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Categories : “How to’s”
Jim Hjort, LCSW is an executive and personal coach, and the founder of the Right Life Project. He serves professionals in the fields of entertainment, medicine, law, and business, both individually and as part of his corporate practice. Jim is also a licensed psychotherapist, so his clients can rest assured that his coaching techniques are not only effective, but safe.
Workaholics and Procrastinators: How to Unlock Your Potential and Leave Worry Behind By: Jim Hjort, LCSW
If you’re a hard-working, ambitious person, you might not be achieving as much, or feeling as happy with what you have achieved, as you could. Talented and capable people are frequently undermined by a variety of unhelpful thoughts and behaviors with a common source. I’ll share what that source is in a second. But first, see how many of the following apply to you.
This is a pretty eclectic mix of behaviors and feelings, but here’s how they’re related: they’re the most common symptoms of self-doubt.
Self-doubt isn’t the same thing as confidence; it has to do with how competent you feel. People with self-doubt question, consciously or not, whether they’re good at work, school, another area of life, or life in general.
Ideally, you develop confidence in your competence beginning in childhood, as you become good at things, receive support and validation for your talents, and rack up achievements in a healthy way, and for healthy reasons. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Self-doubt isn’t necessarily obvious—either to the person who has it, or to other people—but our brain knows it’s there. Sometimes it comes up with strategies to protect us from experiencing the short-term pain of feeling self-doubt (even if they cause more pain in the long run).
I’ll explore the symptoms a little more now, and then I’ll provide some tips for how to start feeling better.
Overachievement: The overachiever tries to avoid potential exposures of inadequacy by trying as hard as possible to succeed and achieve, all the time. But even if they’re successful, overachievers can never be sure if their success is the result of competence or brute force.
They often have trouble enjoying their success (see the next item) and feel worried and restless when they take time off, since the fear of failure and incompetence is always nipping at their heels. They can end up on a treadmill, feeling like they’ve never done enough, and burned out.
Impostor Syndrome: The Impostor Syndrome plagues self-doubting high-achievers. Because they aren’t sure that their accomplishments are legitimate, they feel that they somehow managed to fool everyone, and it’s only a matter of time until they’re exposed as an incompetent phony. Rather than finding joy in their accomplishments, people with the Impostor Syndrome are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It’s surprisingly common among Fortune 500 CEOs, Oscar-winning actors, and other top performers. Even Albert Einstein had it.
Self-Handicapping: Procrastination. Substance abuse. Staying up too late the night before a big presentation. Leaving homework out for the dog to eat. These are a few examples of self-handicapping. By sabotaging themselves (again, often unconsciously), self-handicappers can point to other explanations if they underperform or fall.
These behaviors aren’t very conducive to success, or looking or feeling competent. However, for the self-handicapper, they beat having their competence come under scrutiny.
Other-Enhancement: Examples of other-enhancement include a figure skater attributing his or her opponent’s victory to favoritism from the judges, or attributing a rival’s promotion at work to their inappropriate relationship with the boss.
Obviously, people do have advantages over other people sometimes. However, the other-enhancer points to these (real or imagined) advantages regularly, in order to avoid facing feelings of incompetence.
So, Are You Competent?
Of course, the ideal situation would be to actually be competent, know it, and be confident of it.
Therefore, a good place to start working with self-doubt is with an honest assessment of whether you know what you’re doing—in work, relationships, life in general, or whatever area of life those manifestations of self-doubt arise the most.
Ask yourself some questions to test the validity of your self-doubting thoughts and feelings, and present the evidence for both sides of the argument. I recommend doing it out loud, so you can hear it, and, to help you avoid getting lost in thought.
For instance: “I have a group of friends who think I’m great. The last time I was at a dinner party, I was uncomfortable, but I did talk to people all evening and made a new acquaintance that I’m meeting for coffee next week. Would a reasonable person describe me as socially inept?”
Or: “It’s true, I was terrible at French, which delayed my admission to the university I really wanted to attend. But then I went on to invent the Theory of Relativity and dramatically alter the course of mankind. Would a reasonable person consider me to be an incompetent phony?”
Use whatever questions and evidence apply to your situation.
If you answer “yes,” then double check by asking some trusted friends and family what they think of your competence. If they also have doubts, then perhaps you should take some steps to improve your abilities.
Try reading some books, taking a workshop, or asking for guidance from a mentor you trust. Then implement what you learn, see if you feel better afterward and, if not, then repeat this process until you do.
However, if you answer your assessment questions “no,” then keep reading.
Building Confidence in Your Competence
I find with most of my self-doubting clients that their feelings are mostly or entirely unfounded. If that’s the case with you, then it can be helpful to practice recognizing your own abilities, and to make sure that your actions are moving you toward things you want, not just away from things you’re trying to avoid.
Here are a couple of things you can try.
Keep a running list of situations in which you felt in control and did a good job. Gather examples from your friends and family, too. Read through the list every day, out loud.
1. Then, dedicate some time to doing things you’re good at, in any area of your life, not just the one you feel most unsure about. You’ll be building your overall sense of competence and adding concrete examples of it to your list.
2. Carefully consider what is motivating you. In the long term, you should be aiming to embody values and qualities that matter to you deeply. I’m referring to things that you can feel inside, rather than see and touch. Examples would include justice, compassion, connection, and competence itself. Try to get clear on the values that matter to you the most.
Then, create concrete short- and mid-term goals that are consistent with them. For instance, if generosity is a value that resonates with you, what are some acts of generosity you can perform this week? You’ll gain more examples of your ability to take effective action, de-emphasize the role of fear in your life, and get a booster shot of meaning and purpose.
3. Despite your efforts, you may still be unable to rest comfortably with the knowledge that you know what you’re doing, with your productivity, well-being, relationships, or some other area of life suffering for it. It can be hard to change longstanding ways of thinking and acting, and it’s definitely hard for people to see their own blind spots—hence their name!
You might benefit from working with a coach who is an expert in these dynamics. A qualified coach will help you leave behind the feelings of uncertainty that erode your quality of life, and instead be energized and empowered to pursue what you want, for all the right reasons.