When I made it my mission to find the purpose of self-doubt, I realised I was first of all going to have to understand precisely what self-doubt is.
In the community of negative experiences, self-doubt has been particularly marginalised. For grief, we have a process to work through. Frustration and disappointment can motivate action. And depression has a whole industry developed around it!
But in a world where forward momentum and pace is supremely valued, hesitation and indecision are a threat to the cause of efficiency and progress, and it seems there is no place for self-doubt.
What People Think Self-Doubt Is
The prevailing attitude towards self-doubt is revealed through an internet search; self-doubt is the all-consuming plague that must be overcome, conquered, even destroyed.
People mistake self-doubt as a negative emotion, which is understandable considering the host of overwhelming feelings that come rushing in when the door is opened to self-doubt. But you won’t find self-doubt included in any list of emotions.
Even the dictionary couldn’t be bothered to define self-doubt properly, it only says that self-doubt is a lack of confidence, ability, and trust. So, it defines what self-doubt isn’t, rather than what self-doubt is.
It’s clear that if we are going to reclaim self-doubt as a useful and purposeful space, it’s going to have to be redefined.
The origin of the word ‘doubt’ is more helpful, it is the latin ‘dubitare’, which simply means to hesitate, or be in two minds.
Doubt is a space for hesitation, reflection, and questioning. And when it’s self-doubt, something within us causes that hesitation.
Most people wouldn’t argue that as the world becomes ever-faster-paced, interconnected and complex, the more we experience uncertainty.
Self-doubt is the internal force of uncertainty and it would seem the natural and appropriate response to these external forces. But it’s not the space of hesitation that causes the problem, it’s our response to that space and how we cope with uncertainty.
The Threat of Uncertainty
The problem with so much uncertainty is that our ancient neurology, otherwise known as our primitive brain, doesn’t cope with it well.
This part of our human system is a strong driver for emotion, but it doesn’t communicate in sophisticated modern language. The basic function of this driver is to seek opportunity and threat in order to create a response. But when faced with uncertainty, or the unknown, it will always default to the more significant state of ‘threat’ and begin to respond accordingly.
There’s not a lot of use telling our primitive brain that this email we just received from our boss scheduling an unexpected one-to-one tomorrow afternoon is not life-threatening, it just doesn’t understand. So, the nervous system responds accordingly with all those yucky symptoms caused by the increase of adrenaline. At the same time, our storytelling brain is trying to make sense of the situation, searching for the meaning and the possible connections.
It probably forgets the compassion that your boss consistently demonstrates and your level of trust within her, and the fact that she hasn’t told you what the meeting is about can only be good news.
Most of us will be familiar with this example, or something like it. It is the gap between expectation and knowing. As the world continues to become ever more complex and uncertain, living in this gap is more of a daily reality.
The Uncertainty of Self-Doubt
When we invite self-doubt in, we identify a gap of uncertainty in our lives. This is because on the other side of self-doubt is something we want to achieve, and the doubt is about our ability to achieve that thing.
And that thing we want to achieve is usually quite important. People just do not become overwhelmed by self-doubt by things that are not important.
But because uncertainty is intolerable, we close the door on it and deny it, or we fight it (which usually only serves to strengthen it).
The first step in giving self-doubt a purpose is to acknowledge self-doubt, and we do so as a positive indicator of something we want to achieve. We recognise that the self-doubt we experience is not a weakness and it doesn’t need to hold us back, instead it’s just an indicator that we are outside our comfort zone.
The Opportunity of Uncertainty
When we have greater ability to tolerate uncertainty, it provides a marvellous opportunity for growth and to move towards that thing that we want with grace and ease.
When we can stand back from the situation a little and develop an attitude of curiosity, meaning we remain open to the gap without having to fill it with a fast solution, there is so much to be learned.
In my coaching practice, I have been working with this question since early 2018. My research has involved over 130 hours of one-to-one coaching with more than 20 clients. We have invited the experience of self-doubt and hung out with it to see what we can learn.
This work has been highly rich and rewarding and after all this time, I know I’m just scraping the surface of the potential with self-doubt.
The Rules of Social Conditioning
We all live our lives according to unspoken rules of social conditioning. These are the expectations we have about ourselves and the world, the source of our internal pressures and drives, the judgements towards ourselves and others, and the assumptions we have about the way the world should work and what we should or shouldn’t be doing.
But, like the fish that doesn’t recognise water, because all it’s ever known is water, we go through life immersed in and driven by these rules because we can’t see anything beyond them.
When the question of self-doubt shows us what we want to achieve, it mirrors those parts of ourselves that we consider are not good enough. And inevitably we learn that the belief about not being good enough is something created by the rules of social conditioning.
When we allow the space of hesitation that self-doubt brings, we get an opportunity to examine these rules of social conditioning. Then we get the opportunity to question them, doubt them, and upgrade them to something more purposeful and useful for ourselves and the world we live in.
Self-Doubt: The Outlying Space Where Normal Rules Don’t Apply
While the world has been solidly focussed on progress and efficiency, self-doubt has been doing what it does extremely well, it has been waiting. Waiting for us to hesitate and pay attention.
The marginalisation of self-doubt has made it into an Outlier, as defined by Malcolm Gladwell; a place that lies outside of everyday experience, where normal rules don’t apply.
Learning how to use this space skilfully requires leaving normal, everyday rules behind. And that includes judgements, assumptions, pressures, and expectations. Self-doubt gives us the space to redefine our experience.
Malcolm Gladwell defined Outliers as people who do things out of the ordinary and he studied them as the story of success. Self-doubt can also help you to redefine what success means to you.
Throughout this work, you will learn how self-doubt brings a laser-focus to what is important. When prepared to welcome self-doubt in our lives and to embrace that space for hesitation, we can decide how to use it and we can become skillful in navigating this space. That’s what this work is about. Making self-doubt a purposeful and useful space for hesitation, reflection, and a route to meaningful and sustainable growth.
So, for the purpose of this work, this is the definition to use:
An act of hesitation, reflection, and questioning, towards oneself and about oneself.
- The internal force of uncertainty
- An outlying space for hesitation, reflection, and questioning, where normal rules don’t apply
- A route towards meaningful and sustainable growth
The Purpose of Self-Doubt is due for publication in 2020.
Reference: Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell, M (2008), Little, Brown and Company