Is Failure (or Being Wrong) Really the Worst Thing? Overcoming Self-Doubt
Written by Megan Pajak, LPC
I remember being in High School, 10th grade, math remediation class and my teacher was discussing an upcoming test. Visibly, most of us students were stressed about our performance. “All you can be is wrong”, said my teacher who was trying to reassure us. That statement only increased stress about our ability.
Fast forward to 3rd semester of Graduate School, my advisor who also taught my professional development course was talking to all 11 of us students about the practicum/internship course requirements. I remember doubting myself, amongst other students who verbalized their doubts, and a fellow student asked, “Well what happens if we do not pass?” My professor/advisor responded, “Then you do not pass, and you have to do it over”. That statement, just like with my high school teachers’, only increased stress about my ability. Except this time, I strived to make sure that failure was not an option.
But here I am, looking back thinking (and laughing a bit) that although not passing would have been disappointing, it would not have been the worst thing in the world.
Humans have a drive to establish mastery and accomplishment when interacting with society. Although some level of stress and self-doubt is actually good to experience; it becomes problematic when folks are chronically distressed about their upcoming performance, possibly because of their performance being a reflection of their self-worth and hindering their self-esteem. A study conducted in 2002 found a correlation between folks who experience higher rates of self-doubt reporting lower levels of self-esteem (Zhao et al., 2019).
What Exactly is Self -Doubt?
Per Webster’s dictionary, self-doubt is defined as: “a lack of faith in oneself: a feeling of doubt or uncertainty about one’s abilities, actions, etc.” (Merriam-Webster (n.d.)) The authors in an article I used for reference from the Journal of General Psychology, use this definition: “an inability to point securely to one’s own level of competence in different domains”. They further explain that once an individual’s competence is threatened, it creates anxiety and uncertainty, and uncertainty about one’s competence hints at the possibility of failure (Zhao et al., 2019).
What Factors into Self-Doubt?
There are so many factors that go into self-doubt, sometimes it is easy to pinpoint “the cause”, but then there are times where folks go in circles trying to figure out “the cause”. Either way, regardless of if you know the reasons, self-doubt is being experienced in the present moment.
Some general factors that contribute to self-doubt include:
- Past experiences with failure/embarrassment.
- Comparing oneself with others.
- Clinical Anxiety
- Upbringing (FYI, this section is loaded as it includes (but is not limited to): attachment style, Erikson’s stages of development, self-esteem, your parent’s parenting style and personalities, etc.)
- Personal beliefs on ability.
While I was doing research for this blog, I was thinking “yea, yea, yea, this is general stuff [to me]”, then I read a section on #5, “personal beliefs on ability”. I for one, think this is super interesting, and it connects with the other factors mentioned!
In short, some folks believe ability is “adaptive” and others believe it’s “fixed”. Research has shown that people who believe ability is adaptive tend to be motivated to learn and develop their abilities, challenge themselves and put more effort in when given constructive feedback. Whereas those who believe ability is fixed tend to stick with what they know that they will succeed with, do not challenge themselves, and disengage after given constructive feedback (Zhao et al., 2019).
Common & Unhealthy Self-Doubt Management
or in a colloquial way of wording, ‘self-sabotage’. Folks who engage in this management will do something to prevent a threat to their competence and ability, as well as preventing full performance. Example: claiming not to be prepared before a major presentation so that if a failure happens it can be blamed on lack of preparation and not on the person (Zhao et al., 2019).
Putting excess effort in to ensure failure will not happen (Zhao et al., 2019). (Perfect example: remember how I said above in my graduate class example, “Except this time I strived to make sure that failure was not an option.”) To further expand on this, I sought more reassurance than normal, overly studied even if I knew the answer verbatim from the resource resulting in lack of sleep, practicing a presentation to the point where I sounded like a robot, etc.
Fun find: those who engage in self-handicapping tend to have the belief that ability is fixed! (Zhao et al., 2019)
(Not So Simple) Simple Ways to Overcome Self-Doubt
For those who experience symptoms such as hyperventilation, heart palpitations, sweating, etc, (without a medical explanation such as cardiac arrythmia), a common grounding technique is to focus on your breathing. There are numerous breathing techniques out there for everyone to try (such as square breathing, infinity breathing) and finding which one works best for them. This reminds your nervous system that you are not in danger, even if you feel like you are.
Meaning to assert as valid or confirmed (Merriam-Webster (n.d.)). Examples: “I have made it this far, others believe I can do this, I have worked hard for this and I can do it!”, “I am terrified and I can do this!”.(Chui, 2021)
Remember just because you feel it, it does not mean it is true. Example: “I feel like an impostor but that does not mean I am an impostor.” Researchers have found that it is possible to increase self-confidence when you “doubt your doubts” (Braslow et al., 2012). Example, “I have spent this much time preparing and practicing for this, so it is hard to believe that I will not succeed at all.”
Remembering Past Experiences/Successes
Remember that time you thought you did not do well but you did? Look back at all the successes you have accomplished. This can give quite the confidence boost. Example: giving a 45-minute presentation for a final exam and receiving a 100% when you thought you would for sure receive a 70%. (Chui, 2021)
It is difficult not to compare ourselves to others, especially when we are asked to compare and contrast ourselves from others (like in a job interview when they ask, “What makes you different, why should we hire you?”). Be mindful of whom you are comparing/contrasting yourself to(Wignall, 2020). Example: “that person who is the same age and relatively the same size as me, can run 8 miles in 90 minutes, so that means I should be able to run 8 miles in 90 minutes too.” Then discovering that no, you cannot. This is not taking into account that the other person has trained for this unlike the person who is observing. A healthier way of comparing yourself is to run what you can (lets say 1 mile in 15 minutes on day one), and then after practicing/training, finding out that you can run 1 mile in 9 minutes. In short- comparing your past self to your current self (Wignall, 2020).
Accept and Allow it
What I mean by this is, if you try to avoid something, especially a feeling, it will return stronger than the last time (Wignall, 2020). E.g., typically when people see a scary or suspenseful movie, the first feelings such as fear are most intense, but when you watch it around the 10th time, the first feeling intensity level decreases.
Seeking Professional Help
If your self-doubt has become so detrimental to your overall well-being, it is time to seek help from a professional counselor or psychologist. This also allows for a more personalized plan to overcome self-doubt!
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More blog posts to enjoy!
Braslow, M. D., Guerrettaz, J., Arkin, R. M., & Oleson, K. C. (2012). Self-Doubt. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(6), 470–482. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2012.00441.x
Chui, A. (2021, April 19). How self-doubt keeps you stuck (and how to overcome it). Lifehack. http://www.lifehack.org/567587/the-reasons-of-self-doubt-and-steps-to-deal-with-it.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s most-trusted online dictionary. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/.
Wignall, N. (2020, August 4). Free yourself from self-doubt: 10 tips from a professional psychologist. Nick Wignall. https://nickwignall.com/self-doubt/. [in text citation]
Zhao, Q., Wichman, A., & Frishberg, E. (2019). Self-doubt effects depend on beliefs about ability: Experimental evidence. The Journal of General Psychology, 146(3), 299–324. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221309.2019.1585320