“I don’t know how much longer I can do this, Dad.”
I was an overworked and underpaid New Yorker of about four months at the time, complaining on the phone to my father during my lunch break. Doubt and dollar slices of pizza had become my way of life.
I graduated from the University of Miami in the spring of 2009. Yup—in the middle of the Great Recession. I moved to New York to start a career in advertising or media, but with the sweeping layoffs at the time all I could muster with a bachelor’s degree from a top-50 university were two internships (one of which was unpaid) and a job at the Levi’s store in SoHo
It was less than fulfilling and thrilling.
Hundreds of job applications, dozens of interviews and several months later, I landed my first “Big Boy” job at BBDO New York. The tortoise really does win the race.
But imagine if I had let my doubt get the best of me. Imagine if I hadn’t remained patient and pushed through. Imagine if I had given up. Truth is, I might not be where I am today.
Whether it’s a passing thought or a pervasive pattern in your life, you’ve likely experienced doubt in one form or another. Doubt creeps in before a big presentation or a career-defining deal. Doubt rears its ugly head when you’re about to cook a new dish for the first time or ask your crush out on a date. Like an uninvited dinner guest, doubt shows up at the most inopportune time.
So, what is doubt, really? Doubt is, quite simply, a form of fear employed on behalf of shame. The idea that you aren’t good enough or talented enough or attractive enough manifests in that not-so-shy voice in your head that questions your ability to show up and be seen. Doubt, then, is a little bit of failure felt in advance.
But in the battle for your success and your sanity, there’s a way to win against the voice of doubt. And that’s by learning to sit with and befriend it. Read on to learn four tried-and-true tips to focus on your greatness instead of questioning it.
I hope your doubts never outweigh your diligence.
1. Observe without judgment.
When your mind can’t stop racing and the voice of doubt inside won’t stop talking, one of the most important things you can do is stop and become still. Observe the voice with a focused and heightened awareness. Push closer in and witness what’s unfolding inside without applying a label or a feeling to it. Just sit with your thoughts and take inventory of what they’re saying. Don’t stop to listen to the point where you get caught up and start to believe them. Just make a note and remain curious but cautiously distant—like watching passers-by on the street while you quietly sip your tea in a café, trying to remain discreet and under-the-radar.
The point is to be a fly on the wall of your own brain, soaking up what the voice of doubt is telling you without accepting it at face value. Simply focus and stay grounded in your awareness.
2. Question its validity.
What did you notice from your observations in step one? What did your personal voice of doubt have to say? Write the doubts down or actually say them out loud if you can. The point is to separate the thoughts from you and experience them like an external event or stimulus. Hearing yourself actually say the thoughts or reading them from a piece of paper is a powerful tool for helping you create this sense of separation. And it’s also an incredibly effective way to begin to question the validity of the voice of doubt inside.
Arm yourself with these questions when the voice of doubt arises within you:
Is this true?
Do I have any evidence to support this belief?
What are the facts at hand?
What would I tell a friend who said the exact same thing?
Will this thought help me grow?
Next time that inner voice questions your abilities, interrogate it like a stern cop looking for evidence in an important case. You’ll likely notice pretty quickly that its claims are unsubstantiated and false.
3. Flip the script.
Whenever I’m struggling with self-doubt, I always try to find another way to look at my given situation. And that means playing Devil’s Advocate and reframing what the voice of doubt is telling you inside your head. Because once you realize that the voice of doubt is invalid, you’ll actively work to replace the limiting belief with a more positive and affirming one.
For example, let’s say you’re about to make the case for a big promotion and a raise at work. Doubt may saunter in and say something like, “This seems like a lot of additional responsibility for not a lot more money. Are you sure this is really worth it?” Or it might say, “James just got promoted and he’s so much better at his job than you are. You’ll never be able to live up to that, so why bother even asking for that promotion?”
But the other way to look at both of those thoughts are as follows:
“Yes, it’s a lot of additional responsibility, but it’ll help me round out my skill set and become more marketable in the long run. Plus, we’ll see how the money shakes out.”
“James just got promoted and if he can do it, I can, too!”
If doubt comes knockin’ on your door, answer with a smile and treat it like that pessimistic friend who can’t seem to find his rose-colored glasses.
When all else fails, ask yourself this simple question: What if it could actually work out in my favor? That one powerful question can reshape how you look at the situation—and turn what you may perceive to be a challenge into a world of possibilities instead.
4. Embrace “and” thinking.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a downward spiral of doubt, I tend to jump to conclusions. I immediately start going down a thousand different potential paths in my mind—and none of them end anywhere productive. Usually, this results in me thinking that one of two or three potential worst possible outcomes will come true. This “either/or” way of thinking is extreme and unhealthy because it doesn’t account for any gray area. And, let’s face it: Life is basically lived solely in that gray area of uncertainty and potential.
So, instead of focusing on the “or,” focus on the “and.” Let’s look at some examples.
“OR”/DOUBT FOCUS: “She’s either going to break up with me or I’m going to have to end this.”
“AND”/POSSIBILITY FOCUS: “I’m not sure where things stand with her right now—and I think I’m going to give this situation some time to breathe.”
“OR”/DOUBT FOCUS: “We are either going to just barely meet our goals for Q3 or fall majorly short.”
“AND”/POSSIBILITY FOCUS: “I don’t think we’re on track to meet our Q3 goals—and I may be able to help change that.”
“OR”/DOUBT FOCUS: “I’m either gonna fumble the presentation or people are gonna straight-up laugh at me—I just know it.”
“AND”/POSSIBILITY FOCUS: “I’m feeling out of my comfort zone for this big presentation—and that’s okay. At least I know Brian will be there to support me.”
When you train your mind to look for what’s possible instead of believing everything that could go wrong, you’ll open yourself up to endless opportunity and potential. And that’s where the magic happens.
How have you tackled your doubt in the past? Tell me your story in the comments below—or Tweet me at @crackliffe.