We all like an inspirational success story to lift our spirits. The Tokyo 2021 Summer Olympics were full of them last Summer, as many athletes shared their stories and all the obstacles they faced on their journey to success. One powerful story that comes to mind when I think of self-doubt is the one that Mohammed Ahmed, Canadian long-distance runner and three-time Olympian told a journalist after winning a silver medal in the men’s 5000 metres race this past August. Running track has been his passion since he was a young teen and his accomplishments in the world of running are proven and quite stunning. Yet, when he emigrated to Canada at the age of eleven and started running track at the age of 13 after watching his brothers run track at school, his coach told him: “You’re too skinny to run track. This sport is not for you.” We can just imagine what went through his mind as that comment landed on him. Well, Mohammed did not let that harsh judgment and discouraging comment lead to self-doubt. Instead, he kept running and persevered with his newfound passion.
Self-doubt can sometimes be triggered by the judgments of others but it has its home right inside of us. The facets of doubt are many and experienced by all of us as we go through life. So how does self-doubt creep in and how do we let go of it?
The Inner Critic Monster
Mohammed Ahmed could have taken his coach’s comment at face value and stopped pursuing running track, which would have put an abrupt end to his athletic dream. Although very young and at an impressionable age, he did not. He did not allow the opinion and biased judgment of the coach to sink in and turn into self-doubt. He did not enable his Inner Critic to take over and sabotage his athletic ambitions.
That is the crucial moment: when the Inner Critic Monster shows up.
Each of us has experienced it, without sometimes realizing what that Inner Critic Monster is capable of if we give it power. It has the power to make you doubt yourself so profoundly that it can stop you from pursuing an idea, start something new in your life, make needed changes or even meet your soulmate. That Inner Critic is that powerful voice in your head that tells you that you are “not good enough”. It clips your wings by stopping you from even trying. If you let it take over, it can make you feel small, very small … as minuscule as a fruit fly buzzing around looking for a place to hide. His weapons? There are quite a few, but that Inner Critic Monster loves using comparison and fear of judgment. It makes you compare yourself to others, who may be further ahead in their accomplishments, smarter, more competent, faster, more efficient, fitter, more beautiful, more charismatic, better runners... You name it. It can throw you in a hole and make you dismiss the brilliant idea that you wanted to implement. It can cripple your enthusiasm and literally kill your dreams. In a nutshell, your Inner Critic is a spiral of negative thoughts that lead to self-criticism and can sabotage what you’re capable of. Many psychologists like to say that “These inner voices usually come from early life experiences that are internalized and taken in as ways we think about ourselves.” (from PsychAlive online publication, by the Glendon Association) Whether so deeply rooted in you or not, that Inner Critic can be tamed and the fear of judgment or “comparisonitis” that it most likely will bring up to the surface can be dismissed when faced with new decisions or situations.
“Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” – Suzy Kassem
Is Doubt always Harmful?
You might also wonder whether doubt always is necessarily harmful. On occasions, doubt can tickle your common sense and critical thinking antennae and help you make the right decision. However, critical thinking does not equate to self-criticism. When the difference between the two is clear, it dispels any potential confusion. A small dose of self-doubt can sometimes give you a warning or allow you to see another perspective, whether self imposed or projected to you by someone else. Mohammed Ahmed most likely knew his body weight was under “the norm” for a track runner and his coach threw that stereotype at him. He let that judgment go by without dwelling on it and decided to move on with his decision of running competitively. He did not allow that judgment to awaken his Inner Critic. Instead of ruminating on the idea that he was too skinny for this sport, he went with his gut feeling and decided to stick with his choice. When we receive a discouraging judgment from someone, when we feel unsure and insecure, vulnerable and doomed to failure, the key is not to dwell on it and ruminate.
Rumination leads to entanglement of positive thoughts and invites more negative thoughts into your mind, which can lead to paralysis by self-doubt. All of a sudden, you feel yourself falling off the mountain you were climbing, straight into a web of worries and negativity that keep you there like a fly caught in a gigantic spider web.
“Successful people have fear, successful people have doubts, and successful people have worries. They just don’t let these feelings stop them.” – T. Harv Eker
From Self-Doubt to Self-Confidence
Doubt is part of being human. Our brains inevitably default back to old fears and to our comfort zone. Neuroscience research links it to the centre of our emotional response in the brain, aka the almighty amygdala. When faced with fear of the unknown, the fear of trying new things, or any other fear for the matter, stress hormones are released and “fight, flight, or freeze” mode is activated. The basal ganglia, mainly responsible for executive functions and habit learning, gets destabilized and that is where self-doubt can create havoc if you let it take over you.
So the next time self-doubt sneaks in, consider the following:
* Recognize it, acknowledge it and remind yourself that it is a human tendency.
* Refocus and reframe: put your thoughts on paper/device of your choice and then distract yourself to get your mind off that self-doubt. Go for a walk/run, work out, re-organize a space in your place, etc. Something active where your mind will be distracted from those thoughts.
Come back to what you wrote at a later time and see it under a new lens. Try a positive lens ...
* Look at your strengths, skills and personal assets and list them in writing to re-ignite your self-confidence.
* Reach out to someone who can listen to you in trust and without judgment so you can hear yourself talk about reframing that self-doubt, and re-boost your self-esteem.
* Be kind to yourself by developing a proactive dialogue with yourself. Give yourself the advice that you would give to a good friend.
* Take action! Set goals towards what you desire and go for it.
Regaining your self-worth and moving into action counteracts self-doubt. After all, paralysis by self-doubt is worse than failure.
Moving from self-doubt to self-confidence can seem daunting at times as for most people, the brain likes to make you sit in your comfort zone. It is in your hands to take the first little steps that will help you dispel that Inner Critic so that you can move forward towards your best self and your best life.