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The Prison of Self-Doubt and the First Step Out

The Prison of Self-Doubt

“Looking at you, it just looks like you’ve got it all together. Great family, great kids, great career, strong faith. The total package. I’d love to have what you have, but I don’t think I’ll ever make it.”

I just shook my head and smiled when my friend who I was having coffee with last week shared how he saw me. “You have no idea”, I said. 

“What do you mean?”, he asked, clearly curious.

“Don’t get me wrong”, I said, “I’m absolutely blessed for sure. But, it’s been years and years of personal exploring and growth, challenges, failures, standing, taking another step, getting knocked down again, and then learning to stand through the storms.”

“If I’m honest, which I always am”, we both laughed, “I struggle every day with the challenges of self-doubt and the pursuit of perfection. I share a lot about the focus of striving for excellence, primarily because this is an issue I still war against every day.”

“That just doesn’t make sense”, he said. “How can you possibly struggle with self-doubt?”

“Easy, the roots of self-doubt go deep for me, all the way back to my childhood, and a constant striving to be my best. Growing up, as the first born, I carried the heavy burden of never disappointing my parents and creating the always putting on a great face for anyone who would see us. I pushed myself harder and harder, never letting go of the perfect picture of perfection. Regardless of what I did, I had to excel. But, there were constant nagging questions that plagued my mind. ‘What if I’m not good enough?’, ‘What if I fail?’, ‘What if I’m a disappointment?’, ‘What if...?’”.

I continued. “Those questions were the gateway to self-doubt and fear of failure. When the burdens of performance continued to grow, I found myself making the decision to avoid potentially amazing opportunities because of the small risk of not meeting my expectations or, what I viewed as other people’s expectations. For example, I would rather stand in the corner rather than risk talking to someone who may, or may not, accept me. The doubt in myself was strong, and an anchor in my life that held me back from living the full life I was created to live.”

“I never would have imagined”, he said. “I mean, just looking at you, it doesn’t seem to make sense.”

I smiled. “That’s the insidious part of self-doubt. Most people, in one way or another struggle against it because we know our short-comings and our challenges. And, unfortunately, we keep it all locked up inside because if someone else knew our self-doubt, it would just confirm the issues we fight against every day. When self-doubt latches on to our lives, it can be really hard to break. The reality is we’re often much harder on ourselves than we should be and don’t give ourselves as much credit as we could.”

“So, that’s all great news”, he said sarcastically, and laughed. “I struggle with the same thing. Is there any way out of the prison of self-doubt or are we all destined to live here for ever?”, he asked.

“The great news”, I said, “is that you can absolutely be intentional with taking control of your thoughts and building a path away from self-doubt. But, it takes focus and effort.”

The First Step Out

“Focus. Effort. I’ve heard that from you before.”, he said. I just smiled. “So, Solomon, where do I start to break out of the prison?”

I laughed. “Ok, I’m going to tell you the first step I took and continue to take to make sure self-doubt doesn’t grab hold of me. Are you ready my young Padawan?”

“Ready”, he said.

“It really starts with being hyper aware of your thoughts and taking control of them. It’s easier said than done at the beginning. But, trust me, when you build the discipline in your life of being aware of your thoughts, it gets a lot easier. It’s like a muscle…you build it over time with practice, discipline, and intentionality.”

“What do you mean by ‘taking control of my thoughts’”, he asked.

“You have to be acutely aware of any thoughts that come into your mind that could shake your self-confidence and fuel your self-doubt. We have thousands and thousands of thoughts a day. A constant stream. Some command our attention. Some are quick and then they’re gone. But, even the quick ones can plant a seed of self-doubt that, if not confronted, can grow over time.”

I continued, “Let me give you an example. Suppose you’re walking down a semi-crowded hall at your office and you pass by your boss. She doesn't say ‘Hi’, but just keep on walking. Your first thought may be ‘What did I do wrong? Why is she angry with me? Have I done something to upset her?”. “Been there. Done that.”, he said with a half-grin.

“Me too…Self-doubt brings us to those questions first instead of others like ‘I bet she’s really busy. She’s obviously really preoccupied. I wonder if there’s something I can do to help her today?”. See the difference? The first is anchored in self-doubt. The second in confidence.”

“When thoughts come”, I continued, “you have to quickly realize them, determine if they’re grounded in negative thoughts or positive, and make adjustments if needed. If your first thought in that situation is ‘I wonder what I did wrong?’, recognize it and ‘rescript it’, by saying to yourself, ‘Nope, that’s the wrong question. I need to turn around and ask if she’s doing OK and if there’s anything I can do to help make her day better. Just that little shift can have a huge impact on how you see yourself and change your behavior and ultimately, your impact.”

“If we stay in self-doubt, we naturally withdraw because we don’t want to hear bad news of be in a negative situation. When we withdraw, our doubt increases, and it becomes a downward spiral of self-fulfilling prophecy. If, however, we take control of those thoughts, look for another possible explanation, a positive explanation that’s not demeaning of ourselves, we can move in a positive direction.”

“I get it”, he said. “But, if I’m honest, I think this is easier said than done.”

“No doubt”, I said. “Most people are naturally drawn to the negative for themselves and the positive for others. We compare our ‘bloopers' to other peoples 'high-light' reels. It’s a challenge, but the great thing is we can learn, we can grow, and we can be better today than we were yesterday. But, it takes…” “Let me guess, ‘Focus and effort’, right?”

“Right! But by taking this first step, with more to come, you can break the prison of self-doubt and live with confidence.”

Walking Points:

  • Do you struggle with self-doubt?

  • How often do you catch yourself having thoughts of doubt?

  • Start being intentional with recognizing when the doubting thoughts come in and make the choice to replace them with thoughts of confidence.

Live. Love. Lead. Leave a Legacy!

Dr. Jason

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