Self-doubt is one of the biggest things that stands in our way of achieving our goals and taking massive leaps forward in life. It’s that nagging sensation you get when you lack confidence and feel incapable of doing stuff. And that leaves you feeling stuck and unmotivated. And there are plenty of things that create self-doubt. So here are some of the common causes of self-doubt you need to look out for if you want to take your life to the next level.
Have you ever experienced self-doubt?
Self-doubt is something we have all experienced at some point. It’s that sadly familiar voice inside your mind constantly asking things like,
- Are you sure you have what it takes?
- What makes you think you won’t make the same mistake again?
- What makes you think they will listen to you?
- That person doesn’t like you.
And the list goes on and on.
Self-doubt is as universal as happiness and sadness.
So, let’s do a small exercise together.
Take a moment and think back to a time where thoughts of self-doubt came flooding into your mind. What had happened? How did they make you feel? Let's say you'd been assigned the responsibility of coordinating a play at your daughter’s school. Or coach a local sports team. Or undertake a new project at work.
And perhaps the first thought that came to your mind was, “What made them think I’m the right person for this role?” Then you started to panic about whether you are capable of delivering on it. After all, who would want to let down those adorable kids, your colleagues, or your boss??
You end up getting so caught up in your mind that you spend every passing moment stressing over every single decision you make as you picture how things might go wrong. But then, amid all the worry, you somehow manage to pull through. And it turns out better than you expected.
In that moment of relief that follows you have a good laugh about the fact that you were unnecessarily stressing. After that, you probably won't give that incident much thought until the next important thing you're asked to do. And that's when you start the whole process again!
In truth, the doubt is never really out of your mind. It’s just lying low, waiting for the next trigger. So you end up relieving the same emotions, doubt, and fear through different and seemingly unrelated experiences. This happens without you ever figuring out how to get past it and overcome it.
What are the main causes of self-doubt?
I believe the first step to overcoming self-doubt is to identify what causes it in the first place. This means putting on your big boy/girl pants and identifying what makes you feel like you don’t have what it takes. With this in mind, I’ll now share with you five of what I believe to be the most common causes of self-doubt. And as you read through them, I'd like you to reflect and identify which may apply to you.
1. Perceived past failures and mistakes
The first of the causes of self-doubt I'd like to go through is one you've probably heard – perceived past failures and mistakes. We’ve all been afraid of being ridiculed or judged for failing at something. We worry that if we've fallen once, we’ll fall again, rather than seeing the last fall as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Remember when you were a young kid learning how to ride a bike? No matter how many times you fell, that never stopped you from getting back up. You might have run to your parents crying after falling off your bike, but you were happily back at it the next day. Obviously, the failures we experience later in life tend to have a greater impact than falling off a bike. But the difference lies in the ability to shake it off and bounce back.
As we get older, we also ‘fall’ in life. We make mistakes and get disappointed. But unfortunately, it’s easy to lose that sense of adventure and dare-to-believe attitude we had as children. We are no longer willing to get up and get back at it.
For many people, most failures or mistakes they have made in the past are never forgotten. And they might always have a bearing on their mindset and self-esteem. These past experiences are just lying there – in wait for a trigger. And then all those negative emotions come flooding back in.
Most of the time, our self-doubt centers around a previous failure – something that didn't go as expected. You might have put your best foot forward, but things didn't work out. This leaves you worrying that if you try again, you'll probably end up making the same mistakes. And as a result, when faced with a similar challenge, the fear of failure kicks in and you start to visualize the possible worst-case scenarios.
The truth is past experiences shape our current beliefs. If you are to break free from the hold your past shortcomings have on you, you have to make very intentional and conscious decisions.
2. Upbringing and childhood experiences
Sadly, a lot of children are brought up without being taught how to develop healthy ways of feeling good about themselves and dealing with their insecurities. Our childhood upbringing has a significant impact on our mindset and attitude later in life.
When we were children, all manner of ideas were fed into our minds by those close to us. At times, these may have empowered you. But in other instances, they may have left you emotionally fragile and with low confidence, especially if you were in an environment of being over criticized or judged by your teachers, parents, or peers.
You see, when you tell a child enough times they don’t have what it takes or they're not good enough, they will eventually believe you. Then these limiting beliefs become programmed into their subconscious mind and slowly shape how they view themselves. Since they're developed early in life, they often become deep-rooted and last long into their adulthood.
For example, if you grew up with critical parents or parents who pressured you to behave in a certain way in front of people, you may often find yourself over-sensitive to how others perceive you. And because of this, if a situation needs you to be in front of people, then you might see all sorts of negative thoughts creep into your mind.
“I don’t think they will listen to me.”
“Why would they even listen to me?”
These kinds of negative thoughts erode your self-confidence and result in self-doubt – even if there’s no logical reason for you to feel that way.
For example, many adults have social anxiety, which often results in a lack of confidence in social settings like parties, family gatherings, interviews, and dates. They feel like they don’t belong, that they're not that interesting, or are just not good enough. Often this can be attributed to being bullied or excluded from a group of friends in school. And these childhood experiences continue to affect their confidence negatively as adults.
In short, our childhood experiences can affect us in all manner of ways many years down the line. If you take a moment and reflect on it, you just might find some of your self-doubts can be traced to some experiences you had as a child.
3. The comparison trap
We can't talk about the causes of self-doubt without mentioning comparison. How many times has your success been measured against the performance of others? Doesn't it often feel like it’s not really about how good you are but how good you are in comparison to others? At school, at work, at home – it's a non-stop comparison to see who’s better.
And then there's social media – the perfect tool for us to constantly compare our success to the success of others. It’s so easy to have all our focus on others and what they're doing. So much so that we spend little time appreciating our own wins and victories. The narrow and distorted slice of reality that is displayed on social media is almost perfectly constructed to make you feel deficient and discouraged.
This affects all the areas of our lives – from our relationships to our careers. It’s not unheard of for spouses to gauge the success in their relationships solely based on how their friends are treating their partners. With such an unpredictable way of measuring success or progress, it's no wonder we doubt ourselves so much!
That said, comparing yourself to others is not all bad, given that (believe it or not) there's a healthy way to do it. An example can be when you look at a mentor’s success or that of a leader you admire and this inspires you towards self-improvement.
Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Because often our comparison with others comes from a place of self-criticism. You look at someone’s achievements and fail to appreciate that you might be at different stages of your journey. Maybe they have more experience and have had more time to figure things out.
My point is that often our comparison with others comes from a place of insufficient information – we just don’t have the full picture. And as a result, it's easy for us to lose focus, feel insufficient, and wallow in self-pity.
4. Fear of success
When it comes to the causes of self-doubt, fear of success also plays a role. And out of all the challenges we face in life, this one might sound a little strange, especially in a culture that idealizes success. But the fear of success is real and very common.
Many people assume that failure is their biggest fear. And it can look that way. But in reality, a bigger fear, for many people, is the fear of success. Success is frightening because with it comes expectations, including the expectation that success will continue.
In reality, what people are usually afraid of is not the success itself but the consequence of that success. For example, let’s say you got a big promotion at work or a big new client for your small business. Now you suddenly have this big cash influx in your life which is something you desired for the longest time. You can now buy nicer things, and you're in a better position to support your loved ones. Your friends and family keep on congratulating you for your recent success.
But with that come all sorts of new worries. Because when you succeed, you raise the bar. Others start to expect more from you and hold you accountable for higher levels. Now that you have a better lifestyle and more responsibilities, will you be able to maintain it? This prompts questions like whether you can live up to people's new expectations of you. And here's where you realize that observing and admiring the success of others is completely different from experiencing it yourself.
In this situation, many people are left with a plaguing fear that they will be “found out”. That in reality, the success we've had so far was the result of fluke or luck. Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Like your friends or colleagues are going to discover you’re a “fraud”, and you don’t actually deserve your accomplishments?
And what happens when you feel that way? Probably that the next time an opportunity comes your way, you talk yourself out of it. Even if you've proved to yourself that you have what it takes, doubt still creeps in. And all this new self-doubt is due to your fear of success or (better put) the fear of the consequences of success.
As humans, we love the routine, and we tend to fear and move away from anything unknown or potentially out of our control. Our brains thrive on predictability and routine. It’s also normal to get too comfortable in our comfort zones and resist new challenges.
The problem with that, however, is that change is the only constant in this life. Everything around us is always changing — our relationships, our careers – everything. At one point you'll start a new job or a new relationship, or move to a new city. Though changes in life are inevitable, how we face them is what makes all the difference.
Often our fear of change is based on stories – both the real ones but also the imagined ones we tell ourselves. Yet we fear change because we can’t predict the outcome. When you’re meeting a new person or taking a new job, you can’t possibly know everything about it. And this unpredictability results in self-doubt.
Your mind tells you that since you can’t predict what will happen, you have no right in thinking you have what it takes to get a favorable outcome. And now that you've started doubting yourself, your mind is stuck musing over the different scenarios that you don’t feel prepared for.
But the truth is that there's no possible way of knowing everything that’s going to happen after a big change in life. Yes, we can prepare, but there'll always be unknowns.
These are by no means the only causes of self-doubt, but they are some of the more common ones. Armed with these, you can start to work towards identifying the reasons for your own self-doubt and then silencing that voice to start listening to a more confident one instead. If you'd like to find out more about how to build your confidence, head over to the blog post, 3 Ingredients to Build Your Confidence.
If you enjoyed this blog post on the causes of self-doubt and would like more tips on self-improvement without the ‘woo’, check out my YouTube channel Success Unlocked, where I share practical tips, strategies, stories, and inspiration for unstoppable personal growth to help you become the perfect version of yourself.