When You Start Doubting Yourself

There are going to be days where you’ll question almost everything you do. You’ll wonder why you haven’t achieved what you wanted to by this point in life. Or why you’re not doing as well as those around you.

You will have days where you doubt your ability to do almost anything at all. Times when you feel like an imposter. You’ll wonder if you’re a fraud and people just haven’t figured it out yet. You’ll start to wonder if you’re any good, if you’re smart enough, talented enough, or lucky enough. Compared to those you see or hear about, you’ll feel like a loser. At 3 am every night for a week at a time, you’ll wonder: “Am I capable of doing anything worthwhile?”

I experience days where I doubt myself often. Many people do.

Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about these types of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, days — including people I’ve looked up to my entire career — have told me they’ve experienced these feelings occasionally too.

You will have these days. And when you do, you’ll discover just how hard they can be to shake. They’ll make you feel small, incapable, almost chained down to your faults.

But there is a way forward, through the doubts and second-guessing.

Knowing you’re not alone with these feelings is a start. Reflecting on past accomplishments, and reminding yourself of what you’ve been capable can help too. But I’ve found the best way out of doubt is to dive head-first into work.

Head-down, full-throttle, work.

Not overthinking what the work actually entails, just finding something you can work on and getting down to it. No matter how small the task, or whether or not it’s the right thing to be working on. If this approach sounds like a distraction, that’s exactly what it is.

The benefits of work for the sake of distracting ourselves from feelings of doubt cannot be overstated. Working on things when you feel least capable of doing them well can help to define your edges, build confidence, and enable you to meet the challenges you face in both work and life.

Most importantly: work in any capacity allows you to control where your attention is going. And if you can direct your attention to even the smallest morsels of productivity, you’re going to be remarkably better off than if you otherwise sit around thinking about where you fall short.

I enjoy writing because it enables me to be productive and share ideas rather than bathing in my self doubt. It’s also why I enjoy programming, painting, and doing the dishes. These activities, these efforts of work, allow me to learn new things, problem-solve without much of any real pressure, and ultimately help me see something real, tangible, that I was able to create at the end of the work session.

A few psychological things happen when you move into a space of full-focus work. The first is that you don’t give your brain enough time to wonder or doubt. You’ll be so occupied with the work at-hand that it won’t matter whether or not you can do it well. All that matters when you’re running head-first at a problem or challenge is resolving or overcoming it.

Another thing that happens when you dive head-first into work is you encounter small “chunks” of challenges that enable you to experience a release of dopamine in the brain, the feel-good chemical that is often a by-product of short-memory use when it encounters novel situations.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, creative psychologist and renown author, has written about the benefits of heads-down work on many occasions. He’s summarized the core benefit in his book Finding Flow:

“Know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.”

When you doubt yourself and your abilities, what you’re really doing is allowing your attention to move into a space of delusion.

You feel like a fraud because you’re encountering things you’ve never encountered before, and that’s not easy. You’re being challenged to grow. You feel like you’re incapable because all you see from others is their successes, their victories. You fail to pay attention to the disasters those you admire most have had to overcome, their failures, their short-comings, their own moments of delusion.

If you can move your attention to more positive and productive areas, of even the small things you are are capable of accomplishing, you begin to see the truth: that you are capable. You are skilled. You are someone who is learning and growing and pushing their way forward.

You’ll have days of doubt, but that doesn’t mean the doubts are justified. To prove it to yourself, find something—anything—to work on, and get to it.

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Tanner Christensen is a self-taught product designer at Facebook, author of The Creativity Challenge, founder of Creative Something, developer of some of the top creativity apps, blogger on Medium, former writer for Adobe’s 99u and contributing author for Inc.