Many people want to eradicate self-doubt and be perpetually confident – but this can be a serious mistake. In fact, self-doubt can be exactly what we need to help propel us forwards in life.
Instead of eradicating self-doubt we need to understand the difference between constructive self-doubt and global self-doubt.
Global self-doubt is where we use words that wipe us out in some sort of total or global way, like I’m ‘bad’, ‘useless’, ‘terrible’, ‘lazy’, ‘waste of space’, ‘hopeless’, ‘ugly’, ‘stupid’, ‘fat’, ‘loser’ or ‘brain-dead’. This global self-doubt is black or white and right or wrong – there is no room for subtle critique.
This global self-doubt ought to be slipped immediately out of our attentional focus and we should never pay it any attention. Interestingly, this global self-doubt is a self-deceiving strategy and a rationale for never changing. It actually lets us off the hook and stops us from moving forwards in life.
This is because the global nature of the words overwhelms and demotivates us: I’m so useless, hopeless, bad, stupid, fat – there’s no point in trying to improve – I might as well give up. And people do, and they never change.
Perhaps even more importantly, the application of this global self-doubt strategy has convinced the person (and often their psychologist) that they are simply too hard on themselves, too self-critical and they need to be nicer and more kind to themselves.
But this is simply inaccurate and, moreover, it delays progress. In fact, these people actually need to be significantly more tough on themselves, but in a different way. They need to hold themselves properly to account and take proper responsibility for their behaviours.
This is where constructive self-doubt comes in. Constructive self-doubt uses a technique that I call specific self-critique and it can be life-changing (for the better) when people apply it on a regular basis.
Let me explain. After we behave poorly or make mistakes most people have some self-doubt. This is a good thing. As mentioned, if we respond by going into global self-doubt then we will likely feel too overwhelmed and demoralised to change and, moreover we will have told ourselves incorrectly we are just being too hard on ourselves. So we are unlikely to change.
On the other hand, if we reflect on our self-doubt and specifically self-critique our problematic behaviour then we will find solutions and ways to move forward.
Specific self-critique can look like this:
‘Today I behaved badly when I became impatient with Jenny. My behaviour was upsetting for her and that will have diminished her goodwill towards me in the future – so, not a good outcome.’
Notice that I am not saying that I am ‘bad’ as a total human being, but that I behaved badly in this specific situation (as we all do, quite often). Notice that I also identified the specific behaviour that was the problem – I became ‘impatient’. Note also that I have identified the negative consequence of my behaviour: I have upset Jenny and my behaviour will have reduced her future goodwill towards me, which (if left unrepaired) will damage our future interactions (she will be more resistant, less open, less trusting, more likely to block me).
Next, I try to work out why I might have become impatient. Maybe I was over-tired or upset about something else or maybe I thought she didn’t like me, so I went on the offensive.
Whatever the case, I decide to behave differently next time – and see if that makes a difference. For example, I decide to go to bed earlier and I decide that if I accidentally become over-tired in the future that I will respond to that tiredness by making myself softer and a bit slower, rather than harden myself against it and become agitated and brittle.
Next, I determine to repair the damage I have done to Jenny. I contact her as soon as I have worked my way through this specific self-critique. I tell her that ‘I am so sorry – it was unfair and mean of me to become impatient today and my behaviour was hurtful and upsetting’. Notice that I properly acknowledge the damage done to her – this is the focus.
Then, I provide Jenny with a probable explanation for why I behaved this way (e.g. ‘it’s no excuse, but I think I was really over-tired’ – this helps her to take my error less personally). A very simple and brief explanation is all that is required here – I don’t over-focus on this aspect or it becomes all about me.
Next, I assure Jenny ‘that I have really thought about this and I will do my very best to ensure that it never happens again in the future’.
Using this specific self-critique strategy when we have self-doubt about our behaviour makes a huge difference, especially after several years of application.
This is because with each error we inevitably make in life we have the choice of how to respond. We can shut down, abrogate responsibility and get poor outcomes with global self-doubt. Or we can learn to constructively reflect, gain insight into ourselves and incrementally improve outcomes – allowing ourselves to get smarter with time.