Not being able to trust yourself comes in all shapes and sizes from chronic self-doubt and imposter syndrome to indecisiveness and low self-esteem.
And while all of them are painful in the moment, the real tragedy of all self-doubt is that it leads you to miss out on life:
- How many amazing careers were abandoned because people didn’t trust themselves?
- How many incredible works of art never came to be because people didn’t trust themselves?
- How many beautiful relationships never formed because people didn’t trust themselves?
Sadly, many people’s low self-trust goes unchecked and even gets worse over time because of one basic misunderstanding about what actually causes it:
It’s not events from your past that make it hard to trust yourself—it’s your habits in the present.
If you want to start trusting yourself more, look out for these subtle psychological habits sabotaging your self-trust and work to eliminate them.
1. Dwelling on the past
If you struggle to trust yourself, it could be because you’ve gotten in the bad habit of ruminating on the past, especially mistakes or misfortunes.
See, a lot of people convince themselves that they need to continually analyze and replay their past mistakes in order to avoid making them in the future.
And while there is a place for healthy reflection, you can always tell when it’s slipped into unhealthy rumination by these two signs:
- It’s not productive. Healthy reflection leads to new insights and behavior change. Unhealthy rumination keeps going and going without actually resulting in any benefit.
- It’s compulsive. Healthy reflection is deliberate and intentional: you’re thinking about the past for a specific reason and for a specific amount of time. Unhealthy rumination, on the other hand, is something you just find yourself doing—like a bad habit (which it is!)
Unfortunately, besides making you anxious and depressed, chronically ruminating over past mistakes and failures also trains your brain to believe that you’re not trustworthy.
Think about it…
If you’re constantly reminding yourself that you’re a screw-up, is it any surprise that you have a hard time trusting yourself?
If you want to trust yourself more, live your life going forward, not in reverse.
Take responsibility for your mistakes, of course. And learn from them if you can. But after that, have the courage and self-compassion to let them go and get on with your life.
“In the process of letting go you will lose many things from the past, but you will find yourself.”
— Deepak Chopra
2. Worrying about the future
Worrying about the future is the flip side of ruminating about the past.
People convince themselves that their chronic worry is inevitable or even necessary because, well, somebody has to think about negatives in the future, right?
Absolutely. But here’s the mistake:
Worry is fundamentally different than effective planning and problem-solving.
By definition, worry is unhelpful thinking about negatives in the future. Planning and problem-solving can be difficult because they’re negative, but they lead to results—they’re productive and generative.
The only thing worry leads to is stress and anxiety in the moment and low self-confidence and lack of trust in the long-term. Which makes sense if you think about it: How much trust are you engendering in your mind if you’re constantly worrying about every possible negative outcome in the future?
So why do we do it? Why worry so much if it only makes us anxious and kills our self-trust without actually getting anything done?
We worry because it does do something for us…
Worry gives us the illusion of control.
Life is full of sad, disappointing, and frustrating things. And our ability to actually change most of those things is far more limited than we like to believe.
But confronting our limitations and helplessness (and all the grief that would go along with it) is profoundly scary. So we worry because it makes us feel like we have control and can do something.
But ultimately it’s a trap: You can’t control nearly as much as you would like.
Better to get used to that reality than continue to live in denial, chronic worry, and low self-trust.
“There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.”
― Michel de Montaigne
3. Trusting your emotions
I love this one because it always gets people riled up:
It’s just so WEIRD to hear a psychologist telling me not to trust my feelings… I thought the whole point was to get more in touch with my feelings and emotions?
Here’s the thing:
There’s a huge difference between listening to your emotions and blindingly trusting them.
A few quick examples:
- When your partner makes that sarcastic comment to you during dinner, your anger boils up and tries to convince you to say something equally biting and sarcastic back… Should you trust your anger?
- When your boss offers you a promotion, your anxiety might immediately start yelling at you to say no because it would involve more pressure and responsibility and you might not be able to handle it. Should you trust your anxiety?
Culturally, we tend to put emotions up on a pedestal and romanticize them. But in reality, they are just one of many aspects of the human experience—not any more special or authoritative than any other mental capacity like sensation, perception, or logical thinking.
Your emotions will lead you astray just as often as they will help you.
This means that while you’d almost certainly do well to improve your emotional self-awareness but trusting them blindly and impulsively is a recipe for suffering and low self-trust.
How could you trust yourself to focus and get important work done if you always trust your anxiety and use procrastination to assuage it? How could you trust yourself to be a loving partner if you always trust your frustration and act out all your anger with your spouse?
By all means, listen to your emotions. But never trust them.
Perfectionism is a result of all-or-nothing thinking:
- If I don’t get an A+ I’m a failure.
- If she doesn’t love me, I’m unloveable.
- I can’t publish this article because I know a bunch of people aren’t going to like it
If you’re holding yourself to impossibly high standards, of course you’re never going to trust yourself to reach them!
But why do we do it? Why do so many people fall into the perfectionism trap despite all the stress, anxiety, and low self-trust it leads to?
Here’s the thing about the psychology of perfectionism:
Perfectionism isn’t about doing perfect, it’s about feeling perfect.
Most perfectionists will freely admit that their excessive standards for achievement are totally unrealistic. But they keep holding themselves to them… Why?
Because deep down perfectionism is less about being afraid of failure itself and more about having a low tolerance for feeling like a failure.
When the perfectionistic artist refuses to display her work in public, it’s not really because Joe Schmo Nobody is going to think it’s not good. It’s because the thought of somebody thinking her work isn’t good creates tremendous anxiety. And because she’s unwilling to tolerate that anxiety—that imperfect feeling—she lets yet another piece of art sit dormant in her studio.
Ultimately, perfectionism makes it hard to trust yourself because it kills your emotional confidence—your belief in your ability to do the right thing despite not feeling the way you want.
If you want to start trusting yourself more, practice feeling bad and doing the thing anyway. Emotional tolerance is a superpower.
Procrastination means that you’ve broken a promise to yourself. And your brain is paying attention…
You said you were finally going to finish up that slide deck this afternoon. But because working on the presentation makes you anxious, you avoid doing it and do clear your office instead. You rationalize this decision by telling yourself that you can’t work in a messy office.
That rationalization might make you feel better in the moment, but let’s be honest: you’re not fooling anyone—definitely not yourself.
When you procrastinate and break a promise to yourself, you’re teaching your brain that you can’t be trusted to follow through on your commitments.
So if you’re in the habit of chronically procrastinating is it any surprise that you also struggle to trust yourself?
Now, I don’t want to imply that procrastination is something you can just get over with a snap of your fingers. No, it can be a very thorny problem with all sorts of subtle psychological causes.
But at the end of the day, if you want to get over your issues of not trusting yourself, you have to address your habit of procrastination.
Reassurance-seeking is essentially outsourcing the hard work of managing difficult emotions to someone else.
And besides leading to resentment and conflict in your relationships, reassurance-seeking has the other downside of absolutely killing your self-confidence and ability to trust yourself.
Which shouldn’t be all that surprising…
- If every time you feel anxious and worried about something you immediately call your spouse so they can calm you down, what message is that sending to your own brain?
- If every time you feel disappointed in your self you immediately go to your best friend and they make you feel better by telling you how great you are, what message is that sending your brain?
- If every time you feel frustrated at work you vent and complain to your coworkers, what message is that sending to your brain?
If you habitually shirk the responsibility of managing your own painful emotions, you’re telling your brain that you can’t handle them yourself.
I mean, why would your brain trust you if that’s the message it’s getting all the time?
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with leaning on other people for emotional support sometimes. But if you do it to the exclusion of working through things yourself, it’s a setup for low self-trust.
Be careful of using other people as a crutch to manage difficult emotions that are ultimately your responsibility.
7. Ignoring your curiosity
As a psychologist, one of the saddest stories I heard over and over again was how people gave up on childhood dreams and passions because they weren’t approved of by parents or other authority figures:
- Surgeons who secretly hate their profession because they’re actually passionate about architecture or basic research.
- Attorneys who are chronically burned out at work because they’re really interested in music or mental health.
- Civil engineers who can’t stand their work because what they really loved was carpentry or graphic design.
What are you telling your own mind if you spend decades suppressing your genuine interests and curiosity in favor of what society or your family thinks is important?
Yeah, you’re teaching your mind—yourself—that what you want and are curious about isn’t important. And even worse, that your wanting is not as important as other people’s wanting.
And that, my friends, is a setup for chronic struggles with not being able to trust yourself.
Because, if you think about it, you took one of the most important decisions of your entire life—your profession and career—and said “I can’t be trusted to follow my own curiosity and interests when it comes to my work so I”m doing to rely on other people to make that decision for me.”
I’ll say it again: Why wouldn’t you have self-trust issues if this is the case?!
On the other hand, one of the best ways to start rebuilding trust in yourself is to have the courage—yes, sometimes it takes courage!—to follow your curiosity and pursue the things you are authentically interested in, even if it goes against the grain of what society or your spouse or whoever thinks.
All You Need to Know
If you want to trust yourself more, learn to identify the habits in your life that are interfering with self-trust and work to eliminate them:
- Dwelling on the past
- Worrying about the future
- Trusting your emotions
- Ignoring your curiosity
22 CommentsAdd Yours
Great reminders…thank you!
This changed my life!
Love the part on perfectionism ‘practice feeling bad and doing the thing anyway’
Exactly what I needed to hear, right now, today. Resonates with my present situation. Normal active life has gone thanks to Covid, and I have developed this lack of self trust, too much time for ruminating etc. Thank you for this helpful advice.
Exactly what I needed to hear, right now, today. Resonates with my present situation. Normal active life has gone thanks to Covid, and I have developed this lack of self trust and resulting anxiety, too much time for ruminating etc. Thank you for this helpful advice.
I fall into the category of not being able to tolerate the thought of someone not liking/approving of what I did/I produce. I hadn’t clued into this nuance and it’s so helpful. Thanks Nick! Keep it coming!
Great article, Nick. Very insightful and thought provoking. Not trusting emotions is a curious one.
I found your contextual (re)framing of lack of self trust very helpful. Thank you. 🙂
Wow. This article addresses many of the problems I see in myself and my family, cousins included. Most of us needed this support long ago. So it begins to seem as if it’s a learned trait that takes a lot of self awareness to confront. Thanks, Nick.
Great reminders. Really appreciate all the hard work and diligence you put into this blog!
#1 is Spot On!
Read Elizabeths reply and could have been me
Written by a child who read the Thesaurus While growing up in the country. So, he made it through college, and now writes something ridiculous with a bunch of words that mean the same thing.
The moment I saw reassurance seeking I caught my self in that very moment I was seeking validation or comfort.
#7 — seriously? Why would anyone care one iota what family or society thinks you should do for a living? It’s YOUR life, not theirs.
I have a question. What if seeking out your curiosity leads to you finding out you really liking it but then leading to a conflict between two aspects of my life I want to hold on to but can’t? The two of them together will not happen, then what? I dont trust myself to uphold to just one but holding onto the aspect of my life that I dont have worries about might mean having to let go of something I really love?
Incredible insight to self-trust. This article literally addressed all my concerns, thank you.
Unfortunately, this article applies to why I don’t trust myself and never will.
Very eye opening. Thanks!
This has really helped me. I can especially relate to worrying about the future, perfectionism and reassurance seeking. All three have perfectly described my problem. I now feel better equipped to deal with them so thank you.
Another great article 😊 Thanks Nick – your words make a lot of sense!
Thank you for reassuring and reminding me.