Self-doubt is the mental habit of questioning your own judgment or worth.
For example: Suppose a new position opened up at work that you’d had your eye on for a while. You quickly send an email to your manager letting them know that you’d like to apply. But almost immediately after sending the email, your mind is flooded with doubts and insecurities:
- I’m probably not as qualified as John from marketing…
- It’s a lot more work and I don’t do very well under pressure…
- What if I bomb the interview? Then my boss and all the managers are going to know how insecure I am…
So, later that evening, you send another email retracting the first. You feel a quick sense of relief, but over the course of the next few weeks and months, you’re mostly disappointed in yourself and ashamed that you weren’t brave enough to go for it.
As a psychologist and therapist, I help people work through issues of self-doubt to become more confident and self-assured. In this guide, I’m going to walk you through how to understand what self-doubt is, where it comes from, and then give you some practical tools for overcoming it.
Feel free to jump straight to a section of the guide you’re most interested in:
- Where self-doubt comes from
- The most common types of self-doubt
- Signs that you struggle with self-doubt
- 10 ways to free yourself from self-doubt for good
Where does self-doubt come from?
Like all habits, self-doubt can come from a wide variety of sources. And in fact, no two people’s struggles with self-doubt are exactly the same.
For example, for one person, self-doubt may have originated in childhood, perhaps as a result of the way they were raised. On the other hand, self-doubt can become an issue later in adulthood, in response to an unexpected crisis or stressor like divorce or job loss.
What’s more, the factors that caused your self-doubt in the first place are not always the same ones that are maintaining it now. Perhaps bullying as a child caused your habit of self-doubt initially, but as an adult, your mental habit of asking other people for reassurance is what’s maintaining it.
That said, there are a few common causes of self-doubt that I see frequently in my work as a psychologist:
3 Common Causes of Self-doubt
While it’s important to acknowledge that many, many things can both cause and maintain the habit of self-doubt, there are three causes that show up over and over again in my work as a therapist:
- Narcissistic parents. It’s often said that we tend to repeat the same mistakes as our parents. But it’s just as common that we’re so terrified of repeating our parents’ mistakes that we swing to the other extreme. Often, children of narcissistic parents’ are so afraid of being narcissistic themselves that they go to the other extreme and refuse to give themselves any form of praise, credit, or congratulations.
- The Drill Sergeant Theory of Motivation. From a young age, many children learn that the best way to motivate yourself is to “get tough” with yourself. Like the stereotypical drill sergeant hurling insults at his new recruits—because apparently that will “make men out of them”—children learn to be overly critical of themselves as a motivation strategy. What’s more, they often develop a fear that without their constant self-criticism and harshness, they’ll become “lazy and soft” and won’t be able to achieve anymore.
- Learned deference. Many children, unfortunately, are raised by emotionally immature adults who don’t have healthy ways of feeling good about themselves. As a result, these adults often praise and reward their children with attention whenever the children go to them for reassurance. When taken to an extreme, this cycle creates a savior complex in parents and unhealthy dependence in children. Because the children learn that they can get immediate relief from anxiety by asking their parents for reassurance, they never learn to manage their own anxiety and make decisions in the face of uncertainty.
Before we move on to looking at the different types of self-doubt, it’s important to clarify an important question:
What’s the difference between healthy and unhealthy self-doubt?
Healthy self-doubt vs unhealthy self-doubt
Obviously, the ability to doubt ourselves can be a good thing. Without it, we’d become overly confident and end up making all sorts of bad decisions and unhealthy choices.
While there’s no completely black and white distinction between healthy and unhealthy self-doubt, here are a few general principles to keep in mind:
- If self-doubt is always your first reaction, it’s probably unhealthy.
- If self-doubt shows up in many or all areas of your life, it’s probably unhealthy.
- If self-doubt is persistent or “sticky” and you have a hard time managing it or moving your attention off of it, it’s probably unhealthy.
- If you frequently regret decisions you made because of your self-doubt, it’s probably unhealthy.
- If your self-doubt gets in the way of important relationships in your life, it’s probably unhealthy.
- If self-doubt has a major impact on your ability to do focus and do your work well, it’s probably unhealthy.
In short, use common sense to evaluate whether self-doubt is an unhealthy habit in your life. And when in doubt, you can always assume that it’s a bit unhealthy, try to improve it, and see what happens. If your life improves, that would suggest your self-doubt was unhealthy and possibly that you could benefit even more from working on it.
What Are the Different Types of Self-doubt?
In my experience as a therapist, self-doubt tends to take three primary forms.
Imposter syndrome is the irrational fear of being a fraud or not deserving of your accomplishments.
For example, no matter how far you climb up the corporate ladder, you constantly feel like you’re not as good as your peers and that you’re only one mistake away from being exposed and humiliated. Imposter syndrome is a form of self-doubt because it’s generated by the habit of doubting your own accomplishments and abilities.
If you constantly doubt yourself, why would you believe that you’re worthy of what you’ve achieved?
In its simplest form, self-sabotage is the tendency to undermine your own goals and values. For example, after working successfully sticking to your new diet program for two months, you binge on junk food three nights in a row.
When you habitually self-sabotage yourself, you make yourself an easy target for self-criticism and doubt.
Indecisiveness is when you consistently struggle to make even small decisions for fear of making the wrong decision and whatever consequences may result.
When you decide on a restaurant for dinner, then doubt the decision and worry about potential negative consequences, you produce a burst of anxiety. Then, in order to quickly alleviate that anxiety, you defer the decision to someone else which relieves you of the responsibility for the outcome and lessens your anxiety.
Unfortunately, in the long-run, indecisiveness only erodes your self-esteem and confidence and makes your habit of self-doubt even stronger.
Signs that you struggle with self-doubt
What follows are some common signs or indicators that self-doubt is a problem in your life:
- Difficulty taking compliments. If you consistently get anxious or ashamed whenever someone gives you a compliment, it could be a sign that you don’t value yourself enough as a result of chronic self-doubt. Of course, compliments can sometimes be uncomfortable for anyone, but if you regularly struggle to take compliments and frequently avoid situations where you might be complimented, this could be a sign of a problem with self-doubt.
- Reassurance-seeking. A habitual pattern of asking for reassurance when you’re upset or having a hard time making decisions is frequently a sign of self-doubt issues. When you doubt your own abilities, it naturally produces anxiety. And the quickest way to alleviate anxiety is often to ask other people to make a decision or tell you things are okay. The problem is, this teaches your own mind that your judgment is not to be trusted, and in the long-run, this only intensifies your habit of self-doubt.
- Low self-esteem. Many things can lead to low self-esteem, but by far one of the most common is self-doubt. When you regularly doubt and second-guess your own decisions and preferences, it’s as if you had another person following you around all day telling you how dumb and untrustworthy you are. Even if you technically knew it wasn’t true, the constant doubt and criticism would start to wear on you emotionally. And eventually, it would start to impact your entire identity and sense of self.
- Difficulty giving yourself credit. Similar to having a hard time accepting compliments, if you regularly struggle to give yourself credit for a job well done or simply doing something nice, it could be a sign of self-doubt struggles. When the habit of self-doubt gets out of control, it tends to “squeeze out” any other responses and doubt simply becomes your default way of interpreting anything you do or achieve.
- Feeling like you’re never good enough. In some ways, this should be obvious, but if you consistently feel bad about yourself and consistently doubt your own abilities and achievements, maybe there’s a correlation there… The trouble is, self-doubt—like many habits—can become so automatic and ingrained as to be almost invisible. But if doubting yourself becomes simply the water you swim in, it’s hard to imagine how you could hope to feel good about yourself.
10 ways to free yourself from self-doubt for good
Just like there are many factors that cause and maintain the habit of self-doubt, there are quite a few strategies that can be effective in undoing it.
The trick is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. No single strategy is effective for everyone. Which means, a little trial and error is required to find an approach that works for you.
My advice is to read through them all quickly, identify the one or two that seem like they’d be most helpful, and try them out for a couple weeks. Then feel free to add or subtract strategies based on your progress.
Once you find a couple that really seem to work for you, commit to integrating them into your daily life in small ways.
1. Embrace your self-doubt
It sounds a little counterintuitive that the first strategy for freeing yourself from self-doubt is to embrace it, right? Well, bear with me—there’s a method to the madness.
There’s an important idea in mental health that applies extremely well to self-doubt:
What we resist persists.
More than a catchy slogan, it’s a fundamental feature of the brain that if you treat something like a threat, your brain will learn to think of it as a threat. Which means… it will be constantly on the lookout for it (which is stressful) and will pump you full of fight-or-flight-inducing adrenaline each time you encounter it (which is very stressful).
So, if you get in the habit of immediately trying to run away from self-doubt (say, by distracting yourself from it) or trying to eliminate it (arguing with yourself about why it’s dumb to feel that way) the self-doubt will only come back stronger the next time.
The antidote is to briefly acknowledge your self-doubt and let it know that, while you don’t like it, you’re not afraid of it. Literally talk to your own self-doubt and say this:
Hey there Self-Doubt. You’re not my favorite, but I get that you’re only trying to help. Go ahead and hang out if you like, but I’m getting back to [whatever it is you want to be doing].
In other words, to embrace your self-doubt means to acknowledge it and be willing to have it, and then to refocus your energy and attention on getting on with life.
Do this consistently and you will slowly train your brain to not be so reactive to its own self-doubt. And that will make it far easier for you to move past it.
2. Be skeptical of your thoughts
Self-doubt isn’t a personality trait. It’s simply a mental habit.
Our brains throw thoughts at us all day long. Some are helpful like “Remember to pick up milk on the way home.” Some are unhelpful like “Why do I always have to be such a screw-up!”
It’s essential that you don’t make too much of your self-doubt. It’s simply a thought pattern that you’ve unintentionally reinforced and made into a habit. But at the end of the day it’s just that—a habit. And habits can always be undone.
So try to cultivate a healthy skepticism of your own thoughts. Just because you have a thought doesn’t make it true.
Get in the habit of questioning your own thoughts—especially the really unhelpful ones like chronic self-doubt—and you’ll rob them of much of their power over you.
3. Give your inner critic a name (and personality!)
Our self-doubt often feels incredibly powerful because we over-identify with it—meaning, we often believe that we are whatever our thoughts say we are.
But this is nonsense really. Your thoughts are just things that your mind produces, much in the same way that your toes produce toenails. If you have an especially ugly looking toenail on a particular toe, you wouldn’t assume that it means something about you as a person.
Similarly, if you have an especially ugly thought that tends to “grow” out of your brain, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about you as a person. Remember:
You are not your thoughts.
To really hammer home this distinction between you and your self-doubting thoughts, it helps to separate them from yourself. And one of the best ways to do that is by giving your self-doubt a name—and ideally—a bit of a personality.
For example, I had a client once who named her self-doubt Harriet, after a particularly mean and overly-critical great aunt named Harriet. Every time my client’s self-doubt popped up, she would say something to herself like: “There goes old aunt Harriet again…”
When you give your self-doubt a name you give yourself permission to separate it from yourself.
4. Restructure your thoughts
There’s a powerful technique from cognitive behavioral therapy called cognitive restructuring that helps you retrain your mind to produce more realistic and helpful thoughts instead of overly negative and unhelpful ones.
It’s an extension of the last couple ideas in that it’s important to acknowledge your thoughts as separate from you as a person and to not assume that they’re especially true or meaningful. Cognitive restructuring takes this process to the next level by adding a third step: you can “restructure” a particular unhelpful piece of self-doubt to be more realistic and helpful.
For example, suppose after a difficult conversation with your spouse, your self-doubt is creeping in with thoughts like this:
I shouldn’t have brought it up at all. It’s not that big a deal. Now she’s going to be angry with me all day.
You might restructure that thought to be less negative and more realistic like this:
It’s too bad that she’s a bit angry now, but in the long-run it’s important for us to be able to talk about difficult things. I’m actually proud of myself for doing the right thing even though it ’s emotionally difficult in the moment.
When cognitive restructuring like this becomes a habit, you can slowly train your brain’s automatic negative self-talk to be more realistic and helpful and less critical and negative.
If you’d like to learn more about this technique, I wrote an extensive guide to cognitive restructuring here.
5. Cultivate your sense of purpose
Nature may abhor a vacuum but self-doubt loves it.
People who have struggled for a long time with negative self-talk like self-doubt often find themselves so consumed with avoiding the negatives (negative feelings, negative thoughts, etc.) that they haven’t spent much time cultivating the positives.
Which is a shame because having a well-cultivated set of values and strong sense of personal purpose is one of the best ways to free yourself from self-doubt.
Think about it:
- Did Rosa Parks have the courage to stand up for herself because she was really good at dismissing self-doubt or because she had an intensely strong sense of purpose she was committed to?
- Did Michael Jordan hit so many game-winning shots because he was really skilled at eliminating self-doubt or because he was obsessively focused on winning?
- Did Joan of Arc ride into battle as a 13-year-old girl because she was expert at overcoming self-doubt or because her sense of mission and purpose pulled her past it?
The point is, often the best way to deal with self-doubt is to “outcompete” it with a strong sense of purpose. In fact, the very existence of chronic self-doubt may in fact be a symptom of a lack of strong purpose in your life.
Make some time to consider what really matters to you. What do you really want? What do you believe in? What’s on your bucket list?
Often simply clarifying these values is enough to jumpstart a strong sense of purpose that will help pull you out of self-doubt and negative thinking.
6. Spend time with people who believe in you
Jim Rohn famously claimed that “you’re the average of the five people who spend the most time with.”
I think there’s a lot to this. To a large extent, we really are social creatures. No matter how introverted you may think you are, we all need positive social interaction and affirmation.
Unfortunately, many people who struggle with self-doubt are hell-bent on “proving themselves” as a way to quiet the self-doubt. But this can backfire because you end up surrounding yourself with people who aren’t very supportive or encouraging. Which then makes it hard to be that for yourself.
On the other hand, if you step back and really ask yourself “Who are the people in my life who really love me and support me and believe in me” and then make a conscious effort to spend more time around them, I think you’ll find your self-doubt starting to weaken.
7. Try therapy or counseling
Of course, I’m a therapist myself so take this one with a grain of salt, but I truly believe that good therapy can be life-changing. Specifically, if you find a good therapist to help you work on your self-doubt issues, it can be like rocket boosters for your progress.
Of course, we can all work on ourselves and do self-study by reading good material and trying to practice good mental health habits and techniques like the ones I recommend here. And there’s nothing wrong with this.
But sometimes a little expert guidance and support can make the process much faster and easier.
Think about it this way: If you wanted to run a marathon but had no experience running, could you achieve this on your own? Of course! You could read lots of books, watch YouTube videos, try out different running schedules and diet plans, test a variety of different shoes and equipment, etc.
But you could also hire a personal coach or trainer who could give you a customized plan, saving you much time and effort and helping you avoid common pitfalls.
Good therapy can do the same for working through issues around self-doubt.
8. Do the right kind of comparisons
If you struggle with self-doubt, no doubt you’ve heard the advice to stop comparing yourself to others.
Well, that’s fine. And while it’s probably good advice in the abstract, doing it is the hard part. In part because, as we discussed earlier, we’re wired to be highly social creatures, constantly evaluating our standing in the tribe.
So here’s an alternative that I think is more practical and doable than simply trying to not compare yourself to others: Be more careful about whom you compare yourself to. Specifically, try comparing yourself to past versions of yourself rather than other people.
For example: suppose you just had to present at a meeting for work and your last slide didn’t go over well. And sure enough, all sorts of self-doubt starts creeping into your mind and you find yourself comparing your performance today to Janet’s stellar performance yesterday.
Instead, try shifting your comparison to your own performance when you first started the job. Sure, you’ll cringe a little when you think about how bad you were back then. But you’ll also force yourself to acknowledge how far you’ve come and how much progress you’ve made—a far more helpful comparison.
9. Practice self-compassion
There’s a simple explanation for self-doubt that doesn’t get talked about enough: Sometimes we resort to self-doubt because we simply don’t have a better alternative.
When self-doubt is your default and you don’t have a clear idea of what else you could do in response to a failure or difficult situation, of course it’s going to be hard to stop from doubting yourself!
On the other hand, everything is easier when we have good positive models:
- It’s easier to learn a new instrument when you have an older sibling whom you can watch and learn from.
- It’s easier to learn how to lift weights properly if you have a personal trainer who can demonstrate the proper technique for you.
- And it’s easier to avoid self-doubt when you have a specific alternative you can reach for…
And one potentially powerful alternative to self-doubt is self-compassion.
Self-compassion is the simple idea that after a mistake or setback, instead of beating yourself up for it or doubting yourself, you could treat yourself like a good friend and be understanding instead.
Here’s a simple way to get started. The next time you’re struggling or have made a mistake, ask yourself this question:
If a good friend was in the situation I’m in now and came to me, what would I say to them?
Then say that same thing to yourself.
You are every bit as worthy of compassion as other people are.
10. Keep a self-gratitude diary
As a therapist, I hear the following a lot from my clients:
I’m my own worst critic. All I do is doubt myself and put myself down. Why can’t I be nice to myself or even be proud of myself?
To which I usually reply:
That’s a great idea. How often do you practice being kind to yourself and acknowledging your positives and successes.
For whatever reason, it doesn’t occur to people that being kind to yourself and celebrating your own accomplishments is a skill you can build. But like most skills, it doesn’t just magically happen—you have to actually practice!
A great little habit to get into that will help you avoid self-doubt and actually improve your self-esteem is what I call keeping a self-gratitude diary.
Now, you’ve probably heard of the idea of gratitude diaries or gratitude journals where you spend a few minutes at the end of each day to jot down one or two things you’re grateful for. Well, the self-gratitude diary is similar, but the focus is on you specifically and things about yourself that you’re grateful for.
It’s simple: At the end of the day, pull up the notes app on your phone and create a new note called Self-Gratitude. At the top, put the date and list 1 or 2 things you’re proud of yourself for. They don’t have to be big things. You could be proud of yourself for remembering to take out the trash.
Get in the habit of actually practicing being proud of yourself and you’ll find it far easier to dismiss your self-doubts and remind yourself of all the reasons you have to be confident in yourself instead.
At the end of the day, self-doubt is a habit—nothing more, nothing less.
And regardless of where it came from, you can work to free yourself from chronic self-doubt by building better habits.
If you’ve read through this guide and it makes sense to you, choose one or two of the strategies listed above and try them out for a week or two. I think you’ll find that while difficult, reducing self-doubt and building self-confidence are actually far more doable than you might have imagined.