How extreme self doubt undermines self belief and what you can do about it ......

By Sue Congram

On achieving the 2017 Wimbledon Championship Roger Federer was asked - what was the secret behind his success? His reply was “believe in yourself, believe, believe”. He didn’t say ‘practice, practice, practice’, a process that builds skill and self confidence (see earlier EB Inspiration on this topic}.

Achieving the highest success for yourself takes self belief, which means believing wholeheartedly that you can, and listening to yourself say it. Whilst a small number of people manage to achieve the level of success that Federer has achieved, the principle is there for all of us to take in. Strong self belief enables you to achieve more.

In a previous Inspirations post I differentiated between self belief and self confidence, explaining that growing self belief is fundamentally different to developing the skills and capabilities to do something well. Whilst I described a number of ways that self belief can be grown, it was only a starting point. Many of you will know only too well the raw nature of self doubt, when doubt turns from a healthy and necessary self-management system, to an internal demon that controls your life - resulting in a cracked and broken shell.

In it’s healthy form, self doubt helps us to usefully see our own limitations, enabling us to assess, question, test out, reconfirm our beliefs and evaluate our standpoint. When I first set up my own business many years ago I had enough self belief to know that I could make a success of it and enough self doubt to warn me that I had limitations that I needed to work on in myself. I appreciated both, but life had not always been like that for me. To get to that point I had to overcome levels of self doubt that had been all-consuming and to discard a false identity that went with it. My biggest battles were the fear of feeling shamed, belittled/intimidated, or ridiculed. One of the biggest revelations in my life arrived like a painful bolt out of the blue, the day someone said to me ’Sue, I don’t know if I can trust you, you always wear a smile on your face’. My world crumbled under my feet as the deep shock and realisation of what I was doing dawned on me - not just a fixed smile, but an extremely self-limiting inner world behind it. I came to realise that the way I had managed myself for many years was to wear a smile like a mask, believing that if I smiled at people I would be liked, beneath which lay a person filled with extreme self doubt, whom I disliked.

A way of understanding self doubt
Consider a spectrum along which all of us live, in the centre is self belief, on one end is extreme self doubt and the other there arises an inflated sense of self (often referred to as narcissistic or egotistic).


Whilst healthy self doubt and healthy inflation allow positive self management to take place and self belief to strengthen and do its job well, what can you do when your inner world falls outside a healthy system towards the extremes - into self destruct? Becoming aware of this process within yourself is the first step. Without awareness nothing happens because no-one other than yourself can change this.

The greatest challenge for me was to discard my false identity and discover a real identity - to begin to like myself from the inside out. I questioned how I could expect others to trust me, like me, or love me if I didn’t appreciate and care about myself? I realised how much my inner world inevitably and variously showed up in my outer world. It took self belief to know that I could get the education, knowledge and skills I so longed for, that I could set up my own business, and more recently, to successfully complete a PhD. Self belief has helped me reach deeply into life and live it.

In my work today I meet people regularly who carry degrees of unhealthy self doubt, often limiting their life, relationships and their careers. Inner stories they tell themselves that hold them back, include:

  • ‘... people will laugh at me’ ‘

  • '... I’m not good enough’

  • ‘... I will feel ashamed’

  • ‘... people don’t like me’

  •  ‘... I must be perfect or I will be criticised’

  • ‘... I must not show my feelings’

  • ‘… [other person] is better than me’

  • ‘... if people saw the real me they wouldn’t like me’

  • ‘... if I fail I will be abandoned’

  • ‘I can’t’

  • ‘I’m too much’.

There are many more examples that people share with me. Each of us with our own particular inner critic/s that can catch us in a grip, or that we manage and tame well. When in the grip, this inner critic can evoke unrealistic fear reactions to normal every-day situations. Whilst many of us do not sit in this extreme position most of the time, along the spectrum there may be situations that spark an emotional reaction. Some people try to hide their reactions, others are constantly in a state of high alert. In this state people frequently project their issues and feelings onto others, they may go quiet, attempting to hide their inner world, or exhibit a range of behaviours in an attempt to bring some control to the situation. What many do not realise is that the ripple affect of self doubt can be far reaching.

What can you do when you are in the grip of self doubt, or see others who appear to carry unhealthy self doubt?

Overcoming unhealthy self doubt
Awareness, support and compassion are all needed to tame extreme self doubt into healthy self management. Courage and bravery too, because this deep level of work really needs self belief to get you through it - the inner resource that is missing.

You will need:

  1. Self awareness: to recognise and fully see the pattern of thoughts inside yourself and how that impacts your relationships and external world.

  2. External support: to have someone alongside you who truly believes in you and will not give up. Someone who can hold up a mirror so that when you are ready, you can see and own your true self.

  3. Self compassion: to learn to deeply care about yourself and receive the care and compassion coming your way from others.


To develop self awareness you will need to learn to self reflect. Not to problem-solve, but to notice more clearly how you respond to everyday situations and how others respond to you. This is no longer about what you know and don’t know, it’s about you as a person, who you are, how you live life, getting to know your inner self and how you engage in your relational and social outer world. This means slowing down to observe, to self reflect, considering why you act in certain ways, recognising moments when you pull back, diminish or belittle yourself. In particular, noticing when you rationalise why you should maintain behaviours that do not serve you well. Above all, appreciating the positives - situations in which you are well grounded, present, relational and effective - when positive self management is working well and noticing how you do that.

Self awareness helps you begin to crush internal myths that tell you your habitual self criticisms are fact - reframing them as outdated habits that have no place in your life today.

You may find a reflective journal helpful for your self awareness journey. One way to get into this is through listening to your inner story. Sentence completion exercises can help this process, such as completing and writing about the following:

  • I’d like to be able to ...............

  • What stops me from .....................

  • The stories I tell myself about myself are ..................


This means having someone alongside you who truly believes in you and will not give up when you do. Someone who can hold up a metaphorical mirror so that when you are ready, you can see and own your true identity. You may find this support in a friend, partner, workplace colleague or boss. If you do not believe you have what you need, get a coach or mentor for a few months, someone who is able to do this for you. Be demanding, make sure you find someone who will show you your strengths and not let you deflect positive feedback away. Feed your internal story with positive images that you can learn to identify with and bring to life.


If you don’t love and delight in yourself how can you expect others to love you? To care about and appreciate the person that you are requires self compassion. Bréné Brown describes this as engaging in life from ‘a place of worthiness’ ...... ‘living a life defined by courage, compassion and connection.’ (2012). To say to yourself that you may be imperfect and at times vulnerable and afraid, doesn’t change the truth that you are also worthy of love and belonging. Harsh internal messages about your own worth need deep self compassion to rebalance a diminished sense of identity. Cultivating self compassion is one of the main ingredients to lift yourself back into life. You can start this by:

  • Taking five minutes at the end of each day to give yourself a few internal hugs for moments that you have been hard on yourself. Then describe three things that make you the great person that you are.

  • Stay connected with friends and family - do not allow self doubt lead to isolation and loneliness. You may need to take the initiative, tell people that you want to spend more time with them, will be phoning or visiting a bit more than usual as part of your development. You may be surprised at how many people would be delighted to support you.


Now it is time to find the courage to ‘Believe in yourself, believe, believe, believe’ and achieve what your are truly capable of.

Brown, B. (2013) Daring Greatly. Kindle edition

Vicki Gray