The seduction of self-doubt
I hear the siren’s call of a pint of Ben + Jerry’s ice cream. It says to me, from a freezer near or far, “Hey, girl. We both know how hard you’ve been working. You’ve been feeling anxious and worried about how life’s gonna turn out. I see you. I see you going outside your comfort zone, being all brave and shit. You deserve a reward. Especially one that involves peanut butter cups. I’m here for you, Sugar. Let’s you and me go melt with each other in front of some Hulu. Life is short. You need a break. Then you can get back to adulting.”
Oh, man. This concoction works like 99% of time. When I say “concoction” I’m not referring to the ice cream—I mean the mental and emotional combo platter that acknowledges our pain, offers validation of our fears, plenty of sympathy, and the promise of respite. Collectively, it sounds like a good idea. That’s the bitch about seduction.
It’s what happens when rationalization dresses up something (that undermines us) to look like it would serve us.
Hold tight to your heart, here. Because there’s a decent chance that some part of you might be offended by the suggestion. Irritated. Or worse, ashamed. Why? Because you’re a human person. And this is a human thing.
We do this all day long. In all areas of our life. And one of the most common and insidious ways I think we do this is when we doubt ourselves.
Self-doubt is real seductive.
When we’re stepping outside of our comfort zone—or hell, even just thinking about it—self-doubt is right there to remind us how hard it is, how many times we’ve failed, how many people are better than us. It says, “I understand. You’re just not as capable as you think you are, Honey. It’s OK. I’m here to take you out 0f this most uncomfortable situation. Here, let’s just stop and sit down. Oh, I know! Let’s catalog every shortcoming and perceived weakness you have! Even that’s better than having to bravely forge ahead.”
In other words: Self-doubt is a seductive way out.
Why is it so seductive and damn effective? Because in our heads, it can sound so reasonable and rational in its irrationality. Responsible, even. That’s why I think it undermines so many high-quality people.
What does that look like? If the Seduction of Self-Doubt was an album, there are some top tracks that play in our heads. While they can often run on a looping playlist in our heads, they are particularly loud when:
We’re thinking about creating something of our own.
We’re considering doing something outside of our comfort zone.
We want to make a significant change to our lifestyle.
We’re asked to lead or present our ideas.
We think about leaving our zone of competence or excellence to explore our zone of genius.
We’re considering a job or career change to pursue something that makes us happier or more fulfilled.
We’re wondering if we have what it takes to start our own company.
We think about the book we’d like to write.
We watch a TED talk and imagine ourselves presenting something brilliant.
In other words, when we have the audacity to explore the idea that we’re amazing and just as capable as our heroes, self-doubt rushes to the scene like a real sexy first responder. As if to say, “Oh, wow. Good for you for thinking big. That’s awesome! And maybe you could do that. But let’s just take a minute to really think this through before you get ahead of yourself. You want to make sure you do this right, right?”
Right! Because this is important! You are a good person! You are smart and reasonable and logical and responsible. There are things to be considered! Hey Mr. DJ, cue the songs of self-doubt!
Track 1 // “I need to do some research.”
Here’s where we discount our own knowing. As if our years of experience actually living our actual life is not to be trusted. Because how biased would that be? So before we even get started and try anything, we’ve got to do the responsible thing and learn some more. We need to consult people smarter than we are.
This might be a matter of Googling the shit out of something, or reading/listening to a bunch of well-regarded books, or going back to school. We’ve at least gotta sign up for some courses. Courses, stat!
While our choices our many, self-doubt makes one thing clear: We don’t know enough to get started.
Why this logic is so tempting: Because it’s true! For us well-meaning persons with integrity, what we produce is important! We want to make sure we’re doing our due diligence. We can’t rely on just our perspective. That would be irresponsible and egotistical. Arrogant, even.
Why it’s so attractive: Because it puts the brakes on us getting started or moving forward. It means that we can take a break from how uncomfortable it is to step outside of what’s known and familiar. It seems like a good call.
Why we’re rewarded for it: It sounds so responsible. Further, when we tell others what we’re thinking about, followed quickly by a list of all the research we’ve been doing or are going to do, they nod agreeably and remind us of all the other research we do while we’re at it.
Why it undermines our best work: It’s a safe place to hide out and delay being vulnerable.
Because, yes—research is often a good idea and an important way to educate yourself. You can likely save yourself time and strife by doing research. As long as you don’t let the idea stop you from making progress.
Too often, though, we get stuck in this phrase. Or don’t even get out the gate to pursue our ideas because we’re still “in the research phrase.” Sometimes we never get out it. We stay in the relative safety of what we do know so that we don’t have to take action where we don’t know the outcome. P/S We can never know the outcome.
When we park ourselves in research, we don’t have to risk things not turning out. We don’t have to stand up and say out loud what we really think, lest we be criticized or rejected for it. We don’t have to do brave shit and tolerate all that uncertainty. We can just do more research.
The “yes, but!”: Research is important and in some circumstances critical to moving forward. To test whether or not you’re using research to grow or to stay where you are, ask yourself: Am I researching to create a better result or to avoid doing something that scares me?
What I think there is for us to practice: Doing a bit of research and taking action. Doing our own experiments. Taking in other people’s ideas that interest or resonate with us and then testing them ourselves. Then we can see what’s true for us and what works in our own lives (or the lives of those we study). It’s the research-action two-step that we get to dance with again and again and again. Then again. And again some more.
Track 2 // “I should find out what other people think.”
Here’s where we get scared to trust our own creativity. Because we can’t trust our own ideas in and of themselves! And certainly not our emotions. They’re so wishy-washy. What if we’re being delusional and magically thinking our ideas are good when they’re really bullshit? Obviously the responsible thing is to find out what other people think.
This often starts with casually mentioning to friends or family, this idea we’re “thinking about.” We run our ideas by people over lunch. We might do an informal poll. We might even summon the courage to reach out to mentors or those we see doing what we most want to do.
For when we bare our most vulnerable, creative hearts, it’s an act of courage. We want to know: Am I enough? Are my ideas worthy? Will I be loved or rewarded in some way for being me? Do I even matter?
While our questions are many, self-doubt reminds us repeatedly: We need others to validate our creativity and ideas before we pursue them.
Why this logic is so tempting: Because we want to be validated! We want someone else to say, “Yes, great idea! Wow. Awesome. I can totally see it. You can do this. Go, YOU!” Believing in our ideas is scary and taking action is even scarier. We want reassurance. That we are worthy and capable.
Why it’s so attractive: Because it seems like a necessary and prudent thing to do! We want to serve others and create shit that’s valuable and meaningful. So we buy into the idea that we needs others to approve or validate our own knowing so that we can bring our idea into being.
Why we’re rewarded for it: People affirm the wisdom of us testing our ideas against other perspectives. It’s regarded as wise and reasonable to get out there and see if your idea has merit in “the real world” before you take it too far.
The “yes, but!”: There is absolutely merit to sharing your ideas in the early stages—with the right people at the right time. Quality feedback is hugely helpful. The important thing is that you don’t let other people’s opinions get in the way of you making progress. Consider the source and take what you can use to move your forward, not slow you down.
Why it undermines our best work: We often ask the wrong people and/or not enough people. And we assume their answers accurately predict future behavior—especially when their opinions reflect our fears.
Rarely do we consider whether or not the person we’re speaking with is the kind of person who will be served by our idea. If they’re not the person who would need or appreciate our work, they’re not likely to perceive it’s value or understand why others would be excited about it. So their answer is not likely to be as relevant and an accurate indicator of your idea’s viability.
What I think there is for us to practice: Honor your seedling of an idea by asking yourself: Who would most want this? Who would be best served by what I want to give? What would I be contributing to their life? And when you do consider getting another’s opinion, I highly recommend you stick with people who have the capacity to respect you and your creativity. Meaning: They’re able to separate themselves and their attachments from you and your exploration.
Track 3 // “I need to have a plan”
Here’s where we think we need to know how we’re going to do it. As if life is a linear and predictable thing. Ha. We think we’ve got to have it all figured out before we start, for surely we cannot succeed if we don’t have a well-thought-out plan with contingencies and probabilities.
This is where we get into spreadsheets. And as someone who fucking loves spreadsheets, who was a professional wedding planner, and has lusted after day-planners since I was a teen, I really feel this one. Responsible people have plans. Winners plan to win. We all know what happens to those who don’t plan and just wing it. BAD THINGS.
While our options are many, self-doubt wants us to be clear: We cannot get started and we certainly can’t succeed without a plan. We need to know the how.
Why this logic is so tempting: We want to believe that we can avoid risk and vulnerability by having a plan. That we can protect ourselves and procure the results we want by just creating a good enough plan. It’s a mental and emotional oasis for us in the desert of uncertainty.
Why it’s so attractive: It gives us something to do, something that often feels more doable than the actual work of bringing our idea to fruition. It also sounds like a sound and practical thing to do. When people ask, “So, what’s your plan then?” it feels great to have an answer.
Why we’re rewarded for it: Because plans are useful and sometimes necessary! They are prized in our culture. Parents throughout the history of time have anxiously asked their big-thinking kids, “So, what’s your plan?” When we’re in school, we’re asked “So, what are you plans after your graduate?” We then graduate to planning our adult life. Meals. Outfits. Dates. We as human folk, love to plan.
Why it undermines our best work: We are convinced that we need to know how we’re going to do something. As if that’s possible. While in some ways and on some levels, it’s of course possible, the lesson I’m learning over and over is that there are so many things we simply can’t know until we take action. Doors that do not appear until we take steps. The right people who do not appear in our lives until we get going. How is often not something we find. It’s what we find out as we go.
The “yes, but!”: Plans are important and at times vital for moving forward. Yet they are not a place to hide. They’re not meant to be the adult equivalent of a pacifier, where we can self-soothe when we’re afraid. Look at your plan. Do you spend more time executing your plan or perfecting it?
What I think there is for us to practice: Developing working plans. We don’t know if plans will work until we work them. There is an art to planning and a craft of doing. As a wedding planner, my team and I would plan every last detail, knowing full well we’d have to surrender to the flow once the event actually started. That’s life. And creativity. And business, whether you’re a large company or an entrepreneur. It’s the experience of being on this planet. We cannot predict the future with plans. But we can show up and give it our best. That’s actually enough. It has to be—because we can’t do any more than that.
While those are a few of the top tracks, there are certainly more. Like “I need more _________.” Time, money, expertise, experience, support, capacity, etc. A lot more than we have. More than we can ever be.
This is the anthem of self-doubt. We are not enough. We are not the people to bring our ideas into the world or see them through to fulfillment. There are other people who are better suited. Or better qualified. Or better equipped. People who are different than us.
No matter what we do, self-doubt will have it’s “but” ready to diminish our efforts. No matter how inspired we feel, self-doubt will dash those warm feelings to pieces, with logic like, “someone else is already doing it.” No matter who we are, how successful we appear, how much money we make or how many awards we receive, the seduction of self-doubt is there.
We can use this our advantage if we’re willing. We can start to pay attention to how we receive our own ideas in our own minds. We can notice when we start to doubt ourselves and play those familiar tracks. We can even consider this radical notion:
Self-doubt is a good sign. It means we’re considering taking action on something that matters. It means that we care about what happens—likely because we care about others. We want to contribute in a meaningful way.
It can also mean that we value excellence and integrity. We probably hold ourselves to high standards and want to deliver something that really helps people. We want to do the right thing in the right way.
In order for us to do any of that, we must take action.
We must be willing to resist the seductive nature of our own doubt and see what’s really going on.
We must summon the courage to just identify the next right step—one thing we can do to move toward the direction we want to go.
That next right step is always one we can do.
Next right steps
Here’s an experiment for the next time you notice that self-doubt soundtrack playing in your head. Use that as your cue to get curious. Ask yourself:
How am I rationalizing my doubt?
Why is the logic I’m creating so tempting?
What’s so attractive about this logic I’m using to feed my self-doubt?
How might it be undermining what I really want to create?
What is there for me to practice?
If you are here to do more than doubt yourself
You’re my kind of human. And I’d love to know more about what you are here to do. I suspect you have some kind of light you’re here to bring in the world, one that’s brighter than your fear and stronger than your doubt. Deep down, you know that bringing your light to the world at full-power is not negotiable for you. It’s not something that will leave you alone. You are here to do more.
If that’s you, you might be a Human Light. And you might be the kind of person I serve. Shall we find out?
We do that through a Spark Session. It’s a two-hour deep-dive into what light you’re here to bring and what might getting in the way. P/S Self-doubt is likely part of that. This session will eventually be part of something called The Progress Plan, but for the time being, it’s my gift to you. Because you’ve got gifts to give the world.