Overcoming Self-Doubt: The Science of Breaking Free from Limiting Beliefs
Self-doubt is a universal experience that can keep you from achieving your goals and reaching your full potential. Although it is a natural response to the unknown and the uncertain, overcoming self-doubt is possible with the help of science-backed tools and a high-performance mindset. In addition, understanding the root causes of self-doubt and learning to overcome it can help you and your team achieve your goals.
After years of coaching leaders, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, and athletes, I’ve seen self-doubt plague those who dare to go after big goals. And ironically, brutally enough, it affects those who choose to play small, as well.
Everyone has their self-doubts and fears to face.
It takes courage to run an eight-figure P&L or start a business from scratch when everyone tells you not to do it. It takes courage to start a business in a downturn or to think of scaling when so many are pulling back. It takes courage to break through the limits others have placed in front of you or around you.
In the last several years, business models have been challenged or destroyed, and the chaotic, fast-changing environments push both leaders and team members to their limits.
As leaders, you must understand the science behind self-doubt and how to overcome it to turn today’s doubts into tomorrow’s success.
Know that self-doubt is a natural stress response. It is not a personality trait but a state of mind that can be changed. It’s triggered by many factors, including fear of failure, lack of confidence, and feeling overwhelmed by the demands of your job or personal life.
Self-doubt will plague us all. Unfortunately, the bigger the goal, the louder the voices of uncertainty (both external and internal) can be. There is a path through that, though.
Banish Your Limiting Beliefs
You learn almost everything about your self-belief—how much you believe you can achieve—early on in life. These limiting beliefs shape everything you do. As a result, your perspective on your ability to change, or affect a different outcome, is profound.
Some of us are born with more self-belief than others or raised to believe in ourselves to a greater degree.
But we all perform based on what we believe we can do rather than on what we actually can do.
All of us (except for the total narcissists) deal with lies told by our limiting beliefs.
Negative thoughts and beliefs, like “I’m not good enough,” “I’ll never be able to achieve my goals.” “I’ve tried everything—nothing works” or “I can’t do this” rumble around in our heads.
And those little liars, those garbage phrases we tell ourselves, get embedded into our subconscious, stealing our courage and stopping us dead in our tracks.
They impact our ability to achieve AND our perception of what is possible.
Strategies for Overcoming Self-Doubt
According to research from Dr. Martin Seligman and the Penn Resilience Program, building resilience and learning to reframe negative thoughts can be vital in breaking free from limiting beliefs.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and adapt and grow in facing challenges.
The harsh truth is that self-doubt is a normal part of the human experience, but it doesn’t have to define you or limit your success.
Recognize, Challenge, and Reframe Negative Thoughts and Beliefs
I’ve written extensively about this in my Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller Span of Control: What to do When You’re Under Pressure, Overwhelmed, and Ready to Get What You Really Want.
One of the most effective strategies for overcoming self-doubt is to challenge and reframe negative thoughts and beliefs.
What I call “Flip the Script.”
So, this is a Good News/Bad News situation. Let’s rip off the band-aid with the Bad News first.
Bad News: Research indicates how difficult it is to switch mindsets. Once you think about something as a loss, that way of thinking about it tends to stick in your head, and it resists your attempts to change it.
Does the suggestion that we all have a fundamental tendency to tilt toward negativity mean we can’t improve our capacity to tilt toward positivity?
It means that we must work to see the upside of things.
We must fight for our happiness.
We must strive for excellence and combat complacency.
We must struggle to find the silver lining.
Because seeing things on the bright side isn’t natural, we must practice positive thinking regularly.
Self-doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.
Don’t let it. Do the work and Flip the Script.
Now for the Good News:
“Flipping the Script” can be done by questioning the evidence, or basis, for these thoughts. Then, consider alternative perspectives and reframe the situation positively.
For example, instead of thinking, “I can’t do this,” you could reframe the thought as “I can do this, and I will learn from any mistakes I make along the way.”
Or, my favorite, “I just don’t have it, yet…” I love this and have used it for decades, even with my four kids, because it sets up the expectation for success—if… you’re willing to keep working for it.
Tilt Toward the Good
Self-doubt often arises when you are stuck in your head, worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.
It’s called “Catastrophizing.”
By focusing on what is within your Span of Control, and then taking small, manageable steps toward your goal—you can build momentum and gain confidence in your ability to achieve your goals.
But with relentless, deliberate practice and preparation, eventually, you will.
That’s why all fighter pilots, effective leaders, and high-performing athletes—resolve to constantly learn, grow, and focus on our Span of Control.
We continually leverage our experience, gather new insights and information, and prepare and train for a better outcome.
We Tilt Toward the Good.
Action Conquers Fear
We all experience crucibles in our lives. They are traumatic, life-changing events that can shape the way you lead, and the person you will become.
Fear, anger, grief, and disappointment can paralyze you—especially after a severe setback.
It’s human nature to assign blame rather than generate solutions. But those feelings don’t have to hold you back. So, get rid of all the I-
can’ts, Yeah-buts, I-should- haves, and I’ll-never-be-able-tos.
Focus on solutions, not setbacks.
Remember: self-doubt doesn’t mean you’re weak or not cut out for the task.
In fact, historically, many of the most successful people have struggled with self-doubt at some point in their lives. The key is to recognize self-doubt when it arises, set a small goal, and then take action to overcome it.
Everyone Suffers With Self-doubt
Everyone suffers from self-doubt at some point.
Fighter pilots do.
Navy SEALs do.
Army Rangers do.
Olympic athletes do.
Self-doubt can help keep you safe sometimes, but it can also hold you back from achieving your goals most times.
We all want to conquer chaos, seize control, and achieve our wildest dreams. But no matter what any self-help guru tells you, those things will never happen just by positive visualization, or happy-go-lucky phrases.
It’s going to take hard work and constant brain training.
To overcome self-doubt, consider the following action steps:
- Recognize, challenge, and reframe limiting beliefs (Flip The Script)
- Tilt Toward the Good
- Action Conquers Fear (set a small goal and take action!)
- Seek feedback and support from others
Understanding the science behind self-doubt and resilience, can teach you how to overcome it.
You can build confidence, resilience, and emotional intelligence by challenging your limiting beliefs, focusing on your Span of Control, and taking action.
These are all essential for achieving success—not only for yourself but for others as well.