What if I fail yet again in my attempt to write my novel?
What if the pie doesn’t come out right?
What if this is not my best painting?
What if I’ve made a mistake while filing my visa application?
At some point in our lives, we have all been plagued by self-doubt. Even the brightest of minds have lost their sheen in the face of self-doubt, while trying something new. Twentieth century American poet Sylvia Plath once wrote in her journal: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
The problem arises when the fear of failure creeps into the mind on a daily basis. We may overlook trivial instances of self-doubt, but when it comes to matters of importance, questions beginning with “what if” can be harmful. Every time there is a task at hand, the nagging voice in the head whispers: What if this turns out to be a failure like before? You are not capable of this. Don’t even try. You are not good enough. It is a downward spiral that crushes an individual’s ambitions and stops them from achieving what they are capable of.
“Self-doubt,” says, organisation development consultant Swasthika Ramamurthy, “is about not believing in oneself, one’s own resources and potential.” Further, she believes, individuals racked with self-doubt have no sense of anchorage within. Hence, they are unable to make decisions. They constantly think: I am not sure of what I am doing, what kind of choices I am making and the decisions I am taking. Because of this, they often look to the world for validation of their choices. When people don’t believe in themselves, this is all they can do.
Could self-doubt be innate? Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s theory on Psychosocial Development in Infancy and Early Childhood answers this question. According to Erikson, social experiences affect children greatly. Children begin to exert power through play and social interactions during their preschool years. If they are successful in this phase, they learn to lead people. If they don’t acquire this skill, they generally suffer from self-doubt in adulthood.
Counteracting self-doubt can be a herculean task, but it is necessary if we ever hope to accomplish our dreams.
As children grow up, there is a decline in the autonomy with which they function. For instance, as kids, many aspire to become dancers, singers, actors, writers, scientists and astronauts. They believe in those dreams, until they are told they cannot be scientists because they are not intelligent enough, or actors because they are not attractive enough. Such negative feedback gets ingrained in a child’s memory and reflects in all their decisions as they grow up.
Ramamurthy observes that such messages of discouragement could even be gender based. For instance, a woman is generally discouraged from taking up jobs that only men are known to excel in. If she wishes to drive a bus for a living, people–including her own family–attempt to stop her. Experiences like this sow the seeds for self-doubt and hinder the individual’s decision-making ability. This, in turn, corrodes their self-esteem. The constant negativity and the voice that says ‘you are not good enough’ take over one’s life.
Counteracting self-doubt can be a herculean task, but it is necessary if we ever hope to accomplish our dreams. Ramamurthy says the solution lies in observing and acknowledging the way self-doubt has manifested in one’s life over time. “This practically requires rewiring our brain to think a certain way. The key is to embrace one’s own imperfections and trust oneself in spite of one’s shortcomings,” she explains.
The world or even our own loved ones may not always believe in our potential. At such times, instead of heeding to self-sabotaging thoughts, we need to believe in our abilities and accomplish the tasks we intend to. Even the celebrated 19th century artist Van Gogh once said: “If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”