We ALL have doubting
thoughts at times about
our competence and value.
But here’s the crazy thing: even the people we admire the most, who seem to have it together and who really are smart and competent… they too struggle with doubts about themselves.
It’s called Impostor’s Syndrome.
A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Impostors suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.
We are not talking about incompetent people being afraid of being found out. Many of the most competent people you can imagine struggle with self-doubt.
“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” – Albert Einstein
Researchers have estimated that up to 70% of the population has experienced the feelings associated with Impostor Syndrome.
I think the problem of self-doubt in general (impostor syndrome being one expression) is a more pervasive problem. I think it is safe to say that 100% of every living, breathing human struggles at times and in certain contexts with the doubting voices.
For example, Mike Cannon-Brookes, the co-founder of Atlassian (a global company with thousands of employees that provides a product used by millions), says…
“Most days, I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
Why do we often experience self-doubt… even when we have no logical reason to be?
More importantly, how can we quiet the doubting thoughts and legitimately feel better about ourselves?
Experiencing the Voices of Doubt – True Story
On any given day (or hour) you may not experience the doubting voices. But certain situations can inflame your self-doubt… which was smoldering just below the surface.
That is what happened to me a few years ago.
I took a new position in a company and quickly began to feel “out of my league.” I had a good amount of experience in the area for which I was hired. However, I discovered there were other dimensions in which I had to get good at… fast.
That was the operative word. F-A-S-T. Not only did everyone seem smarter, with a greater breadth of experience than I had, they did everything in hyper speed. They were cranking out quality work in record time, while I fumbled along, seemingly in slow motion.
I felt like a toddler who kind of knew how to walk but was desperately trying to walk faster and faster. Meanwhile, everyone else was effortlessly running full speed.
I’m sure you have your own story of times in which you felt “out of your league” or incompetent, or just unsure of yourself.
What has helped me deal with these feelings is understanding WHY I felt them.
3 Reasons Why You Sometimes Underestimate Your Abilities
1. Negativity Bias
Our brains are hard wired to react more and hold on longer to negative stimuli than to positive.
You know this is true, right? Someone in your world tells you 5 things they love about you and then just one little tiny thing they think you need to work on. What happens? That one tiny thing far outweighs everything else combined.
Research has verified that the negative things you experience are more potent and accessible in your brain (where you can easily focus on and obsess over it).
Dr. Rick Hanson says it is like the brain has Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive experiences (they barely register, then slip away quickly).
You can read more about this bias… and how to counteract it in this WiseInsight.net article.
Bottom line: Negative thoughts/voices are more potent and persistent than the affirming voices. That is why they loom so large in your thoughts. You CAN and MUST counteract them. More on this in a moment.
2. Negativity Contagion
Perceiving or believing yourself to be lousy or an under-performer in one area often quickly infects our confidence in other areas. “I am terrible at math” can easily become “I am not good in school” or even “I’m not smart at anything.”
The doubts can often be triggered just by a single inference about what is expected from you. As Eric Barker noted:
If you’re in a situation where stereotypes say you shouldn’t do well, you perform worse. Are girls worse at math than boys? They definitely are if you remind them that they’re girls.
The simple inclusion of a check box for gender on a math test causes women to perform worse than men.
And this goes for men too.
Men who were told that a test measured “social sensitivity,” on which “men do worse than women,” performed more poorly than those who were told the test measured “complex information processing.”
Bottom line: Doubts spread quickly and easily. They are often not based in reality. In the famous words of Henry Ford, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t… either way you are right.”
3. Your Perception as an Outsider
When you see yourself as an outsider, it is very common to feel like an impostor who doesn’t belong where you are.
As noted by researcher/author Dr. Valerie Young:
85.7% of foreign-trained medical residents in Canada tested high for impostor feelings.
Conversely, when you don’t feel like an outsider, your performance and confidence increase, and your doubts lessen (in that context).
Again, from Dr. Young’s work:
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute for Technology discovered that once the percentage of female students in a department rose above 15%, women’s academic performance improved.
Studies repeatedly show that if you attended a women’s college, you are likely to have higher self-esteem and more intellectual self-confidence than your counterparts at co-ed institutions. The same is true for African Americans who attend historically black colleges.
Bottom line: If you are feeling the doubting voices, examine the context you are in. If you are in the minority or feel like an outsider, remind yourself this single factor is impacting your confidence.
There are many influences that impact your confidence and feed the doubts. So, what can you do about it?
3 Things You Can Do to Quiet the Doubting Voices.
I don’t think any of us like the feeling of doubting ourselves. We all desperately want to feel good about ourselves.
But, one of those solutions is NOT lying to yourself or ignoring reality.
For example, if you are terrible at singing, don’t pretend and insist you are awesome (think: the initial auditions on American Idol, as no-talent contestants are shocked when they are told they aren’t any good. Don’t you just want to say to them, “let me get this straight. EVERYONE is wrong… you really are the next Sam Smith?”).
Instead, go out and hire a voice teacher. If that doesn’t help, then come to grips with reality that singing isn’t one of your gifts. You have MANY gifts. That may not be one of them.
Ok, now that I said that… here are 3 things you can do to combat the negative, doubting voices:
1. Remind Yourself: It’s NOT Just You
It always helps me to know that I’m not the only one struggling with something. In this case, we ALL struggle with the voices of self-doubt.
Think of it like this: if everyone, including yourself, continues to fall down on your left side, maybe you should conclude that the problem is NOT you. The ground is tilted that way, affecting everyone. You need to adjust your thinking/actions accordingly.
When I start feeling full of doubts about my worth, my competency, etc., I remind myself that this is normal (like gravity, which affects us all) AND like gravity… there are things we CAN do to overcome it (as you will see in the next point).
2. Recognize & Counteract the Distortion
If you have read much on Wise Insights, you know one of the big emphases is recognizing the unseen forces, known as cognitive bias, that distort your perceptions.
Your perception of reality and actual reality are often very different. As one counselor once told me, “there are the ‘facts’ (as we perceive them), and there is the truth. They are often wildly different.”
Since you now know this (based on the 3 points above), you need to counter what you perceive and feel with ‘the truth’ about who you are.
This is exactly what Sheryl Sandberg does.
Sandberg is a very smart, highly competent individual (Harvard grad, been a high ranking executive at places like Google and Facebook). Despite this, she too struggles with self-doubt.
As she revealed in her bestselling book Lean In, here is what she has to do when the doubts come:
“I learned over time that while it was hard to shake feelings of self-doubt, I could understand that there was a distortion. When I felt like I was not capable of doing something, I’d remind myself that I did not fail ALL of my exams in college. Or even one. I learned to undistort the distortion.”
Recognize your own distorted thoughts and feelings… and spend less time listening to them and more time counteracting them with the truth.
I know, I know… it is easier said than done.
Personal tip: You will make MUCH more progress if you work on this with others who are also working on it. Together, everyone will see better results than just doing it on your own.
3. Face Your Fears
Behind the doubting voices is one very powerful emotion: fear. We are afraid of how we will look to others if we don’t demonstrate competency and we fall short or fail.
“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” – Elbert Hubbard
Some of our fears come from a type of perfectionism.
Sometimes the fear comes when we compare ourselves to others (which is always a losing game).
Sometimes it is an irrational need to be approved and even admired by others. We fear not getting this… and it distorts how we live.
A few years ago I began to face and challenge my own fears. I was sick and tired of playing it safe, staying within my comfort zone and not stretching myself by taking on my fears. I decided I wanted to live a richer, fuller life. Read about that journey here.
Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear. – George Addai
My Life on The Other Side
What I have experienced since making that decision and daily facing my fears has been nothing short of remarkable. The one word that describes it is… freedom.
- Freedom from the opinions of others
- Freedom to be myself (not who I thought others wanted me to be)
- Freedom from the pressure to have it all together
Freedom begins with owning your flaws and disowning your fears.- Umair Hague
I now see myself as a student:
- Always learning from my efforts (especially mistakes and failures)
- Always seeking to improve myself (not trying to appear as though I have it all together)
- Never arriving (because I can always grow some more).
Every day that I choose to face my fears, this freedom and confidence grows and my ability to face future fears gets easier.
“Each time we face our fear, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing.” –Theodore Roosevelt
Have I arrived in this quest? Of course not. But, I am growing… and experiencing a fuller, richer, more satisfying life.
Why not join me in this quest?
When are the doubting voices loudest for you? What have you found helps quiet them? Leave your thoughts below!