“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” – Henry Ford
“Believe in yourself, and you can do anything.” – Every Motivational Speaker Who Ever Lived
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found such quotes discouraging, because there have been many times when self-doubt has almost crushed me.
Most of my proudest accomplishments, in fact, have been things I didn’t believe I could do until after I’d done them: getting a Master’s Degree, writing a novel, publishing a book, and earning my driver’s license (which might not sound like a big deal, but it terrified me).
I’d go into mental spirals: I don’t believe in myself. I can’t do anything. I don’t believe in myself. I can’t do anything.
How I’ve accomplished things in spite of self-doubt
Nevertheless, I’d often go ahead and do stuff. My reasons varied. I finished my Master’s Degree because, well, I’d paid for the thing. I was half-convinced it’d be a waste of money, though. After the first round of feedback on my Master’s Research Project, my adviser said, “Don’t slit your wrists, Amanda. It’s not that bad.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t. In the end, I did well.
I drafted my first novel because my boss at the time challenged me to join her as a participant in National Novel Writing Month, which involves writing 50,000 words over the course of a single November. If it weren’t for the fact that she checked on my progress daily, I doubt I’d have managed it. Once I did, though, I knew I could do it again.
I got my driver’s license because my then-boyfriend’s mother gave me a cheque and said, “It’s for driving lessons.” I didn’t want to risk her disapproval. I took the lessons and the test, even though I was 70% sure I’d fail. During the exam, my hands were so sweaty they almost slipped off the wheel. My instructor had to stop me from barrelling through a school zone. At the end, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry. You didn’t pass.”
My face must’ve crumpled, because he quickly added, “Don’t cry! I’m just kidding! You totally did!”
What the research says about self-doubt and performance
Sure, confidence is nice, and it’s an excellent motivator. It attracts people to us both personally and professionally. We’re a lot more likely to do things we think we’ll succeed at, and the more we practice, the more skilled we become.
That said, research suggests a little self-doubt isn’t a bad thing. Overconfidence makes people lazy.
I decided to write this post after re-doing an exercise from the book I just published, Creative Unblocking: Bypass Self-Doubt, Tap Your Genius, and Complete Your Best Work. The task is to write about how one of your supposed weaknesses could also be a strength. Here’s what I wrote:
Self-doubt motivates me to learn from others, to plan, strategize, and perhaps ultimately create better work than I would otherwise.
If I didn’t doubt myself at all, I wouldn’t bother trying to learn how to get better at what I do, and I’d think every first draft was perfect.
What to do if you doubt yourself
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you should doubt yourself. As long as you’re not so overconfident that you’re deaf to feedback, you’re doing great. What I am saying is that if you are as saturated with doubt as a pickle is with vinegar, it’s not the end of the world.
It’s true that self-doubt can block us creatively, but we don’t actually have to get over it in order to do our work (although we can certainly lessen it). We just have to get around it. Here’s how:
- Implement structures that motivate you to work in the absence of belief. Put something at stake: money, the approval of your in-laws, a tangible reward. Get friends to join you in a challenge so you can egg each other on.
- When you sit down to work, make a deal with yourself to set aside your doubt for just the duration of your session. It’s easier than getting over it entirely, and it works just as well. Sometimes it helps to make a list of feelings you’d like to have instead.
Over to you, now. Have you ever accomplished something you didn’t think you could? Tell us about it in the comments.
Featured image: Photo by Ryan McGuire.
Want to finally create what’s calling you to make it? Download a free preview of Creative Unblocking: Bypass Self-Doubt, Tap Your Genius, and Complete Your Best Work. It’s an easy-to-follow, step-by-step guide to the creative process.