Let's Talk About Self Doubt (Plus 3 Tips To Help Counter It)

Doubting your own abilities to the point where you don't (or can't) try anymore is a hell of a bad place to live in.

Mar 11, 2014 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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Addressing self-doubt in therapy. Like a boss.

You've read about the Dunning-Kruger effect, right, about how folks who think they can't do anything are often more competent than the people who think they're hot shit? Well, I mostly think that, hey, that sounds so right for all the people I know -- but obviously I only doubt myself because I am ACTUALLY terrible. It's a special kind of self-doubt.

For example! I got pretty into the whole letter writing process in February (I'm still working my way through responses!) (xoPenPals is a thing!) and as an extension of that, I started carving stamps again. Carving rubber (or eraser) stamps is a similar process to lino block carving -- but, you know, it's rubber stamps rather than ART so it's easier not to stress out about it. I figured I'd carve a few rubber stamps, make some stationery, and be done with it.

Naturally, that's not how these things go. Nothing is ever a casual interest with me. If you get a letter from me, it's likely to be on stationery made with a hand-carved stamp and in an envelope similarly decorated. I'm USING the stamps I make -- but, as with so many other things in my life, actually being satisfied with what I've made is a state with which I have very little experience. (Like plasma.) (Sorry. Terrible science joke.)

On the rare occasion in which I do like some creative endeavor of my own, that fondness is fleeting. After a night to sleep on it, I conclude that, no, really, my efforts were insufficient and I need to never do whatever creative thing I was doing again. (Maybe this is part of why I cycle through my many hobbies? Hrmn. Something to consider.)

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First rubber stamp of the current obsession. All I can see is where it is terrible.

In fact, after a night to sleep on it, I mostly convince myself that not only am I bad at a creative task but that I will be ridiculed -- deservingly -- for my efforts. That's fun, right? And it totally creates an atmosphere in my head that encourages me to take creative risks or even just practice something I'm not very good at. Except for how it actually creates the opposite.

It's the kind of self-doubt that results not in a healthy desire to improve but in a resolution to never do whatever the doubt-inspiring activity is again.

Of course everyone (especially on the Internet) diagnoses themselves with Imposter Syndrome. Getting older does help because time has provided objective evidence that I don't suck as much as I think I do. But there's also something about American mainstream culture -- it's like, if we're not swimming in a vault full of cash and gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, we've somehow failed. Meanwhile, that some people even make it out of the house every day and into a world that is hostile to every facet of their identity isn't regarded as a huge accomplishment. What's even the deal with that?

When I taught high school, I taught kids who had been expelled from the regular school system. The motto of the school was "Where good enough never is."

On first blush, it's a little motivational -- reach for better things! Right? But I stared at it on a sign for three years and it just got more and more grim. Because goddamn. When do any of us get to rest? Even for just a little while? When do we get to feel like we're even baseline competent?

Wanting to do better, do BE better -- whether as people or at specific skills -- is not a bad thing. I'm not saying it is. But doubting your own abilities to the point where you don't (or can't) try anymore is a hell of a bad place to live in. It's counter-productive, too, because it actively stops you from practicing skills or working on whatever it is that needs improving.

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Totally flawed but also getting better because practicing.

And even with all the therapy I've gone to, the most common advice I've heard is "Do it anyway!"

That's obviously shitty advice. "How do I stop doubting myself?" "Do things anyway!" It sounds like something you'd hear in a motivational speech or see on a poster over a sunset. But it doesn't help -- it's too generic. How do you even get there from here?

Here are my three concrete steps, the things I do to keep on making things even when I feel like I great big loser who shouldn't ever pick up an X-acto knife again.

1. Share what you're working on.

Sharing anything in progress is TERRIFYING to me. Because it's not done! All I can see are flaws! All anyone else will be able to see are flaws! But when I share works-in-progress with trusted folks (basically people who I know aren't going to ridicule me), I am reminded that this product is not actually my SELF. And I am also reminded that critical feedback is useful -- even when it hurts, it isn't going to kill me and it's probably going to make my piece stronger. I like Instagram for this.

2. Stop apologizing for not being perfect.

I screw this up a lot with art -- because I have such a low opinion of my own skills, sometimes I fall into the "I can't draw very well, but here's my ____" trap. And it IS a trap. Because if I really think it sucks, why am I making people look at it in the first place? I'm working on being more like, "Oh, hey, here's a thing I did." I know, I know, we're trying to protect ourselves from other people's harsh feedback. But if you truly can't bear to have people say negative things about something, trashing it yourself is not going to make you feel better. It's just going to make any critical feedback you get feel like confirmation -- and it's going to cheapen the positive feedback you get because then people are just trying to make you feel better. (Or at least that's what your brain will tell you.)

3. Consider the source of feedback.

This is, I think, the biggest and most important thing to do. There are some uncouth sayings regarding the ubiquity of opinions that I think we all know. So consider the source when you're getting feedback on a project. (I think this is a good idea in general -- like, the opinions of other white people matter less to me than the opinions of people of color when the issue is racism. Harsh but true.)

Do you have some people you trust not to steer you wrong? Take your project to those people instead of throwing it out there scattershot. Text your bff and believe them when they tell you something looks great. This only works with people who will be honest with you -- but when you've got those people, it works REALLY well.

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There are new carving skills to learn -- but practice is teaching me I can do this.

None of those tips actually address the self-doubt thing head-on, you might have noticed (that would be more like replacing self-doubt with positive self-talk). The trick is that experience is the only thing I know that stands a chance against self-doubt and these things are baby steps toward gaining that experience.

I wish I knew why we, as human beings, so often hold tight to the one negative thing that gets said to us -- one bad review, one harsh piece of criticism can totally throw us for a loop even in a sea of good responses. And when we're already swimming in an ocean of self-doubt, those little bits of negativity can drag us down like an anchor. I've told you how I tread water. What do YOU use as metaphoric floatation devices?