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How Can We Overcome Self-Doubt?

“I just don’t think I can do it.”

“Did I go a bit overboard there?”

“People are going to think I’m crazy!”

Self-doubt is, for better or worse, part of most people’s lives. While others often seem to live a perfect and effortless existence, sometimes we (suddenly) wonder whether we’re even in the right job or the right relationship, and, hang on – why do we look so weird today? Is it possible to overcome self-doubt – at least in those moments when it all gets too much? If so, how? Can self-doubt also be beneficial or might it be leading us down the road to depression? Let’s take a closer look at some of the answers to these questions.

What are the causes of self-doubt?

There are phases in our lives when everything seems to flow along nicely and we have no reason to question ourselves. But sometimes we get tripped up by certain events or changes. These don’t even have to be negative changes. Take the birth of a child, for example: a source of joy, but often a cause of self-doubt as well. Am I doing everything right? Am I a good mother or father?

Self-doubt can be triggered when we’re faced with new challenges and we’re not yet sure how we’ll handle them or whether we’ll be up to the test.

It’s true that we usually hold certain expectations of ourselves and notions about how we should be. But in new situations, we first have to get to know ourselves, our reactions and abilities better so that we can then trust them – and it’s often at the start of this journey that self-doubt rears its head.

External influences and stress factors

Adverse external circumstances can also trigger an excessive degree of self-doubt in us: a job that we’re not successful in because we don’t enjoy it, or a conflict-ridden relationship in which our partner no longer has a good word to say about us.

Self-doubt can also go hand in hand with stress and excessive demands, when we realise that we’re no longer able to hold everything together as we used to when things are especially busy. A tendency to strive for perfection may also play a role here.

Myself and other people

Another cause of self-doubt is other people – or more precisely, reactions that we attribute to them or take to heart. It might be a sideways glance, an insensitive remark or it could be outright criticism: any of these can leave us stuck on the hamster wheel of perpetually wondering what’s “wrong” with us.

The reason is that we want to be liked by others, because we usually hold an unconscious fear that they might otherwise reject us, ultimately leaving us alone. This fear of being alone is as old as humanity itself, because as solitary individuals we wouldn’t last very long in the Stone Age.

To protect ourselves from this perceived threat of isolation, we often take other people’s criticism (too) seriously and ruminate on why we’re so incompetent – or whatever the impression may be.

Caution: Things get really tricky when someone hasn’t even criticised us, but we anticipate what they might be thinking and how they might be judging us. We should be very careful when we think we can “read someone’s mind”, because this is one of the typical mental traps that can lead to self-doubt.

Can self-doubt be positive?

Imagine for a moment that you lost the ability to doubt yourself. You now believe that everything you do is right, you trust entirely in your knowledge and abilities, and you’re no longer affected by what other people think of you and say about you.

How would that impact your life?

Most likely, you wouldn’t progress in your personal development, because you wouldn’t see what you have to learn in this regard. You might also have less understanding towards other people when they talk about doubting themselves. What’s more, you would miss out on the wonderful experience of turning self-doubt into self-confidence and realising, “I thought I couldn’t do this, but I can!”

So wanting to get rid of all self-doubt is understandable at first, but not the most advisable solution when you give it some thought.

Self-doubt gives us the opportunity to develop, to learn about ourselves, to deepen our self-confidence and to connect with one another.

When you feel plagued by self-doubt

As with so many things in life, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Sometimes we just can’t escape our self-doubt and it starts to impact our health. This might be the case when we suffer a setback or misfortune, for example, and we blame ourselves. That’s when self-doubt can turn into full-blown self-reproach, and we often ruminate on these thoughts. So what can we do when self-doubt gets too much for us? We have two top tips for you.

1Expose self-doubt as a thought

When we are mired in self-doubt, there’s one thing that we often lose sight of: we’re having thoughts. Nothing more. The people in our thoughts, what they say or think about us in our imagination, past memories, possible future scenarios, our ideas and expectations – all of this exists solely in our head. And yet it can haunt us so terribly. It’s like watching a captivating film that stirs our emotions, even though it’s not real.

If you notice your self-doubt spiralling, one thing you can try is to gently shake your head a few times – to take your eyes off the screen, so to speak. Then you can label your thoughts, for example: “I was just thinking that I reacted really foolishly in this situation. Emphasise “I was just thinking…”, because it’s by no means certain that this is true. Naming your thoughts in this way helps you to create some distance from them.

2Develop compassion for yourself

We usually talk to ourselves in a way that we wouldn’t talk to anyone else. And while we often say to others: “Oh, that’s not so bad,” we are very hard on ourselves.  

Be especially wary of automatic responses like, “Wow, I am stupid, now I forgot to bring the car keys.” Would you say that to someone else? Recognise that you are a valuable human being. Like everyone else, you make mistakes; you’re allowed to be loving and compassionate with yourself, just as you are with others. If you notice that level of self-doubt, you can say to yourself something like, “Hey, look, you’re really beating yourself up. What could be good for you right now?” And then listen to yourself to find out what you might need.

Can self-doubt lead to depression?

Self-doubt is a normal human phenomenon – it’s not a mental illness in the absence of other symptoms. However, if it develops into unfounded self-reproach and is accompanied by other symptoms such as feeling low and listless for extended periods of time, it could be a case of depression. So we know that self-doubt, when it takes the form of self-reproach, can be a symptom of depression. That’s because people experiencing depression tend to ruminate more about themselves, are less active and therefore lack a sense of achievement, and sometimes view their depression as a personal failure. If you suspect or even know that you are suffering from depression, you can read more in our article Self-help Tips for Depression.

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Our articles are written by psychologists and reviewed by psychotherapists.