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Clearing Mental Clutter: Overcoming Self Doubt

"I have self-doubt. I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I'm like, 'My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don't have it. I just want to chill.' We all have self-doubt. You don't deny it, but you also don't capitulate to it. You embrace it." - Kobe Bryant

I’m a world-class procrastinator. No kidding. If they ever make procrastination an Olympic event, I could be on the podium. Maybe not gold, but at least silver or bronze. I’m that good.

Unfortunately, there’s not much of a demand for world-class procrastinators, so I’ve been trying to kick the habit. When I started to analyze why I procrastinate, I came up with a few different categories. First, there’s the stuff that I just don’t enjoy and have no desire to do (cleaning, going to the dentist, etc…). That’s understandable. The second trigger is when I feel overwhelmed by a project and don’t know where to start – also understandable, and easily solved by breaking the project down into tiny achievable steps.

The third category was a lot more interesting. These are things I actually want to do, projects or activities that are closely linked to long-term goals that I really, really want to achieve.  And yet even when I have plenty of time, I can find a million and one things to do instead. Suddenly even bleaching the grout in the shower becomes higher on the priority list.

This wasn’t quite as easy to understand. I had to do some soul-searching to figure this one out.

What I finally realized, in one of those “eureka!” light-bulb moments, was that at a deep subconscious level, I didn’t really believe it was possible for me to achieve the big goals I had set for myself. Therefore, why bother doing the work? If it’s all for nothing, I may as well binge on Netflix, snuggle with my cat, and enjoy life, right?

Self-doubt. It’s one of the most common, most insidious, forms of mental trash, and it gets in the way of pursuing our dreams and tapping into our full potential.

Self-doubt is that little voice that says “I’m not good/smart/young/old/rich/pretty enough,” or “That’s not realistic,” or “I’m not ready,” or “That’s a dumb/crazy idea” when we think about our dream. It’s that subtle feeling of fear when we think about doing something outside our comfort zone. It’s the discouragement we experience when we take a step in the direction of our dream and hit the first obstacle. It shows up in the excuses we make for why we’re not doing what we need to do to make progress toward our goal.

If you have a big dream or goal (and “big” is anything that seems beyond your reach), you absolutely have to kick this form of mental clutter to the curb.

So, how do we get rid of this dastardly killer of dreams?

Well, to get at this nefarious weed, we have to target the roots.

1. Recognize that whatever your dream is, it IS possible.

Unless your dream is to be the first human to colonize Jupiter, in which case your time may be better spent talking to someone like Elon Musk rather than reading my blog, or bringing about world peace, in which case I don’t know who you’d talk to, someone has already done what you want to do. Whether it’s starting a successful business, going back to school to get a degree, writing a bestseller, becoming a violin virtuoso or a champion tennis player, or starting a non-profit to bring about some social change, it’s been done. That means IT is possible.

The challenge is believing IT is possible for YOU.

But the truth is, very few things are actually impossible, even for you and I.

K. Anders Ericsson, the researcher who spawned the “10,000 hours” of practice “rule” that separates elite performers from the rest, has said that “apart from sports like basketball or football that favor physical traits such as height and body size, almost anyone can achieve the highest levels of performance with smart practice.”1

To put it simply, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, if you’re willing to do the work, if you’re willing to learn what you need to learn, your dream is possible. Yes – for you.

It’s not too hard to understand this on an intellectual level, but how do you get this belief deep into your subconscious? This is where affirmations and visualization can help.

For me, starting with a very basic affirmation – repeating “It is possible for me to (fill in the blank)” over and over again really helps to open my mind to the possibility. Once that sinks in, I move on to more decisive affirmations like “I can do (fill in the blank),” and later, “I am going to do (fill in the blank).” Add to this visualizing yourself achieving the goal, doing whatever it is you dream of doing, and you’ll begin to recognize and believe in your own potential.

Believing something is at least possible shifts your brain out of “Why bother?” mode, and triggers more productive questions, like “What do I need to do to make this happen?” and “Who do I need to become to achieve this goal?” These questions produce a list of actionable steps you can begin taking to move you in the right direction. And when you believe it’s possible, it’s easier to get yourself to take those steps.

2. Recognize the underlying fear.

Underneath self-doubt hides fear of failure, or in some cases, fear of success (which is really a fear of not being able to handle whatever you’ll need to do to maintain the success – i.e., fear of failing at success). The trick here is to normalize both fear and failure, to take away their power.

First, we need to realize that fear is a just a part of everyday life. Our brains are hardwired to see anything new and different as a threat – so as long as we continue to grow (or even just breathe), we’re going to experience fear. We may as well learn how to manage it skillfully. We have a choice – we can let fear control us and stop us from going after what we want, or we can reframe the sensations we associate with fear as exhilaration and excitement to drive us forward.

Susan Jeffers, PhD, author of “Feel the Fear… And Do It Anyway,” proposes that underlying every fear we have is the grand-daddy of all fears: the fear that we can’t handle it.2

The antidote to fear is experience. According to Jeffers, when we do something we’re afraid of doing, not only does the fear of that particular activity start to fade away, but you build self-confidence in general.  The more experience you have facing your fears and handling a variety of situations, the more confidence you have in your ability to handle whatever life throws your way in the future.

In the case of fear of failure, what we’re really afraid of is that we can’t handle, or survive, failure. Once again, we need to recognize that failure is also a normal part of life. Our fear of it, the stigma we’ve attached to it, is a disempowering belief we’ve picked up along the way.

We didn’t have this fear when we were born, and failure certainly didn’t hold us back when we were little. Think about a baby learning to walk – if failure was an obstacle to success, we’d all still be crawling around on all fours. Babies fall (i.e., fail) a lot when they’re learning to walk. They don’t sweat it. They just get back up and try again until they get it right. Failure is a normal part of the process of learning a new skill, not a reason for fear and shame.

Take a look at any high-achiever, and they all have a lengthy list of failures along their path to success. They’ve learned to handle it, to accept it as part of the process, even to embrace it.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  – Michael Jordan

The key to using failure as a stepping stone to success, rather than getting mired in a pit of quicksand, is to analyze each “failure” for lessons that will help you do better when faced with a similar situation in the future. This is the essence of Ericsson’s “10,000 hour” rule, too – elite performers don’t spend 10,000 hours practicing the same mistake over and over again, they learn and improve from each and every performance.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ― Thomas A. Edison

So step outside your comfort zone and try new things, especially things that are outside your natural skill set and may involve some failures along the way. Build up your experience with both fear and failure. Discover that you can not only survive but thrive through both of them.

3. Build your confidence.

At the same time as you’re gaining experience with fear and failure, it’s also important to build up your experience with success. And one of the best ways to do this is by taking small, progressive steps to improve your skills and move you toward your dream (you should have known I would find a way to bring this back to kaizen!).

Small steps allow you to stretch and develop your abilities without much risk, and without triggering the fear response. If your dream is to go back to school but you’re not sure about making that big of a commitment, start off with a single online class, or even just starting to read books in that field. If your dream is to start your own business, start by investigating what’s involved, network with other business owners, or get a side hustle going without leaving the security of your day job, to start building your business skills. If you dream of becoming a tennis champion, take lessons, find a coach, and enter some small local competitions. As you accomplish these smaller goals, your confidence in your abilities will grow and set you up for bigger challenges.

4. Channel your inner teenager.

The teenage years, for most people, were a time of rebellion. If your parents told you that you couldn’t do something, you were bound and determined to do it. Most of us outgrew this reflexive rebelliousness, and for the most part, that’s a good thing. But maybe as adults, there’s a time a place to tap into this impulse again.

When that inner voice starts up, telling you that you can’t do something because you’re not (fill in the blank) enough, channel your teenage self, and show that voice that you CAN and you WILL.

When you read the life stories of high achievers, many of them share stories about being told they couldn’t do what they did, that they weren’t good enough, or that they didn’t have what it took. People who succeed have learned how to reframe those messages into motivation that makes them work harder.

We can do the same. When that inner critic tries to hold you back from pursuing your dream, let your inner rebel come out and play!

Concluding Thoughts

Don’t let self-doubt hold you back from going after those dreams in your heart. You are capable of far more than you realize. Your dreams are yours for a reason – you have what it takes to bring them to life. Get busy and get moving!

1. Goleman, D. (2013) Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence New York, NY: HarperCollins

2. Jeffers, S. (1987, 2007) Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway New York, NY: Ballantine Books

Your turn: How does self-doubt show up in your life? What do you do to move forward when self-doubt rears its ugly head? Please share in the comments below!

Further Resources

If self-doubt and/or fear are holding you back from going after what you want in your life, I’ve found these two books to be very insightful on the topic, with actionable steps to start conquering this saboteur:

“Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers

“The Dance of Fear” by Harriet Lerner

27 thoughts on “Clearing Mental Clutter: Overcoming Self Doubt”

  1. Great article! I love the part when you say call your inner teenager! When self-doubt hits me, it’s usually my saboteur trying to stop me due to fear of humiliation. Some people say people stop themselves due to fear of success but not me. I’ve had experience of humiliation in the past and don’t want to experience it again. However, I did survive so it teaches me if I can survive that, then why not do something new?

    1. Thank you! Yes, fear of humiliation is definitely another of the fears that can hold us back, and in some ways is similar to the fear of failure in that sometimes what we need is just more experience with it to discover that we can and will survive. And it’s helpful to realize that many times what we consider a humiliating experience doesn’t even register with the other people involved (or at least, they forget it pretty quickly) because they aren’t paying nearly as much attention to us as we give them credit for 🙂 So go out there and try something new!

  2. Awesome read. We are truly the harshest critics in our lives. This article spoke to me so deeply because I struggle with the same, but when you truly find your purpose that makes you happy, then I think overall life is great. However, I think part of the reason we doubt ourselves a lot is because of our fears of disappointing other people we seek our value from.


    1. Thank you! I’m so glad to hear this post spoke to you, and you are right about the power of finding our purpose – I think when we are very clear about who we are and our goals, that gives us the courage to take on new challenges. And yes, fear of disappointing others is definitely in the mix – but hopefully the people who truly matter in our lives are also be our biggest supporters, and will be there when we fall short as well as when we are winning 🙂

  3. I love everything about this article! A couple weeks ago a publisher sent a book on “self sabotage” to me at work. I was curious because I’ve only seen the concept talked about in conjunction with other mental health issues, never on it’s own. Like any professional, I went into it thinking, I don’t need this but it might help my clients… the book was actually super eye opening, turns out I have a fear of failure and although I’ve never actually labeled it before has definitely heald me back at times.

    1. Thank you! I’d love to know the name of the book – as a coach, I’m very interested in the topic of self-sabotage, because I think we all do it to some degree in some area of our lives. The great thing about recognizing it, or a fear of failure, is that once we see it, it starts to lose its power, and we become more empowered to work through it and break through the artificial barriers we set up for ourselves 🙂

  4. An excellent article. The fear of failure and the fear of success – I have them both. Your advice on trying something out of my skill-set to overcome fear of failure and breaking down the work I want to do, into smaller, easier steps is really invaluable to me.
    Patience and perseverance are also virtues, that we have to practice, in order to attain our goal.

    1. Thank you! I am so glad that you found this post valuable! And you are right about the virtues of patience and persistence – they are essential elements in achieving any worthwhile goal – and they require practice 🙂

  5. Fear and doubt stop people from achieving their dreams and completing their work, in fact it even keeps some from even starting. The fear of perfection is huge, and I believe an even greater block for women who have been told by society for far too long that they need to be perfect. When I think I can’t do it, I remember this quote by Betty Rose. “Doubt kills more dreams than failure every will! If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito!!”

    1. I love that quote – thank you for sharing! And yes, perfectionism is certainly a problem for many of us, especially women – it’s tied to the feeling that if we’re not perfect, we’re not good enough, and that keeps many people from trying something new if they’re not sure they’ll be good at it quickly. I love this video by motivational speaker Lisa Nichols called “Be Perfect in Your Imperfection”, about how we are enough just as we are:

  6. interesting concept. never thought about it that way but I agree that self doubt is the ultimate saboteur to dreams and goals. I was thinking it was laziness but I’m thinking it’s more now….

    1. Yes, I think laziness, procrastination, etc… are all simply manifestations of self-doubt or fear, or “laziness” has just become a comfort zone, because even the “laziest” people will work when they really want something, or when a competing fear becomes big enough.

  7. Evelyn Lo Foreman

    Love this stimulating and relatable post. Thanks for the reminder to Emily the inner teenager – I remember her well and will borrow from her strength to break free. Saving this post knowing that when I get here, I can call on Susan. ❤️ Xo, Evelyn, PathofPresence

  8. I am ready to channel my inner teenager . I love a good rebellion a rebellion against that inner voice that says I can’t . I can join you if procrastinating was a sport lol . I have gotten better at not delaying well in some aspects .

    1. Do it! Let your inner teenager loose when that inner voice tries to bring you down 🙂 And good for you for making progress against the procrastination bug – keep at it and I will too!

    1. Thank you! Glad you found the idea of turning your inner teenager loose helpful – I’m not sure where that came from, maybe from my own inner teenager who has been squelched for too long 🙂

  9. Great in-depth information and self awareness lesson for me …most of your article hits home ..I am my harshest critic ..but I don’t let fear of failure stop me …
    I’ve bookmarked you to continue my learning & self awareness sessions !!

  10. I love this! Your points really resonate with me personally as well since this is something I’ve struggled with in my life. That third category you mentioned of things I really want to do, but something is holding you back, sounds exactly like a lot of my anxiety. I definitely struggle with a fear of failing, but it took many years to realize this was the issue, and these fears can often be so subtle and deep in our subconscious that they are hard to reveal!

    I really like what you said about channeling your inner teenager, as well. I’ve found myself becoming more and more risk averse the older I get, and more likely to prefer the same old things day in and day out. It’s a good reminder to live young again and that taking upon new challenges and risks can sometimes be a good thing, especially if we combine it with our adult maturity.

    1. Thank you! And you are so right about how subtle these fears can be – they often masquerade as very reasonable-sounding rationalizations about why we can’t or shouldn’t do something. That’s why it’s so important to tune into that inner voice that keeps calling us back to our dream, and challenge that other voice that’s feeding us all the reasons not to go after our dream. As for becoming risk averse, that’s natural as we settle more deeply into our comfort zone – but so stifling – we come alive when we push the boundaries of our comfort zone, and discover we are capable of so much more 🙂

  11. The thing I liked the most here was tapping into that teenage attitude again. Also I’m also very impressed with how you recognize that the reason behind procrastination is our belief that the target cannot be achieved. This article really helped me. Thanks ❤

    1. Yes, you are so right! Although I would tweak the wording slightly to say, finding what you’re good at and mastering it, or pursuing excellence in that area – seeking perfection can be discouraging because perfection is unattainable, but mastery of our gifts and talents is a continual process that pays dividends in confidence and fulfillment all along the way 🙂

  12. I really like what you said about channeling your inner teenager, as well. I’ve found myself becoming more and more risk averse the older I get, and more likely to prefer the same old things day in and day out. It’s a good reminder to live young again and that taking upon new challenges and risks can sometimes be a good thing, especially if we combine it with our adult maturity.

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