“You have to believe in yourself!” my ballet teacher announced. I was 12 years old and heading into my first big audition. I had an identifying number pinned to my chest so the judges could call out “number 72, number 98, and number 102, thank you, you’re done” instead of naming you when they crushed your dreams. As soon as self-belief came into the equation, amid practical reminders to straighten my knees and not look down, my stomach dropped and I nervously plucked at my leotard strap. If this was a game of believing in myself, I had already lost.
Believing in myself has always felt like one more thing I could fail at. The self-belief mandate has trailed me in the form of well-meaning pep talks from professors, who reminded me that the first step to anything is “believing I can do it.” It has cropped up in phrases, illustrated in a loopy cursive font, that dominate motivational Pinterest boards or Instagram posts like, “She believed she could and so she did.” It has strutted around like the most popular person at the party, leading me to think that confidence was the only thing standing between me and the best version of myself.
Self-doubt is popularly considered a monster, something I should be working to outrun. But the further I wade into adulthood, and the more I notice platitudes of self-belief becoming prerequisites for doing anything, the more I think it might be self-doubt that keeps me going.
Not long after that audition, we had exams, where we had to repeat a ballet class from memory. In the weeks prior, the ballet mistress asked if we knew it, and I was among the only ones who responded “no.” The belief that I couldn’t do it led me to practice for days beforehand, and ultimately my honest “no” enabled me to master it once we took to the barre. I wasn’t confident; I was leaning on hours of preparation given to me by doubt.
If you’re not experiencing any doubt, you’re probably not doing much to push yourself.
This scenario has popped up in adulthood, too: Inevitably, the piece of writing I preface with, “This might be silly, but…” is the one that is successful; the job interviews where I know I’m not qualified—and over-prepare as a result—become the job offers I get. Personally, the times I have confessed feelings for someone without knowing how they felt have been permission slips to move forward — to be more open, to know you can feel rejection and failure and fear, and try again.
As much as self-belief can help us feel powerful, doubt has power, too — to serve as a reset button, to interrogate what we really want, to help us move from one chapter or decision to the next with self-awareness. “If you’re having self-doubt, it could mean you need to take some time, slow down, and rethink things,” psychologist and author of The Self-Confidence Workbook, Barbara Markway tells me. “It might help to reflect on your values and ask if this action is in line with the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to live.”
In an article for Psychology Today, Markway explains that doubt can help us know when to ask for help — thus allowing us to course correct when we’re in over our heads, grow our knowledge base, and help us create our best work. Confidence spurs us to charge forward, but doubt spurs us to prepare.
According to Patrick Carroll, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, doubt isn’t just okay, it is “something that is a natural and inevitable consequence of pursuing something that’s worth having. A little measure of self-doubt is a signal that you’re on the right track toward something good. If you’re not experiencing any doubt, you’re probably not doing much to push yourself.”
In a popular two-minute video set to an interview with Ira Glass, the host of This American Life explains that almost everyone who has accomplished something remarkable (especially in creative work) went through a period where their ambition seemed beyond their capabilities — where their reach extended their grasp. “They went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, where they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be, they knew it fell short,” he says. The remedy? More of that doubt-inspired preparation and hard work. “It’s only by actually going through a [huge] volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”
The story of the relationship between self-doubt and self-esteem is hardly simple. Markway says that it’s important not to let negative thoughts master you; it can be helpful to ask yourself, “Is this thought true? Is this thought important? Is this thought helpful?” Carroll observes that while momentary doubt is beneficial, chronic self-doubt can have a detrimental effect, when someone can’t escape the cycle of their own internal questioning. He suggests that focusing on a “strong desired self” could be the fix to chronic self-doubt, because feeling good about what you could become “keeps people’s attention away from rumination and focusing on failure.”
Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert on self-compassion, believes self-compassion could be the antidote to excessive self-criticism. “If self-doubt is not accurate, that’s not a good thing,” she says. “But if the lack of self-doubt is not accurate, that’s not a good thing either. We need to see ourselves clearly, see our strengths and weaknesses, love ourselves anyway, and do our best.”
Had I waited for self-confidence to kick in, I wouldn’t have done anything.
Doubt made me brave: I could do things in spite of doubting myself, or I could not do them at all — because confidence, in the form I’d been told I needed it, was not coming. I don’t think I’m alone in this, but it’s hard to remember that in a world saturated with the gospel of confidence. It is preached in the form of self-help books that remind you of your innate greatness and badassery; in self-help podcasts that remind you can do anything if only you believe your capacity is limitless; in a unique genre of wall art about “dreaming it and doing it.” Ours seems like a society overflowing with confidence — but then again, mustn’t we be pretty insecure to need all these constant reminders and platitudes? We want this feeling so badly, we surround ourselves with reminders of it, which might be why the personal development industry is worth a staggering $9.9 billion, and why consumers are drawn to brands that give them a confidence boost.
The uncomfortable truth is that, had I waited for self-confidence to kick in, I wouldn’t have done anything: I would be waiting, uncertain and overeager, cross-legged on my bed, where there would have been no transferring to a college that was a better fit for me; no job that, based on my resume, I didn’t quite qualify for; no shy first Facebook message to the boy who would become my first love; no move to a city where I knew no one, but wanted everything. With doubt, I needed no guarantees that success would meet me on the other side of the leap. To me, self-confidence was being sure. I was never sure. I just wanted to try.
I think, often, of my preteen self, and later, my young adult self, who tried to walk with her bony shoulders pushed back and chin lifted tall, who read the self-help books, who tried to hack what it means to believe in yourself when you have so many questions about who you are and what you’re doing. But now, instead of seeing a little girl who didn’t know how to believe in herself, I see a young woman, who, doubt and all, decided to step forward anyway.
And that approach, I think, is something worth believing in.
Author: Rainesford Stauffer
Image source: tinybuddha.com