Self-doubt is one of the most confusing and yet constant feelings we experience. It is everywhere, in nearly everything we do, big and small. Self-doubt is that little voice that says, “are you sure you should…? [have whole milk in your latte], or [text an old romantic partner who’s sent you a seemingly harmless text], or [meet with a recruiter about a possible new job], or [revisit one more time the way you snapped at your child when they were slow getting out to the bus stop this morning for school]. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we could just turn self-doubt off, like a light switch, never to be bothered with intrusive, uncomfortable, worrisome second-guessing again? No. Life wouldn’t be easier. Life without self-doubt would be much, much harder, and frankly, probably pretty short-lived. We couldn’t survive without it. We couldn’t evolve, grow or learn without it. As much as it pains us, we need self-doubt.
Humans are really great at pattern recognition. We go through life always trying to see how to navigate very complex situations. To get a sense of just how complicated even the most seemingly simple things we face each day really are, think about how terrible most “AI” (“artificial intelligence”) interfaces are right now, despite the vast amounts of computing power they rely upon, even in the phones we now carry in our pockets. I put the term “artificial intelligence” in quotes because we are so very far from anything approaching true intelligence that might be called artificial intelligence. What we have right now is just machine learning dressed up to look like it is intelligence (the appearance of “intelligence” wrapped around really basic pattern recognition). This may change very quickly, but right now, in the year 2019, most AI interfaces are terrible. We’ve all read the funny stories about how Siri so often gets even the most basic questions wrong, and so gives us answers that are so off-base, we would have a hard time predicting just how ridiculous “she” can be. Even when they do work, they are still very limited in what they can do. You have to be exacting when telling them what you want them to do (“Okay, Google, text Jill the following message: ‘I am going to be a bit late for dinner tonight because I have a work meeting at the end of the day.’”).
You have to hope Google gets that all correct, including who you mean by “Jill” and the context in which it is stated, so you review it all, and if it looks good, tell Google to send it. Anything more complex than this, and it is pretty likely to get screwed up, which is why we still mostly don’t use voice commands—anything beyond the most basic task seems incomprehensible to current “AI” assistants. Yet for us, humans, we navigate all of these tasks with ease. We have the nearly instantly recognize simple and complex patterns of behavior, activity and interactions, and we get it right most of the time.
So, what does pattern recognition have to do with self-doubt? Everything. When we enter into just about any situation, we very quickly (so quickly we don’t even know we are doing it) assess whether we have dealt with this kind of situation before. We then consider the way we responded before, and the various outcomes that arose from this situation and our various responses. Take as a simple example one of the questions noted in the first paragraph: “Are you sure you should… respond to a seemingly harmless text from an old romantic partner?” You just received a text from David, a guy you dated a couple of years ago. He says, “Hey there, how have you been?” Nothing much here. What could go wrong? You flash back to how it felt to end that short-lived relationship with David. The pain, the confusion, and also the wish that it had lasted longer than it did. Maybe you have mixed feelings about communicating with David again. Should you trust him? Will you be hurt again? Maybe it is nothing, and there isn’t much of a risk. If you don’t text him back, are you being rude? What will your friends think if you do text back and something comes of it, after telling them you’d sworn this guy off forever? What if David needs something? What it if is a “nothingburger?” If you ignore him, will it make him upset, and more likely to continue bugging you? Self-doubt comes rushing in from all directions—to protect you, to guide you, to give you pause, to help you make the right, the best decision you can, based on your previous experiences with this kind of situation, with this person, with you at the center of it all.
Again, without consciously thinking about it, what we are trying to do when using self-doubt to decide how to approach any situation is to make it more likely that we will achieve a desired outcome. The problem is, we often have self-doubts about what we desire the outcome to be, because we face dilemmas about what we want for ourselves. This brings me back to the blog post I wrote about Ambivalence—wanting two opposing things at the same time—and how to work through it. Assuming we are able to use self-doubt to work through and resolve our ambivalence by determining what outcome we want from a situation, we then use self-doubt to chart all the possible permutations of what options we have and their likely outcomes to get to the outcome we’ve decided we want. Let’s say you decide that you really do want to resume a relationship with David, but you are also fearful that you will end up getting hurt again. David ended the relationship saying he needed to be more focused on a big project that required significant travel. You thought this could be true, but might also have been a ruse or excuse to dump you gently. But you liked him, and you decide it is worth the risk of getting hurt again to find out if maybe things are different now. Having decided this (consciously or unconsciously), you decide to take an active, but cautious approach. You text back, “I am doing great. How did that project you were working on turn out?” You are hoping he will say it is over and he has more time (for you) now.
Self-doubt is also an essential part of how we learn, grow and change. Put another way, without self-doubt, we simply could not learn or evolve who we are, how we understand the world, or change our behavior. Much of our lives is spent in trial-and-error approximations to good solutions.
Going back to the questions above: You’re standing in line at Starbuck’s. You are about to order. You know you want a latte’. You know you want to have the thick creamy experience of whole milk in your latte’, but the last time you did, afterward you felt bloated, gassy and you felt guilty thinking of the enormous calories involved. You are able to see that the enjoyment of drinking the latte’ is greatly overshadowed by the negative experience afterward. You have had this experience several times before. You also know that when you get it with unsweetened almond milk, it is good, but not great, but you don’t have the negative feelings afterward. You then remember that you have worked out three times this week, including this morning, and you have otherwise eaten pretty well, and it is Friday and you are all caught up with your work for the week, so you deserve the better tasting latte’ as a treat and reward. You order your latte’ with whole mile, hoping you’ll be able to avoid the negative feelings after it is all gone. An hour after you finished the latte’, you realized your guilt is only just barely there, and you are mostly content that it was an act of self-care to have what you want. You pride yourself on the way you are attending to your physical and emotional needs consistently now, with more intent, more acknowledgment of your needs, heading in the right direction. The latte’ ended up contributing to an overall sense of increasing self-assurance, despite the momentary self-doubt you felt at the Starbuck’s cash register. You also know that your attendance to your varying and sometimes contradictory needs will cause you to probably have your next latte’ with unsweetened almond milk because that’s the person you are, that’s the person you are becoming, someone who stays on top of their health, but also gives themselves a treat now and then, when you’ve earned it for yourself. Through self-doubt, this person is becoming a closer approximation to the person they aspires to be by reflecting on outcomes in the past and the way they made them feel, by curtailing their behaviors in ways that fit into an overall picture of how they know they wants to become.
I called this blog post “The benefits of limited self-doubt” because self-doubt is beneficial, in all the ways I have been discussing, but only when it is within certain limits, only when it is used to help us resolve dilemmas, ambivalence, and engage in trial and error to help us make the most informed decisions we can. Self-doubt can also escalate into harmful territory, so often and so easily going off the rails, even spiraling into paralyzing distraction.
How and why does it do this? Sometimes it is because the situation we have encountered has no good solution. A real catch-22, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Or because we (often mistakenly) think we need information about the situation which we do not have in order to make a decision (See the chapter, “Choose your anxiety—focus on what you know, not on what you don’t know” in Firewalking on Jupiter.) Sometimes it is because we don’t want to make a decision which commits us to a singular course of action that you will not be able to “undecide” once you’ve taken the plunge. Most often, though, self-doubt becomes problematic not because the situation itself is too difficult to navigate, but because we lack the confidence in ourselves that we have the capacity to make the right decision, no matter what our previous experience has been, so trial and error do not give us the answer we need. We freeze in our self-doubt.
Self-doubt which becomes almost perpetual, which spirals out of control, usually leads to excessive anxiety and worry, distraction, and difficulty making decisions. Out of control self-doubt can also be the result of, or lead to, various levels of depression, including low self-worth. (See the chapter, “Depression and Anxiety, flip sides of the same coin” in Firewalking on Jupiter.) The solution to this kind of self-doubt is to examine whatever might be happening internally that causes you to disbelieve in your own capacity to make the right decision for you. What are the barriers to believing you have the capacity to navigate whatever circumstances keep you stuck? Are there past messages you are carrying from some other time, some other person, that accelerate and accentuate, that exaggerate your fears about your capacity for decision-making? Who is it? Where does it come from? How long has it been there? And most importantly, how might it be wrong about you?
You might say, but what if it isn’t wrong? I say it is wrong. Like I said at the beginning of this blog, Humans, including you, are really great at pattern recognition. You are no exception to this. You have evolved over hundreds of thousands of generations, and millions of years, to become very good at recognizing patterns, from the time of your birth. It is how you learned who your mother was, how you learned how to walk, talk, and do all of the incredibly complex things you know how to do. I know this about you because it is true of all humans, even marginally functional humans. So, if you are often paralyzed by self-doubt, I have no trouble saying that it is not because there is something inherently wrong with your capacity to make good decisions for yourself. It is almost certainly the case that it is because somewhere along the line you’ve become convinced, wrongly convinced, that you do not have the capacity to make good decisions. The only exceptions to this might be something else impinging on your ability to make good decisions, like addiction, an abusive relationship, or some other unidentified mental or physical health issues. Once you’ve ruled these out, perhaps with the help of a professional, your capacity to make good decisions is there, right there, within you.
Perhaps you look at your track record for certain kinds of decisions. Maybe your primary romantic relationships look to you like a series of mistakes, even colossal mistakes. Might even be true. So, now you are very wary of what it would take to find a healthy relationship. Good. Great. This is actually healthy self-doubt. It means you are using trial and error to see what fits for you and you can see that you have made decisions that are not good for you. This is not a problem with your capacity to navigate complex situations (primary relationships). This is a problem with engaging in patterns you don’t see, or don’t let yourself see, as problems. Often this is the result of patterns you’ve learned elsewhere (e.g. your parent’s relationship with each other, or your relationship with one or both of them). Whatever the case may be, the problem isn’t some fundamental flaw within you or your capacity to use self-doubt in a healthy way, but is a function of your history and how you’ve learned to make decisions over time. If you ask yourself what you want, and you do so recognizing that what you have wanted was not necessarily good for you, you will be able to have better insights into changing what you want so it is good for you. Then you will be able to go back to your natural, organic and well-functioning capacity for self-doubt, within limits, to make good decisions for yourself, even to choosing a partner that is good for you.
If we can step back and see self-doubt as an asset, a tool, a guide that is designed to help us learn when we do well and also when we don’t, to learn and grow and evolve throughout our lives, by recognizing past patterns in the way we deal with current situations, we will have a far better capacity to use self-doubt the way it is intended to be used—to make decisions that are good for us. Along the way, we can examine any mistaken beliefs about self-doubt and our capacity to use it effectively, so we are not plagued by doubting ourselves when there is not adequate justification, so we don’t turn it against ourselves, weighed down by negative self-talk and low self-worth, and then we can avoid as much as possible the spinning, ruminating spiral of “paralysis by analysis.” First we have to know what we want, what it important to us, in any situation, but also in terms of who we are and who we want to be. When we know these things, we will find it much easier to use self-doubt as it is intended to be used, to get us what we want when what we want is good for us. So use it, use self-doubt, but limit it so you are using it only when it is good for you, which it often is.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.