Self-Doubt: Understand It To Manage It


Maggie Sim

Maggie Sim

“Can you help me overcome self-doubt and build confidence?” is a question that I often get from prospective clients. There are a couple of assumptions in this question:

  1. One can permanently overcome self-doubt. Personally, I don’t think so, unless we yank out our brains. There is a part of our brain responsible for sending out fearful messages to stop us from doing anything that may threaten our survival.
  2. Self-doubt causes lack of confidence. Self-doubt is one of several reasons, and not the only reason, why someone might experience a lack of confidence.
  3. Absence of self-doubt equals confidence. This might be the case if self-doubt is the sole reason why one would lack confidence.

“Confidence is the quality of being certain of your abilities or of having trust in people, plans or the future.”

“Self-doubt is a feeling of having no confidence in your abilities and decisions.”

— Cambridge Dictionary

Before we start thinking about how to overcome or manage self-doubt, we have to understand three things about it – source (where it is coming from), purpose (why does it happen) and form (how self-doubt makes its appearance in your experience). When we understand it better are we able to manage self-doubt and build confidence effectively.

What is the source of self-doubt?

The self-doubt and fear triggering part of the brain is the amygdala. It is also known as the ‘primitive brain’, the ‘reptilian brain’ or the ‘lizard brain’. I like calling it the ‘lizard brain’.

One of the responsibilities of the amygdala is to detect threats and activate the ‘fight or flight’ response in us – this is how it has kept our species alive the last two thousand years. In ancient times, our ancestors who hunted for a living out in the open needed an internal warning system to alert them to physical danger – could be a bear, a tiger or an enemy tribe.

Today, many of the physical threats or danger that our amygdala watches out for are no longer around. In our urbanised environment, it is unlikely that a bear or tiger is lurking in the dark waiting to pounce on us. However, the amygdala still continues to perform its role of looking out for and perceiving threats to ensure that we survive. It doesn’t really differentiate between a bear and a challenge, or a lion and change. The amygdala perceives change and a challenge to be equally dangerous as they are associated with uncertainty and the unknown.

Anytime that you want to step out of your comfort zone or change the status quo, the amygdala will sense danger and try its best to hold you back. It is normal.


What is the purpose of self-doubt?

How the amygdala fulfils its role of perceiving threats in modern times is by generating messages of self-doubt and fear whenever we want to step out of our comfort zone, or do something that is self-enhancing that expands our abilities.

Changes or challenges that we seek are perceived by the amygdala to be threats – there is danger in the unknown. It then generates messages of “you are not good enough”, “you are going to fail”, “people will laugh at you”, “you won’t succeed”, “you are not competent” to stop you in your tracks. It also creates imaginary fears and worse-case scenarios to scare you off trying anything new or different.

Self-doubt comes from within you. It comes from of a place of wanting to protect you from harm, disappointment and discomfort. Knowing where self-doubt originates and the purpose it serves in your life, you are now able to tackle it. For as long as we have an amygdala, it is going to continue to do its job of scanning the environment for threats to our well-being.

Instead of thinking about permanently erasing or overcoming self-doubt, I prefer to use the verb “managing self-doubt”. We can learn a number of strategies to manage self-doubt. One of the strategies is to activate our more advanced brain, the pre-frontal cortex, when the amygdala floods us with self-doubt messages.

How do you experience self-doubt?

Is it a voice or voices that you hear? If so, what is the voice saying to you? For example, the voice might be saying to you that you are not good enough, or that you are going to screw up and make a fool of yourself.

Is it a visual image that you see? If so, describe the image that you see. Someone might see a mental picture of people laughing at his mistakes during a presentation.

Or is it a feeling that you experience in your body? If so, describe this feeling as vividly as possible. What is the feeling telling you about your abilities? Where in your body are you experiencing the feeling? For example, you get this sinking feeling in your stomach, or a pounding sensation in your head.

Being aware of how you experience self-doubt is a key step in the process of managing self-doubt. When you are aware of its presence through your sensory systems, it is deterred from unleashing its full power on you automatically. It is like putting in a CCTV in a store to detect and deter theft.

More In Next Blog-Post

People who display confidence have the skills to notice when self-doubt makes an appearance in their experience, then apply strategies and techniques to neutralise any impact that it creates. In my next blog-post, I will share a couple of strategies or techniques that I have learnt and use to manage self-doubt.

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