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Why do I doubt myself and how can I stop?

Have you ever doubted your abilities, knowledge or skills? Actually, don’t answer that – we think we can take a pretty good guess. Nearly everybody has (at some point in their lives) been unsure of themselves and doubted whether they were any good at some particular job/sport/talent or other ‘thing’. We live in a competitive and individualistic society – everyday we are bombarded with pressures and expectations to be better than we were yesterday (or the person next to us) and to achieve more and more. As you can imagine, this can cause a fair bit of stress for some people – causing worry that they’ll never be good enough. But some people experience this a step further – considering themselves to be a fraud for ‘pretending’ to know what they’re doing – and worrying that someone will find out their secret at any time. 

Take for example a doctor – he or she has completed 8+ years of medical school, including exams, practical tests and supervised practice, and has been granted a title higher than most of us would ever imagine achieving in our lifetimes. Despite this level of achievement, they can’t stop wondering why people are coming to them for advice, thinking that they aren’t really any good at this medicine stuff or convincing themselves that they’re sure to be caught out for being a fake sometime soon.

This strange phenomenon is known as the imposter syndrome – a lonely pattern of thinking that finds someone doubting themselves and feeling like they don’t belong in the capacity in which they are (Chrousos, Mentis & Dardiotis, 2020). Coupled with the fear that they’re not as competent, skilled or intelligent as others see them to be (Chrousos, Mentis & Dardiotis, 2020), imposter syndrome often leaves people feeling like they’re constantly falling short of expectations. But isn’t it strange that it seems to be the things we know the most about or have the most experience in, that we doubt the most? 

We know that constantly doubting your abilities can hold you back from doing some really cool and interesting things – so we put together a few tips for tackling this unhelpful pattern of thinking, and beating imposter syndrome once and for all (or at least for a little while).

 


 

Start a relationship with failure

Most people who suffer with imposter syndrome are fearful of making mistakes and associate failure with negativity – as in, you absolutely cannot fail or you are not worthy of doing this job/sport/talent or thing. This is a pretty high expectation to have of someone .. and we wonder if you would hold a loved one to such a high standard? Yeah, probably not. 

As much as you don’t believe it right now, failure can be a good thing – in fact it’s a surefire way to get the opportunity to learn from what didn’t work and try again. Finding a way to have a healthy relationship with failure means you can accept that you won’t always get it right, and sometimes you will have to try something new/different. And remember, making mistakes or ‘failing’ at something doesn’t mean that you are an impostor – it means you’re human.

Separate feelings from facts

Thoughts are not statements of facts. Just because you think or feel something doesn’t make it true/fact – even if it seems really believable in your mind – and you don’t have to believe everything you think. In reality, thoughts are merely strings of words or stories that your brain comes up with, and they do not hold any intrinsic fact or truth. Often, we believe our thoughts purely because they pop into our heads, but this can often be unrealistic and unhelpful. When you feel doubtful of your ability to do something, it can be helpful to distinguish between your thoughts and the facts. This involves being able to notice when you’re having imposter-like thoughts and mindfully observe them (as strings of words your mind has offered up as thoughts), rather than connect to them and give them power or meaning in your life. Try creating some distance between yourself and your thought by saying “I notice that I am having a thought about .. (insert thought here)” – this will help you to see the thought for what it really is (a string of words or a story created by your mind).

Fake it till you make it

We are sure you’ve heard of this one before – if you portray yourself with optimism and competence you will soon realise these qualities within yourself and be able to achieve your goals. At the end of the day, if you wait until you’re fully confident or certain about something, you might struggle to ever do anything that you find difficult or confronting. Being human (not a robot that is programmed to do everything ‘right’) means making mistakes, learning from experience and being uncomfortable – even when you have done everything in your power to become knowledgeable or skilled at something. Courage and self-belief comes from pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and taking some risks – and proving to yourself that you can do difficult things. While it can be super uncomfortable to sit with yucky feelings (that your mind is trying to convince you are factual), you’ll soon notice that you can do more than you ever thought was possible.

References

Chrousos, G. P., Mentis, A. F. A., & Dardiotis, E. (2020). Focusing on the neuro-psycho-biological and evolutionary underpinnings of the imposter syndrome. Frontiers in Psychology11, 1553.

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