Manage self-doubt

07 November, 2016

Acceptance and introspection can turn self-doubt into a catalyst for growth

Most of us would admit to have felt the pangs of self-doubt in our lives at some point – those moments when, often uncharacteristically so, you start feeling like you are in over your head. It could be trigged by a variety of reasons or no reason at all – a new job or a more difficult one, grappling with an unplanned business crisis, rebounding from a career disappointment, recalibrating your priorities, feeling like everything is changing (or nothing is changing). And you start to question what you are doing, why you are doing it and whether you are able to do it.

Does this sound familiar?

So, my message this week is on how to manage self-doubt before it starts to erode your confidence.

Remember that you can’t simply wish away self-doubt. It isn’t that simple. Nor can you ignore it. At one point or another, you will have to face it.

There is enough research – and more than that, probably many of your own experiences – to show that if managed effectively, self-doubt can be very enabling in your journey of personal transformation. If you do it right, and flip it on its head, you will find yourself more introspective, purposeful and confident.

To borrow from director Richard Eyre, “I can’t think of anyone I admire who isn’t fuelled by self-doubt. It’s an essential ingredient. It’s the grit in the oyster.”

Here are some suggestions you could try out the next time you’re facing self-doubt:

1. Embrace your self-doubt

Often, we end up agonising so much about why we feel self-doubt, that we only make it that much worse for ourselves. Remember, you’re not alone. Everyone doubts themselves at one point or another. It doesn’t make you any less of a leader, so stop berating yourself for it, or worse, pretending like it isn’t happening. Instead, try find a way to express it. That’s the first step towards dealing with it. Who knows, you may even end up discovering that it wasn’t so bad after all. Not just that, there is probably some (smaller) truth that your self-doubt is stemming from. Being able to identify and reflect on that can be very insightful in the longer run.

2. Question your self-doubt

Usually, moments of self-doubt come for a reason. There is an inner feeling of discomfort about some aspect of your life that makes you question yourself. Instead of getting annoyed at yourself for feeling doubtful, use it as an opportunity to slow down, step back, and introspect.

While you should certainly acknowledge the way you feel, it’s also good to keep it real. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Face your fears. Ask yourself, honestly, how real these doubts are. What’s the worst that can happen? Are you overreacting or do you have a reason to be concerned? Reflect on the causes. Argue with yourself about it. It will help you build more perspective and hopefully, understand the real reasons for why you are feeling the way you are.

3. Hang on to your ‘lifeline’

Steven Snyder, in his article How Self-Doubt Makes Leaders Better, suggests actively looking for ‘lifelines’. Self-doubt can leave you feeling depressed and lonely. By allowing yourself to give in to those feelings, you could end up missing out on the encouragement and support around you. It can make all the difference, as in the case of the example of Anne Mulcahy that he shares:

‘Five months into her tenure as president and COO of Xerox Corporation, Mulcahy‘s big-picture view of the company came into sharper focus. What she saw looked dismal. Third-quarter earnings for 2000 had fallen short of analysts’ expectations and the company was close to declaring bankruptcy. Remarkably, Mulcahy herself almost delivered the company’s deathblow. During an October investor conference call, she candidly stated, “Xerox’s business model is unsustainable.” The remark, which betrayed Mulcahy’s lack of financial and leadership experience, sent the stock price tumbling and caused others to question her leadership.

In the months that followed, there were many near-death moments when Mulcahy wasn’t sure the company would survive. After a long period of intense pressure produced by relentless change and uncertainty, she finally reached her breaking point one night on a Connecticut highway.

“I had just flown back from Japan,” she said. “I came back to the office and found it had been a dismal day. At around 8:30 pm, on my way home, I pulled over to the side of the Merritt Parkway and said to myself, I don’t know where to go. I don’t want to go home. There’s just no place to go.” In the midst of her despair, she checked her voicemail and found a supportive message from one of her colleagues telling her how much everyone believed in her and the company. That brief message was the lifeline that shocked Mulcahy back into awareness that she was not alone in her struggles, that she was part of a larger community that was pulling for her. Sustained and nourished by that realization, she drove home and awoke the following morning with renewed confidence and clarity of purpose. Seven years later, with Xerox in sound financial health, Mulcahy was selected CEO of the Year by Chief Executive magazine.’

4. Set yourself specific goals

Figure out what it is causing the self-doubt and find a way to overcome it. Make a plan. Set yourself goals. And work at it. For example, if you feel that you’re starting to lag behind because you don’t have the changing knowledge or skills that your job now demands, then get back to basics. Sign up for a course, gather expertise, look for mentoring and training – do what it takes to get this external validation, because it will greatly help improve your own confidence and self-esteem, not to mention solving for a real problem at hand. There is little that can’t be managed if you resolve to put in the time and effort required.  As Vincent Van Gogh put it, “If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

5. Stay grounded

I’m sure that you will all agree that nothing is more effective than having strong anchors that keep you grounded. These anchors could come from different places – it could be your personal belief and faith, your family, your principles, your philosophy, your ambitions. But this is what you turn to, especially when things go wrong. It is what keeps you on track. And so, it is very important that you know what your anchors are and you turn to them when you need that support.

6. Do something that empowers you

Probably one of the most effective pieces of advice (and usually overlooked), is mentioned by Brittany Policastro in her article 5 Steps to Managing Self-Doubt:

‘In order to move forward it helps when we can stand in our own power. When we are overly worried about a problem so much that it starts to consume us, we are giving our power away. That is why when we panic and try to figure out a solution, the problem often gets stronger. Instead flip the script and find your power. Whatever makes you feel alive, accomplished, happy and badass. Do it with as much focus, love and determination as you can. Self-doubt will not know what hit it and will promptly take a backseat. Always remember, you are the driver.’

So, the next time you find yourself giving into doubt, try doing something that you really enjoy; something that makes you feel stronger. It will help you feel more in control overall.

How do you manage self-doubt in your team?

If you’ve watched a team member struggle with self-doubt, then you know how damaging it can be. It can result in them becoming more withdrawn, taking less initiative and sharing fewer ideas, just because they are doubtful of where it will lead them. So, they experiment less and probably miss out on growth opportunities. Consequently, your whole team and by extension, your organisation, suffers.

What do you do? Your instinctive reaction may be to cheer them on and reaffirm your belief in them – “You can do it. I know you can.”. But according to Tara Sophia Mohr in her article, Helping an Employee Overcome Their Self-Doubt, this is a mistake:

‘In the coaching field, this is known as “arguing with the inner critic.” It’s the dialogue between someone’s voice of self-doubt (“I can’t do that, I don’t have what it takes,” etc.) and the affirming words of a supportive person who has a different perspective (“Yes you can! You are great!”).’…

It’s understood that such arguments are usually a waste of everyone’s time, for two reasons. First, such reassurance rarely is convincing. The inner critic’s view is not based in data, but in instinctual, over-reactive fears of vulnerability and failure. Hearing another individual say something along the lines of “No, you’re great at that!” often doesn’t speak to those underlying fears. In fact, it can add to the stressful feelings of being an imposter, as in, “No one around me realizes that I really don’t know what I’m doing, and they are all counting on me, thinking I can pull this off – but I can’t!” Second, if you help team members and mentees through their self-doubt through compliments or reassurances, the solution requires you or someone like you. You haven’t given them tools to navigate self-doubt on their own.’

So, instead, try to have them acknowledge the self-doubt and talk about it – why it is happening, what they can do differently and what the most proactive ways of dealing it with are.

Grappling with self-doubt is a very personal journey that each of us makes. Managing self-doubt effectively can make us stronger leaders. But there is lots that we can learn from each other on this, not in the least, that we are not alone.  So, do write in with your perspectives and experiences. I look forward to hearing from you.


  • Anirudh Kalia says:

    Dear Vivek,
    Hi! Excellent selection of topics and thoughts. You are tackling stuff on this blog that everyone faces but no one writes about or you don’t know whom to turn to when in need. It is a topic that has no generic answer as each person has to find his own set of instruments / tools to arrive at his own solutions. In that light your blog is a good guiding compass.

  • Aditya Siwach says:

    Thank you Sir for a motivating article. As per my own experience, I have found that the best way to kill self doubt is to attack it and destroy it. It can not be summed up any better than what you mentioned “If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” But, it is easier said than done. Only those having a sense of self-efficacy, although depleted in a state of self-doubt, and those who are internally motivated are capable of doing so.

    Managing self doubt in a team is a very challenging task. As rightly mentioned, there is no single strategy. I have experienced that making people talk about their self doubts is in itself a challenging task. Only when they feel that they are in the company of a humble and compassionate colleague, they will share their feelings. Compassion has magical power to heal self doubts of people. The best part is it comes back when we need it, i.e. when we are in self doubt.

  • Vindhyachal Chaurasiya says:

    Dear Sir,
    This is a very inspiring and motivating article for me. I feel that this article was written for me. I’m really facing this issue nowadays but now I think I know what I have to do.

    Thx again for such a wonderful article.

    With regards,
    Vindhyachal Chaurasiya
    Exc. Packaging Development


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