Hot Buttons for Self-Doubt

As you strive to attain your goals and dreams, there are bound to be times when you suffer self-doubt.  “Can I really make a living doing what I love? Am I smart enough?  Talented enough?  In my search for a loving partner, do I have the grit to face rejection, to get through the dry spells, and never give up?”

Having self-doubt is more the norm than an aberration.  An estimated 70% of people experience the “imposter syndrome” at some point in their lives.  And a whopping 85% of people around the world are affected by low-self esteem. So instead of stigmatizing yourself for having it, put your energy and focus into overcoming your self-doubt.  That’s a critical determinant of your success and well-being in any area of your life.  But it’s not just a matter of giving yourself a pep talk when it occurs or repeating a series of affirmations to bolster your confidence, although they can help.  If you want to conquer self-doubt, you need to figure out what it’s about, what triggers it, and what you can do to recover your confidence.

Set aside some quiet, private time to engage in self-reflection.  To start, ask yourself: “In which areas of my life–career, relationships, finances, health, etc., do I too often lose confidence and second-guess my decisions and my actions. In which domains am I lagging far behind where I need to be?

Think back over your life experiences and look for self-defeating patterns.  Do you tend to avoid making important decisions about your career because you’ve made some bad ones and don’t trust your judgment?  Do you rush into romantic relationships and too often regret it because you doubt you can be happy living on your own? Do you fear you’ll never be able to finance a house because you mismanage your money, running up credit card debt by overspending on indulgences. Do you fall short when it comes to self-love by sacrificing your self-care and your health: for example, do you exist on junk food, skip exercise, not sleep enough, smoke or drink too much when you are facing deadlines  at work?  Answering “yes” to these kinds of questions helps you identify your personal hot buttons.

Without countermeasures, when your hot buttons are pushed, you can get stuck dwelling on all the “good reasons” for doubting yourself.  You may fuel the flames by calling up memories of similar situations where your mistakes or failings led you to doubt yourself and dragged you down into an emotional abyss that nearly snuffed out your confidence in yourself and your abilities…or so it seemed.  But by using counteractions that you develop, practice, and find effective, you can calm the inner turmoil more quickly, regain your emotional equilibrium, and move forward.

A Case of  Self-Doubt

It’s been two years since Jack graduated college as a biology major.  In his senior year, all the medical schools he applied to rejected him.  Determined to realize his dream to become a pediatrician, Jack has been working a day job to save money to fund it, while re-taking chemistry, math, and physics courses at night.  His plan was to study diligently to add A’s in these courses to his transcripts, get stronger recommendations from his teachers, and better scores on the entrance exams.

It’s now several weeks since he finished his classes and the envelope with the report of his grades arrives.  When Jack sees two B’s and a B-, he feels like he’s been kicked in the stomach, hard.  His heart is pounding, he’s on the verge of hyperventilating. His emotional state is one of anxiety, deep disappointment and extreme self-doubt.  His negative self-talk (that hypercritical, sometimes downright nasty voice in his head) kicks in: “Forget the dream to be a pediatrician. No way that’s gonna happen. Not only did you fail miserably to get the grades you needed, but you must have deluded yourself about how well prepared you were, and severely misjudged how well you grasped the material.” Now he feels even worse, adding guilt, anger with himself, and shame to the other painful feelings and emotions.  He is consumed with a generalized self-doubt–doubting his ability to ever get into any grad school now, doubting his work ethic, his intelligence, his ability to accurately assess what he’s capable of, etc.  Finding out he scored two B’s and a B- on his finals pushed a hot button that triggered Jack’s self-doubt about getting into medical school and becoming a pediatrician.  

Devising a Countermeasure to Your Self-Doubt

When your hot buttons are pushed, and self-doubt strikes, you need countermeasures to avoid getting stuck, dwelling on all the reasons why you can’t or won’t succeed.  Instead of fanning the flames by deliberately calling to mind similar situations where you undermined your progress and clobbered your self-confidence, you can turn the tables on your insecurity.  You can apply a counteractive technique you developed and held ready for just such an occasion to stop your negative self-talk, restore your emotional equilibrium, formulate a constructive mindset and take action to move forward.  By doing this, you gain a sense of control over your feelings and behavior, which dissolves the self-doubt and replaces it with self-confidence.

Devising a countermeasure is best done during quiet time, when you are relaxed, comfortable, alone and undisturbed. It involves using a technique that works best when you are in a natural state of hypnosis, (right before you fall off to sleep at night, or right when you first awaken before getting out of bed), since you have direct and immediate access to your subconscious mind where positive change originates.

I suggest taking notes on blank cards, in a journal, or an online file so you don’t need to worry about remembering the technique you came up with when you need to use it.

The Set-Up

  1. With your arms and legs uncrossed, and your hands unclenched, close your eyes and focus your attention inward, as you take several slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  2. Relax your entire body by first contracting all the muscles for a few moments and then releasing.  Repeat this two times.
  3. In your mind, count down from 10 to 0, seeing each number as you go.

Identifying the Content of Your Self-Doubt and Its Trigger

  1. Identify the content of your self-doubt; i.e. what was it about.  (For Jack, it was about not getting into medical school and becoming a pediatrician.)
  2. Identify the triggering event that set it off. (For Jack, it was seeing his final grades.)
  3. Ask yourself which negative internal events did you experience when the self-doubt was triggered?  (E.g. negative thoughts, limiting beliefs, exaggerated self-criticism, upsetting mental images, sounds, and feelings.)
  4. Allow yourself to feel the self-doubt that was associated with those inner events.

Reducing the Intensity of Your Self-Doubt

  1. On a scale from 0 to 10, rate how strong the self-doubt still is.
  2. Ask yourself what lessons you learned from any mistakes or failings that contributed to your self-doubt.
  3. As you would to a friend, express your forgiveness for those mistakes or failings.  (You could do this by writing in a journal or speaking silently to yourself.  If out loud, you may want to record what you say so you can listen later on.)
  4. Bring to mind a positive memory from your past where you look, sound, feel and act confident, energetic, and enthusiastic acting to further a goal you attained in that same area of your life.  (If you can’t remember one, pick a positive memory of accomplishment from any area of your life.)
  5. Use your imagination to form uplifting images, encouraging thoughts, and positive self-talk representing you as resourceful, self-assured, and proactive.  As you do this, call up from within pleasant feelings of relaxation, peace and calm, emotions like pride and satisfaction, and an attitude of self-respect.  They will strengthen the positive thoughts, images and self-talk that are forming a mindset of self-confidence in your subconscious.  Stay with these positive internal experiences for a few moments.  Let them saturate your consciousness.
  6. Once again, rate from 0 to 10 the strength of the self-doubt.  Has it decreased?
  7. Repeat the procedure until the rating has dropped to 0 or at least down to an intensity that allows you to continue working on your goals in that area and making progress.  If your rating decreases fairly rapidly, you may want to  repeat the procedure in one session.  If, for example, it takes a few repetitions to drop from an 8 to a 6,  and then from a 6 to a 4, you may want to apply it over multiple sessions.

The more you practice using this kind of technique, the more confident you become in your ability to find creative ways to lift yourself up out of the darkness of your uncertainty.  You come to see yourself as empowered to prevent, weaken, or at least recover more easily from, self-doubt, making it far less likely to become chronic. And in doing that, you become… more self-confident overall.