Self-Doubt: The Invisible Chain Holding You Back

Sarah sat alone in a cozy café, the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting through the air. In front of her was her laptop, its screen blank except for the cursor blinking impatiently, as if taunting her. She had penned the opening lines to her novel multiple times, each version swiftly followed by a tap of the “delete” key. Each deleted sentence seemed to amplify the whisper in her ear: “You’re not good enough to write this novel.”

Sound familiar? Sarah’s struggle with self-doubt is not unique; in fact, it’s something many of us grapple with regularly. It could be about writing a novel, starting a new business, or even entering a new relationship. Self-doubt is that nagging voice that questions our abilities, undermines our efforts, and ultimately stops us dead in our tracks, leaving us wondering, “What if?”

The goal here is to shine a light on this pervasive yet often overlooked obstacle. We’ll explore what self-doubt is, dissect its origins, delve into its costs, and, most importantly, arm ourselves with strategies to conquer it.

What Is Self-Doubt?

Self-doubt is an emotional and cognitive state where you question your abilities, worth, and even your existence. It’s like an internal critic, constantly second-guessing your actions, thoughts, and decisions. Imagine your mind as an ocean, and self-doubt as the turbulent undercurrent that disturbs the peaceful waters, making it difficult to navigate.

Psychological Underpinnings

The brain is wired for survival, not success. From an evolutionary standpoint, avoiding risks helped our ancestors survive. The problem is, this ancient programming can kick in at the most inconvenient times, leading to self-doubt. This cognitive dissonance can manifest in various ways, such as fear of failure, imposter syndrome, or even perfectionism.

Research Insight

According to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2002, individuals with high levels of self-doubt were found to be more threatened by an experimental induction of self-doubt than individuals with low levels of self-doubt, and their self-esteem was predicted to decline. The study suggests that self-doubt can be a significant threat to an individual’s self-esteem.1

The Roots of Self-Doubt

How do we get saddled with self-doubt in the first place? The origins are as varied as we are, but some common sources include:

  • Childhood experiences: Were you criticized often as a child? Were expectations unrealistically high?
  • Societal expectations: Ever feel the pressure to conform to societal norms, say, in terms of career success or personal relationships?
  • Peer influence: How often have you compared yourself unfavorably to a colleague or friend?

Think about your own life. Can you identify where your self-doubt originates from? Understanding its roots is the first step toward managing it effectively.

The Costs of Letting Self-Doubt Win

Self-doubt is more than just an emotional nuisance; it’s a roadblock that can have real-world consequences.

Self-doubt is like carrying a backpack filled with bricks; the longer you carry it, the heavier it gets, slowing you down and draining your energy.

Impacts on Mental Health

When self-doubt takes hold, it can affect your mental well-being in a number of ways. It can lead to stress, anxiety, and even depression. You start becoming your own worst enemy, trapped in a cycle of negative self-talk and emotional paralysis.

Lost Opportunities

Think about the opportunities you’ve missed because you doubted your abilities. Maybe it was a job you didn’t apply for, a project you didn’t pitch, or even a relationship you didn’t pursue. The cost of missed opportunities is immeasurable, not just in terms of professional advancement but also personal growth.

In fact, people’s biggest and most painful regrets in life are “the roads not taken”. The dreams not chased, the questions not asked, the things not done.2

Relationship Strain

When you’re gripped by self-doubt, it doesn’t just affect you; it affects those around you as well. You may become overly dependent on your partner for validation, or conversely, you may push them away, fearing they will discover your “inadequacies.” Just like low self-esteem negatively impacts relationships, so does self-doubt. It puts a strain on relationships, further isolating you in your cycle of self-doubt.3

Expert Opinion

Psychologists and career coaches often speak of the tangible costs of self-doubt. For example, Dr. Mirjam Zanchetta (formerly Neureiter) explains that self-doubt can be the root cause of many career setbacks, including failing to negotiate salaries or not applying for higher positions.4 These are not just missed opportunities; they’re missed life experiences that contribute to your sense of self-worth and accomplishment.

So, have you ever wondered about the paths not taken, the “what could have been,” if self-doubt hadn’t held you back? As uncomfortable as it may be to consider these costs, facing them head-on is crucial for transformation.

Recognizing Self-Doubt: Signs and Symptoms

Awareness is the first step to change. So how do you know when self-doubt has infiltrated your mindset? Sometimes, the symptoms are glaringly obvious, while at other times, they are far more subtle, like a slow leak in a tire you don’t notice until it’s flat.


Do you often find yourself delaying tasks, telling yourself you’ll get to them “eventually,” only to find that “eventually” never comes? Procrastination is one of the most telling signs of self-doubt. You put things off because tackling them head-on would force you to confront your insecurities.


Have you ever been caught in a loop of incessant thought, analyzing every angle of a situation but never arriving at a conclusion? This is the mind’s way of keeping you in a safe zone, albeit a mentally exhausting one. Overthinking is often a manifestation of self-doubt; it keeps you stuck in ‘analysis paralysis.’

I like how Greg Gilbert wrote about this: “Stuck City is a place any creative, self-employed, and curious people travel to regularly. It’s a difficult place to escape.” (His recommendation for overcoming it btw is to simply “do something”—to counter analysis paralysis by taking action, no matter what the action is.)

Seeking Constant Validation

If you find yourself constantly looking for external approval for your choices, it’s a significant indicator that self-doubt is at play. You’re unsure of your own worth and capabilities, so you seek affirmation from others, turning your confidence into a fragile, external construct.

Imagine you’re in a meeting, and an idea pops into your head. It could be a game-changing suggestion that could benefit the project. But instead of voicing it, you second-guess yourself:

What if people laugh?

What if they think it’s stupid?

This is self-doubt, nibbling away at your confidence, holding you back from contributing your unique perspective. Can you relate to this situation?

Recognizing these signs is like turning on a flashlight in a dark room. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can start to navigate through it. So, how many of these symptoms resonate with you? Identifying them is the first step toward reclaiming your life from the clutches of self-doubt.

Strategies for Overcoming Self-Doubt

The road to overcoming self-doubt isn’t a straight one; it’s more like a winding path with ups and downs. But don’t worry, there are reliable strategies to navigate through it.

The Importance of Self-Awareness

The first weapon in your arsenal against self-doubt is self-awareness. By becoming more in tune with your thought patterns, you’re better equipped to challenge negative self-talk.

Journaling Exercises

One effective technique is journaling. Take a few minutes each day to jot down your thoughts, focusing on instances when you experienced self-doubt.

What triggered it?

How did you react?

Mindfulness Practices

Mindfulness can also be a powerful tool. By bringing your attention to the present moment, you can become aware of your thoughts without judging them. Techniques like deep breathing or focusing on sensory experiences can help ground you.

Create a “Self-Doubt Diary” 📔
Every time you experience a moment of self-doubt, note it down. Ask yourself, “Is this thought based on facts or assumptions?” You’ll often find that self-doubt thrives on vague fears and assumptions rather than factual evidence.

Cultivating Self-Compassion

Think about how you would treat a friend who is experiencing self-doubt. You’d likely be kind, understanding, and supportive, right? Now, what if you treated yourself the same way?

Kindness Over Judgment

Instead of chastising yourself for doubting your abilities, show some kindness. Acknowledge that everyone, at some point, goes through phases of self-doubt. It’s part of the human experience.

Research Insight

Studies have shown that cultivating self-compassion can be an effective strategy for overcoming self-doubt. For example, one study found that self-compassion was associated with lower levels of anxiety, depression, and stress, and higher levels of life satisfaction and overall well-being.5 Another study conducted by Barnard and Curry (2011) and published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that self-compassion was associated with greater emotional resilience and positive affect.6 These studies suggest that cultivating self-compassion can be a beneficial strategy for promoting well-being and reducing self-doubt.

Seek Professional Help When Needed

While self-help strategies are invaluable, sometimes you need the perspective of a trained professional to guide you through the labyrinth of your mind.

Therapy Options

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for instance, has been shown to be effective in treating self-doubt. It involves identifying negative thought patterns and replacing them with more constructive ones. There are many other forms of self-esteem therapy and it’s worth exploring which one best fits your specific needs.

The Power of Social Support

Last but not least, never underestimate the power of a good support system. Surrounding yourself with people who believe in you can make all the difference in the world.

Confiding in Trusted People

Talk openly about your self-doubt with a close friend, family member, or mentor. Sometimes, just the act of verbalizing your fears can lessen their impact.

Exercise: Three Compliments

Sit down with a friend or mentor and ask them to tell you three things they genuinely admire about you. You’ll be surprised at how uplifting it can be to hear your strengths from another’s perspective.

Conclusion: The Journey Ahead

Self-doubt isn’t something that you can vanquish overnight. It’s a continuous battle, fought in the trenches of everyday experiences. There will be moments of triumph, but also moments of setback. And that’s okay. The key is not to eliminate self-doubt completely—that’s an unrealistic goal—but to manage it, to minimize its sway over your life. In fact, to eventually develop a healthy relationship to it, so that it helps you assess where and how to improve, without holding you back from living your life to its fullest.

What would you do tomorrow if you weren’t held back by self-doubt? Would you start that novel you’ve been contemplating? Would you make that career move you’ve been putting off? Take a moment to visualize your life, unshackled by self-doubt.

Imagine shedding that cumbersome backpack filled with bricks of self-doubt, and feeling light, free, and unburdened. That’s the new you, waiting just around the corner. For some, that version of yourself might seem like a figment of your imagination, but it’s within your power to make this a reality.

As a parting note, I’d suggest creating a ‘Victory Log.’ Whenever you triumph over a moment of self-doubt, jot it down in your log. Over time, this will serve as a tangible record of your progress, a beacon of your capability and resilience.


  1. Hermann, Anthony D., Geoffrey J. Leonardelli, and Robert M. Arkin. “Self-doubt and self-esteem: A threat from within.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28, no. 3 (2002): 395-408. ↩︎
  2. Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets. Emotion, 18(3), 439. ↩︎
  3. Murray, Sandra L., John G. Holmes, Dale W. Griffin, Gina Bellavia, and Paul Rose. “The mismeasure of love: How self-doubt contaminates relationship beliefs.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27, no. 4 (2001): 423-436. ↩︎
  4. Neureiter M, Traut-Mattausch E. An Inner Barrier to Career Development: Preconditions of the Impostor Phenomenon and Consequences for Career Development. Front Psychol. 2016 Feb 4;7:48. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00048. PMID: 26869957; PMCID: PMC4740363. ↩︎
  5. Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 28-44. ↩︎
  6. Barnard, L. K., & Curry, J. F. (2011). Self-compassion: Conceptualizations, correlates, & interventions. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(4), 219-231. ↩︎

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