Should I speak up, or is this a dumb idea? Did I do a good enough job on that project? Am I in over my head?
Chances are you recognize that voice. It’s the downward spiraling mantra of self-doubt, and almost everyone has had it in his head at one point or another. Self-doubt can make you feel inadequate at work, and it creates a vicious circle – the more doubt you feel, the worse you’ll perform, which will just make you feel even more insecure. This lack of confidence can hold you back professionally, but only if you let it.
Learning to trust yourself and your ideas takes time, but it’s completely doable. Tackle your doubt head on, and you can transform yourself – and your career.
1. Recognize thoughts of doubt
Everyone goes through periods of doubt – especially when coming into a new job, taking on a new position, or after experiencing some sort of failure. The first step to overcoming it is to recognize that you’re not alone: You’re not feeling doubt because you’re inadequate. You’re feeling doubt because you’re human.
Train yourself to recognize negative thoughts, and to crush them before they get too far. In a post on Zen Habits, Leo Babauta writes about his entertaining method:
“Soon I learned a trick that changed everything in my life: I would imagine that a negative thought was a bug, and I would vigilantly be on the lookout for these bugs. When I caught one, I would stomp on it (mentally of course) and squash it. Kill it dead. Then replace it with a positive one.”
2. Confront your fears head on
One of my favorite pieces of confidence-boosting advice is when you find yourself nervous about work, mentally take that fear to its most absurd conclusion. Ask: “What’s the absolute worst that could happen?”
Say you’re nervous about offering your opinion in a meeting, so you’ve been staying quiet. What are you actually afraid of? That your coworkers will think your idea is stupid? Now imagine sharing your idea, then imagine your coworkers laughing so hard at it that they actually laugh you out of the room.
This helps in two ways. First, it helps us recognize that most of our fears are completely absurd. Second, it helps us see that even if the absolute worst thing happened, it’s still survivable.
These fears aren’t just holding you back, they’re also robbing your coworkers of your ideas and talents. Those same people that you’re afraid will laugh at you? They’re the same people that are desperately wishing you’d share your input with them.
3. Give yourself a review
When you’re haunted by self-doubt, it can be hard to remember that you have plenty of talents and skills, too.
You don’t need to wait until your yearly review to assess those skills. Sit down and list out what you’re good at. Think about why you got hired, promoted, or asked to head a project in the first place. What talents have gotten you this far? Which of your natural skills are you most proud of?
While you’re doing your review, you should also be frank about your shortcomings – but don’t start tearing yourself down. This isn’t an exercise to make you feel bad about yourself, it’s meant to help you put a name to the reasons you’re feeling doubtful about your work performance.
Do you lack speaking skills? That’s fixable. Are you self-conscious about your writing skills? Also totally fixable.
Once you’ve put a name to what you feel is lacking, you’ll likely learn two things. One, it’s probably not as bad as you thought. Two, any skill is improvable, and now you know what steps you need to take.
4. Act the part
This psychological hack never ceases to amaze me. I’m not much of a fashionista, but I can totally feel the difference in my confidence level if I show up to a networking event in jeans and a T-shirt, versus if I show up in slacks and heels.
Looking and dressing sharp affects how we perceive ourselves. In fact, this study reported in the New York Times suggests that we take symbolic cues from the clothing we wear – not only changing our behavior, but it changing our confidence levels, too.
There’s also been some interesting research on how “power poses” affect us. In this TED talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy explains how assuming high power or low power poses actually changes our body chemistry and tolerance for risk. (Business Insider sums it up nicely here if you don’t have time to watch the video.)
5. Over-prepare for success
Once you’ve learned to name your fears and doubts, confront them head on, and dress for success, it’s time to jump into the fray. If you’re still feeling on shaky ground, take the time to prepare as fully as possible. Take ten minutes before your next meeting to write down any questions you have or comments you might want to share. Rehearse your presentation with a friend. Take a class to improve a skill set you’re worried about.
Still nervous? Take your preparation to the level of absurdity. For example, even though phone interviews are a constant part of my job, they still terrify me. My solution? I write out every question I plan to ask and every statement I plan to make – including (seriously) “Hi, my name is Jessie Kwak.”
How do you overcome self-doubt and nerves? Share your tips in the comments.