We’ve all experienced self-doubt at some point, and if unchecked, it can wreak havoc on our lives. Self-doubt can get in the way of us achieving our goals, make us believe we don’t deserve good things, cause us to over-compare ourselves with other people (and think we’re coming up short), and contribute to imposter syndrome.
So, how do we make sure that self-doubt doesn’t trip us up and lead us to self-sabotage? Here are three tips to make sure self-doubt doesn’t get the better of us.
Tip #1: Check Your Thoughts.
On average, you have tens of thousands of thoughts a day, but you don’t register most of them. And every feeling and every behavior is preceded by a thought, even if you don’t notice it in the moment. Negative thoughts are like the termites that invade a house. Over time, they chip away at the foundation of who you are and contribute to a vicious cycle where you might sabotage your best efforts and then use that as evidence that your self-doubt was well placed after all.
So, start checking your thoughts. Next time you notice feelings of self-doubt creeping in, ask yourself, “What was I thinking just before this?” Notice the connection between the thought, your emotions, and whether you acted on that thought—for example, by deciding you weren’t going to go to that professional mixer after all (the action), because you had a thought that you have nothing to contribute and that no one will want to talk to you (the thought).
Identifying the link between emotions, behaviors, and the thoughts that prompt them will help you realize that there is actually a pattern. Knowing the link between how you feel and what you are thinking helps to give you a sense of control over your negative feelings and self-defeating thought patterns.
Tip #2: Transform Your Thoughts.
Once you’ve identified a negative thought that is ramping up your self-doubt, you can use a scientific technique to transform the thought into one that is more balanced, fair, and helpful to you. There are three primary methods to transform your negative thoughts that lead to chronic self-doubt. You can use one or all of them to nip those self-sabotaging thoughts in the bud.
Method 1 – Question Your Thought. To begin questioning your thoughts, take a look at the phrase below.
Thought ≠ Truth
Thoughts seem so declarative and solid when they appear in your mind, but the truth is, they are just mental events and not necessarily based on fact. Certain self-deprecating thoughts can simply pop up routinely as a result of your earlier experiences or influences of important others. These thoughts only have the ability to impact your behaviors if you believe they are indisputable. Learning to routinely question your thoughts and see them as mental events rather than a depiction of what’s true will help you to no longer view all of your negative thoughts as absolute truths.
Method 2 – Modify Your Thought. To modify your thoughts, try forming a Yes, but sentence. Yes, but phrases are one of the simplest ways to modify your thoughts. It’s a shortcut to creating a modified thought that accounts for what’s difficult about the situation but also offers a ray of hope and recognizes the positives amid a challenging time. You might remember saying many sentences that started with Yes, but as a child trying to argue with adults! In fact, when you do this exercise, I want you to think about that image of arguing against your thoughts. Using Yes, but when creating an alternate thought helps you to recognize the part of the situation that is stressful (“Yes, I did not do my best on today’s work presentation”) yet also recognizes that you can do something to change it or that you’ve done something helpful worth acknowledging (“but I learned some important tips on how to make the next one better from a coworker, and can put this into motion on the next project”).
Method 3 – De-emphasize the Impact of the Thought. Labeling is a technique that uses language to identify what a thought truly is—a mental event that you have and nothing more. The message is that you are an independent person having the thought, which is a separate entity from you. The thought is not you or an extension of you, and the thought is not having you—you are the person at the helm, with the agency to know what your mind is doing at a particular time. Commenting on your thoughts brings separation between you and the contents of your mind, and this can help negative thoughts feel less urgent, believable, and actionable.
The next time you notice a negative thought, try adding the phrase I’m having the thought that in front of it. For example, the thought I will never be in a satisfying romantic relationship becomes I am having the thought that I will never be in a satisfying romantic relationship.
Notice what adding the simple phrase I’m having the thought that does to the original thought. It is as if you have taken the thought from your mind and put it on an examination table to evaluate it and give yourself a reality check. This technique not only helps to change the way in which you think about your thoughts as separate events from you, but provides distance, both physical and mental, from a negative thought that creates self-doubt and gnaws at your self-esteem. The technique reminds you that a thought is a mental event, not who you are, nor does it necessarily represent the truth. Just because you had that thought does not mean that your worst beliefs will come to fruition, or make it any more likely that your fears will come to pass.
Tip #3: Remember Your Values.
Values are meaningful beliefs or philosophies that represent what you want to stand for, how you want to relate to the world, and how you want to be remembered. They can be lived moment to moment—and you can always choose deliberately to respect, honor, and nurture them at any given point in time. Unlike goals, you cannot check them off a list; instead, you commit to them as a daily practice because they are part of the fabric of your everyday life. Being honest, humorous, or creative, and embodying independence, respect, and assertiveness are some good examples of values.
When you take actions in line with your values, you are acting authentically and in alignment with your deepest motivations and aspirations. You have more energy and feel satisfied because you are leading from what’s most important to you. Integrating your actions and your values brings greater coherence and meaning to your behaviors over time and fosters a powerful, enduring sense of purpose. This is why paying attention to and nurturing your values can be a motivational force long after your goals have been achieved, and also motivate you en route to achieving a goal.
Clarity around your values gives you a guide for how you behave during challenging times and provides consistency. When you have values as a foundation, your motivation is strengthened and you are less likely to quit when you encounter obstacles or find self-doubt creeping in. If you are grounded in a larger purpose that puts the temporary discomfort into context, then you might be willing to expose yourself to uncomfortable thoughts and sensations for a greater gain down the road. It makes potential negative thoughts and emotions less important, less urgent, and less impactful so that you can continue to work toward your deepest goals.
So, get clear on your most important values (I have a Values Card Sort game that you can use to identify your top values in my book Stop Self-Sabotage). And when you find your top five values, keep them at the forefront of your mind. When you experience self-doubt, remind yourself of these values and why it’s important to keep going even if you are second-guessing yourself. It might be helpful to make a values music playlist by finding songs that reflect each of your top values. When in doubt, flip on the playlist for an extra boost of motivation and a poignant reminder of why it is important to not give in to your self-doubt and to persevere.
Dr. Judy Ho is a Triple Board-Certified Clinical and Forensic Neuropsychologist, with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and extensive experience working with clients of all ages struggling with a variety of challenges. She is also the co-host of CBS’s show Face the Truth with Vivica A. Fox and a co-host of The Doctors. In her new book, Stop Self-Sabotage: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation, Harness Your Willpower, and Get Out of Your Own Way, Dr. Ho takes a fresh look at combating self-sabotage.