a difficult experience. In this article, we'll first define self-doubt in psychology. Then, we'll talk about what contributes to self-doubt and how to manage it.
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What Is Self-Doubt? (A Definition)
Self-doubt can be defined as a state of uncertainty about the truth of anything (Braslow, Guerrettaz, Arkin, & Oleson, 2012). It could be about our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, opinions, decisions, self-views, or any "truth" we hold in our minds. We have a sense that we are not stable. However, researchers further suggest that self-doubt specifically involves questioning our own self-competence (Braslow, Guerrettaz, Arkin, & Oleson, 2012).
What does it mean to be full of self-doubt?
People who have a lot of self-doubts are thought to have a lot of variation in their judgment of their own abilities. At some times, they may expect poor performance and at other times they may expect excellent performance. They can not confidently state their level of competence and may be uncertain about their ability to cause a desired outcome (Braslow, Guerrettaz, Arkin, & Oleson, 2012).
What's the opposite of self-doubt?
The opposite of self-doubt is having clear certainty about one's competence. This person knows what to expect from their performance, whether that be a good performance, bad performance, or somewhere in the middle.
The Meaning of Self-Doubt
Self-doubt is thought to be different from self-efficacy—self-efficacy involves our expectations of performing well in a given domain. Rather, self-doubt appears to involve thoughts or rumination about overall competence. So, someone who is self-doubting may be very clear about who they are but not clear about their level of competence. Because certainty and clarity are experiences that we humans generally strive for, self-doubt can be quite an uncomfortable experience (Braslow, Guerrettaz, Arkin, & Oleson, 2012).
What's Your Level of Self-Doubt?
Here are some questions that can help you get a sense of your level of self-doubt (Oleson, Poehlmann, Yost, Lynch, & Arkin, 2000):
"More often than not, I feel unsure of my abilities."
Strongly disagree Strongly agree
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
*higher scores suggest more self-doubt.
"As I begin an important activity, I usually feel confident in the likely outcome."
Strongly disagree Strongly agree
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
*higher scores suggest less self-doubt.
What Causes Self-Doubt?
Research studies have aimed to see if they can create the experience of self-doubt. And indeed, they have found ways to do so. For example, if people are asked to list a whole bunch of examples of their assertiveness, they end up thinking that they aren't very assertive—how could they be if they can't even come up with enough examples for the study?
Similar findings come from studies asking people to list lots of examples about their self-confidence, and even from studies asking people to list examples of a lack of confidence (Braslow, Guerrettaz, Arkin, & Oleson, 2012). So basically, anything that leads us to question our existing beliefs, thoughts, emotions, etc... can lead to self-doubt.
Another potential cause of self-doubt arises from how the important people in our lives react to our judgments and mistakes (Braslow, Guerrettaz, Arkin, & Oleson, 2012). If they think that our mistakes make us stupid, we might be more likely to agree. If they think that our mistakes are just a normal part of being human, then we might agree with that.
How We Deal With Self Doubt
Because self-doubt is such an unpleasant experience, we often deal with it in automatic and unconscious ways—some of which can be good and others not so good. Here are a few of these ways:
Self-handicapping is a defensive strategy that helps us blur the reasons for our mistakes or failures. Using drugs, alcohol, and procrastination are examples of self-handicaps that enable us to blame our struggles on something other than our incompetence. Unfortunately, this strategy often just leads to worsening self-doubt (Braslow, Guerrettaz, Arkin, & Oleson, 2012).
Overachievement is a strategy that helps prevent mistakes and failures. If we are self-doubting, we might not believe that our regular efforts or competence alone will be enough to succeed. So we put in a super amount of effort. Unfortunately, we still might struggle with self-doubt because we have no way of knowing whether it was the extra effort or our smarts that made us successful (Braslow, Guerrettaz, Arkin, & Oleson, 2012).
Imposter syndrome is when we feel like the success we've experienced is not an accurate reflection of our underlying abilities. We've done well, but we're afraid we can't keep up or compete with other people who are at our level. We might credit our success to luck, timing, or good fortune (Braslow, Guerrettaz, Arkin, & Oleson, 2012).
One last way we might deal with self-doubt is by focusing on our opponents' unfair advantages. "If we fail and someone else succeeds, it must be due to some unfair advantage they had", we might tell ourselves.
Video: Freedom from Self-Doubt
How to Overcome Self Doubt
Self-doubt is closely linked to self-esteem. And according to Schiraldi (2007), our self-esteem is built on top of three building blocks:
Note how two of these are "unconditional", or in other words, unchangeable or certain. You can see how self-doubt—or uncertainty—could begin to destabilize these blocks and erode our self-esteem. So it may be helpful to think through how to stabilize these blocks. To do so, ask yourself:
Thinking through these questions and developing a mindset that helps you maintain your self-worth may help self-doubts from taking over.
Tips to Stop Self-Doubt
Here are a few more strategies that can help you stop self-doubts:
Use positive self-talk
Positive self-talk is when we say things to ourselves that are kind, positive, or supportive. Positive self-talk is generally thought to be good for mental health and has even been shown to improve performance (Tod, Hardy, & Oliver, 2011).
Use affirmations for self-doubt
Positive affirmations may be considered a type of positive self-talk because we repeat statements to ourselves to shift our mindset in ways that make us feel more self-confident and optimistic. For example, we might say, "I am strong and capable", "I am doing my best and that is enough", or "I am capable of anything I put my mind to". These affirmations may help us feel more sure about ourselves even when our lives feel wobbly.
We can likely decrease the negative impact of mistakes and failures by being more compassionate towards ourselves. For example, we might treat ourselves like we would treat a friend, replace our inner critic with an inner cheerleader, or remind ourselves that we are only human and we deserve to be treated kindly, at the very least by ourselves.
Find your strengths
Rather than focusing on your weaknesses or challenges, it can be helpful to focus more on your strengths. First, find your strengths by asking yourself what you're good at. Then try to focus on these strengths when and if you find that you are doubting yourself.
Video: How To Eliminate Self-Doubt
Quotes About Self-Doubt
Here are a few quotes about self-doubt that may be inspiring or helpful.
Get Rid Of Self-Doubt With Self-Trust
When we doubt ourselves, we might also have a hard time trusting ourselves. Will we make the right decisions? Are our opinions correct? What if we're wrong? How can we trust ourselves if even we aren't certain that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are right?
If we're having trouble trusting ourselves, it may be because we haven't really been very reliable with ourselves. For example, maybe we've told ourselves a thousand times that we are going to start eating healthfully... but we never do it. Or maybe we tell ourselves that we're in a happy marriage but yet we keep cheating on our spouse. It's no wonder we doubt ourselves if we're not really being honest with ourselves. And it's why building self-trust may be a key step in getting rid of self-doubt.
How to build self-trust
Here are some tips to start building self-trust:
If you need to, take some time to reflect on your core values and how you want to be in the world. Doing so may help give you a greater sense of certainty about the actions you take.
Video: Remove Your Self-Doubt - Music for Self-Reflection
Articles to Overcome Self-Doubt
Want to keep learning about how to overcome self-doubt? Here are a few more articles on related topics that you may be interested in checking out.
Books to Help You Overcome Self-Doubt
Do you feel like you still need more advice to overcome self-doubt? Here are a few books that may help.
Self-doubt can be an uncomfortable and problematic thought process. Luckily, there are some things we can do to start overcoming self-doubt and moving forward with more assuredness and confidence.