The Science of Self Doubt and How to Overcome It
We all experience self doubt, so what's the purpose of it anyway and how can we overcome it to achieve our goals?
Everybody finds themselves at some point in their lives where they want more. Whether it's a new promotion, a romantic relationship, or packing up and moving to a different city, we have these set ideas of our future selves. Our "future selves" often seem like these imaginary characters that are only a mirage on the horizon. If you view your goals at times unattainable, you aren't alone and it's a normal human response.
Our brains have installed this little thing called self-doubt. It may seem like the bane of our existence but it resides there for a reason. Essentially, we evolved doubt to protect us from taking unnecessary risks. Self-doubt would tell the early human that outrunning a lion is probably not going to end well, so maybe look for another solution. Today, self-doubt can take on a more modern definition that can hold us back if we care to pay too much attention to it.
In today's workplace, doubt is still as present as ever. Many times, it comes in the form of not taking the leap to impress your boss, or shout out that idea that's been brewing in your head for a few weeks at the next meeting. Even though there is no lion in the room, the lion is replaced by embarrassment or even failure. But then your desk mate brought up a similar idea and was praised for it, got a promotion and seems genuinely happy. The shame sets in and the cycle repeats itself, and you compare yourself to your desk mate and wonder why he or she has the gumption to speak up and take risks. Since we know the tricks our brains plays on us, it's time to out-think our own biology and take control of our internal critic.
Stop comparing yourself to others.
Believe it or not, comparing yourself to others also has a purpose for our brains. Our brains are trying to determine where we fit in the social hierarchy of the rooms we are in. So it takes in cues about other people and how they react to you and then gives you feedback as to where you might fit in. You don't realize your brain is doing it until you rank yourself among your peers and see your brain was secretly at work the whole time (evil music starts to play). But guess what? Your brain isn't always right, and in fact, it usually exaggerates the positive qualities in others while diminishing your own. You decide that just because your coworker has a giant house, he has it all. But you neglected the fact that he is the only one that lives in that house and you are happily married with three beautiful children. You don't know that your coworker may be incredibly lonely and may look at your life thinking you're the one that truly has it all.
I am also a proponent of never idolizing anyone. I remember in high school I read a book about Lance Armstrong thinking he could do no wrong. I wore my Livestrong bracelet like a badge of honor and toted his great achievements. When doping allegations swept through the media, I still defended him, calling anyone who believed the media liars and misinformed. As the evidence mounted, I saw that he was a fraud and lied to millions of people. I was wrong for standing up for him and having the demigod-like view I had of him, it wasn't healthy for my own mental growth as a young man. I think it is more than fair to respect people who have done great things or who are great people, but remember that they are human. The same goes for people who you may be intimidated by in everyday life. These people breathe the same oxygen as you and are made of the same stardust as you are, and are never worth fearing.
Make yourself a serotonin factory
The fact is, we all will fail at some things and do well at other things. It's simply a numbers game, and in the game of serotonin the more bets you make the more successful you will be. Studies show that when we succeed at a given task, we release serotonin. The same is true when we fail, we lose serotonin. What's really cool is this: when we release serotonin from a win it makes us want to attempt more tasks, then, we are actually more likely to succeed at the next task than if we had started from scratch. I am no math genius, but the logic here is that if we attempt more tasks overall, we increase our likelihood of building a higher baseline level of serotonin. This is why many times we find ourselves in a rut, we are net zero at our wins or losses and just playing it safe.
The only time plastic is good for your environment
OK, not literal plastic. We're talkin' brain plastic. The term neural plasticity refers to our brain's ability to change through experience. When we attempt more tasks and put ourselves out there (taking up a new hobby, texting that babe from 1D you've had a crush on) our brains change for the better and see this new you as your new normal. Therefore, change can be more permanent when we finally take the initiative to make the change.
Some research indicates that envisioning a more successful you can actually make you more successful. There was a study done where participants imagined lifting weights vs tough guys who actually lifted them and the results showed that the fakers did indeed increase their muscle size by 13% while the tough guys increased 30%. That's pretty impressive and mind-blowing.
I'm not really sure about visualization when it comes to breeding success, but studies indicate it does help. There are several ways to do it, but in essence, you simply build an image in your head of what a successful you looks like when you are meditating or before bed. You can also picture the obstacles and imagine them going away. My own opinion is that this is more of a placebo mechanism, but hey, if it works the results are the same, so who cares if it's a placebo?
This one is a favorite of mine because it allows us to reframe the way we see things. Cognitive reappraisal is reshaping the way an experience happens in our heads and it's easy to do. For example, you are going to be late to meet a friend due to some construction. You're annoyed at the road work and complain about how the city stinks at everything. Then your mind goes to how your friend will think much less of you for being late, and may never want to see you again. Basically, your brain takes you down a not-so-fun rabbit hole of doubt and guilt. An option here is to pull out your handy Swiss army knife of coping skills and use cognitive reappraisal. Instead of going down the rabbit hole, you say to yourself, "My friend knows I'm rarely late so this isn't a big deal" or "Well, it's about time they fixed this street". Notice how these reappraisals aren't anything that great? But they still allow your brain to get a different perspective on things, it doesn't even have to be incredibly positive. No one expects you to run around town like Ned Flanders.
Lastly, do yourself a favor and give yourself a pat on the back for dealing with all the things you do during the day. Part of doubting yourself is not giving yourself enough credit for everyday little things. Self-doubt is a natural mechanism, but now that we understand it better, we know its role and when to say we've had enough of that internal critic in our head.
About Benn Rayment BSN, RN
I am a psychiatric nurse with a BSN currently earning a psychiatric nurse practitioner certification with a previous degree in behavioral neuroscience.
Joined: Nov '17; Posts: 17; Likes: 23
Specialty: PsychiatryAug 21Joined: Jul '16; Posts: 680; Likes: 1,561Very good info! This is especially true for introverts and/or people with social anxiety. Very interesting study re: the weight lifting, amazing!Aug 21Specialty: Psychiatry ; Joined: Nov '17; Posts: 17; Likes: 23Quote from Daisy4RNThanks Daisy! Yes! It's really amazing what the brain can do if you trick it properly!Very good info! This is especially true for introverts and/or people with social anxiety. Very interesting study re: the weight lifting, amazing!Aug 21Joined: Sep '13; Posts: 457; Likes: 586I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I plan to read it to my 11 year old son who struggles with perspective and I have been trying to teach him how to reappraise situations and understand that a failure, even though repeated, can be something to grow from instead of just quitting.Aug 21Joined: Jul '16; Posts: 680; Likes: 1,561Quote from HelloWishYes, I agree. I will use this info and also plan to give it to my 12yo granddaughter, I think it will help her too.I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I plan to read it to my 11 year old son who struggles with perspective and I have been trying to teach him how to reappraise situations and understand that a failure, even though repeated, can be something to grow from instead of just quitting.Aug 21Joined: Aug '18; Posts: 6; Likes: 4Thank you for writing the article, NeuronGeek! I know several of the items you discussed, but needed to hear (or read) it again today! :-)Aug 22Specialty: Psychiatry ; Joined: Nov '17; Posts: 17; Likes: 23Quote from HelloWishI'm so glad you enjoyed it. Perspective is a difficult concept to grasp, so I think that is really awesome you are sharing this with your young son. Mom of the year!I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I plan to read it to my 11 year old son who struggles with perspective and I have been trying to teach him how to reappraise situations and understand that a failure, even though repeated, can be something to grow from instead of just quitting.Aug 22Specialty: Psychiatry ; Joined: Nov '17; Posts: 17; Likes: 23Quote from TheInformaticsNurseYou are welcome! You're right! Many times it's the simple things that make the biggest difference in how we see things and just need to remind ourselves again.Thank you for writing the article, NeuronGeek! I know several of the items you discussed, but needed to hear (or read) it again today! :-)Aug 22Joined: Dec '09; Posts: 1,054; Likes: 2,797Good article. As is the boxed quote, 'Nothing holds you back than your own insecurities'. I'm capable of more - in several areas - than I've done, and I ain't gettin' any younger. I have numerous motivational yellow stickies on my kitchen cabinet these days, and one of them says "Surprise Some People". Gotta do it.
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