In my life, I would say the biggest demon I have had to contend with, was self-doubt. It is the reason I procrastinated at times when completing my PhD and the reason I started websites and then stopped posting for weeks at a time.

To achieve our goals, we must have faith in our abilities. To second-guess ourselves at every step slows us down considerably and to constantly berate ourselves for each slip-up will cause us to close our petals and hide. When doubting ourselves, a change of mindset is required; however, what I have found incredibly unhelpful throughout the up-ward slog of my career was the following piece of advice: just think positive. Isn’t that a slap in the face.

If we are stuck in the negative cycling thought pattern that comes with self-doubt, thinking positively about our abilities is like paddling a canoe upstream. I came to realise that it was not necessary to constantly battle self-doubt, but to find ways to quiet my mind chatter, build confidence, and enjoy the journey to my goals.

Below are six ideas that I consider to be the best ways to turn off self-doubt – and they have nothing to do with mirror “You got this!” affirmations.

Ground Yourself

Petrea Hansen- Adamidis from Tiny Buddah suggests you get yourself grounded. She advocates getting outside into nature, walking and meditation. The positive effects of meditation on the brain is no secret – the problem being that the thought of sitting cross-legged with an incense burner can put people off, myself included. But many of the most successful people in the world meditate and it can be done during numerous other activities that you do like to do. In her article Meditation Techniques for People Who Hate Meditation, Stephanie Vozza explains running/cycling mediation, eating/drinking meditation and even ‘waiting meditation’, in which you can use time usually lost waiting in line to refresh your thinking. The act of listening to a song you love and feeling every beat move through your body is actually meditation – if it breaks the unproductive thought cycle in your brain, leaving space for productive thoughts to move in, it is successful meditation.

There are other ways we can ground ourselves. For me, the act of going home for a weekend to stay with my family helps a lot. It truly feels like I have come down from a cloud of uncertainty to a place of security. Home feels sure. Each time I go back, nothing has really changed, and that is a lovely feeling. I go for the same walk and buy my coffee from the same places. Interestingly, after two short nights at home I am ready to come back to Auckland and I usually get a creative burst of writing energy whilst there. In a space of feeling loved, accepted and supported, I am able to temporarily shed my self-doubt. This leads nicely into my next point…

Surround yourself with the right people

I used to be very conscious about what my circle thought of me. I would fall prey to those who quietly put me down, or made seemingly insignificant jabs at me whenever I was stretching outside of my comfort zone, just to bring me down a peg. But then I realised something – all those people who put me down or made me feel stupid, weren’t up to a hell of a lot with their own life. They were still in the same job that they hated, they were still on the same wage, they were still complaining about their relationship but not doing anything about it. They were stuck. And the thing about a stuck person is that they struggle to watch others doing things they are too scared to do themselves. So they quietly hold onto your ankles as you try to get off the ground. It’s not always conscious, they are not bad people, but they are not currently able to help you. Bruna Martinuzzi from explains why we should be be aware of our close circle in her post 8 Ways Highly Successful People Overcome Self-doubt.

“Those we habitually spend time with can have a profound effect on us, whether we are aware of it or not. We know from brain plasticity research that experiences reorganize neural pathways in the brain. According to Dr. John Kounios, professor of psychology and brain science at Drexel University, our neural connections change even after a 20-minute conversation! Who do you spend the most time with? What effect do they have on you? When you spend time with them, do you walk away feeling better about yourself or worse? “At the end of the day,” says Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, “the questions we ask of ourselves determine the type of people we will become.””

Manage your stress

I once read a quote that said, if you can’t handle stress, you can’t handle success. I have no scientific backing for this statement, only my own experience to tell you it is true for me. At times success has evaded me, not because I lacked talent or work ethic, but because I was simply not ready to handle the responsibility of it.  As Dr Neil Neimark says in his article The Fight or Flight Response – 5 Minute Stress Mastery “When our fight or flight system is activated, we tend to perceive everything in our environment as a possible threat to our survival”. The logical thinking part of our brain is under-resourced and we are effectively wearing a lens over our eyes that makes everything look scarier than it is, including our goals. Therefore, that doubt we feel may be a result of our mental state and nothing to do with reality.

This article on lists the best and worst ways to deal with stress and I think it is really good. I especially like the tip Rely on rituals. When I feel overwhelmed and am going through a high-stress period, I will stick to a routine throughout this time. I will stay at my own place each night instead of my boyfriend’s, get my coffee at the same place each morning, do pilates on the same nights each week etc. Adding a bit of structure helps with the feeling that we are losing control. It gives us some certainty and comfort.

Read war stories

I don’t mean actual war, but stories of people who had to battle self doubt, uncertainty, the opinions of others, or constant rejection to get where they are today. Read stories of people who had huge public failures (Steve Jobs) and then made come-backs. Read about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who took six or more goes to be successful. Reading some of these stories, believe it or not, makes the prospect of the odd failure a little sexy – like when you make a mistake on the way up, you are joining a long line of other successful people who did the same, because they were brave enough to put it on the line. I don’t want to glorify struggle, but change the mindset that a failure will be the end of your career. Short of a sex scandal, you can come back from most things stronger than before. Actually, you can even come back from a dalliance with a president! Watch Monica Lewinsky’s absolutely amazing TED talk The Price of Shame. She puts our fears into perspective as she explains how we have made a consumable commodity out of human humiliation and shame.

Enjoy the hustle

There are three TV shows that I used to watch religiously – Friends, Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy. The most entertaining part of each character’s journey was the hustle. What do I mean by this? It was the early years when youthful ambition reigned. On Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy, it was so exciting to watch these doctors as they launched like baby ducks out of med school and into the real world. We followed them through their failures and doubts, but also their triumphs and growth. On Friends, the most hilarious episodes were the early storylines, as the five friends attempted to find meaningful relationships and well-paid jobs. We could all relate to feeling like the characters – the feeling that we might always be on the back-foot of our own life. When I am doubting myself and my future, I remind myself of these stories. I take comfort in the fact that I am currently in the hustle phase of my journey and it may not always be easy, but I will actually look back on this time of growth with fondness one day. I will probably yearn for a time when all of the possibility still lay ahead of me, so why not appreciate it now.

Know your strengths

Nothing will make you doubt yourself like doing work that does not utilise your strengths. You can be the most talented mathematician in the world with a brain for numbers, but if you are trying in vain to write poetry, you are probably doubting yourself unnecessarily. When I entered post-grad study, I knew something about myself – I was an excellent essay writer, but I did not test well. Funnily enough, I let self-doubt get to me in the moment and my mind would go blank. I struggled to retain names of the different parts of the nervous system in my head, but I had a talent for pulling together lots of different concepts into one body of writing. I sat down with the coordinator of my neurology course and asked if I could be examined by writing four comprehensive 5000 word essays, each on a different neurological disorder. He agreed, and a class that I otherwise might have struggled with, I excelled in. Often, those who are successful are not naturally more talented than you or any smarter, they just know their strengths and weaknesses and use this knowledge to play the game their way.

“A four-year-old boy sits at home, playing with his toys. He’s hungry, but he doesn’t tell anyone. He’s tired, but only his posture reveals it. Four years old and he can’t (or won’t) speak. Every day, his family wonders, “What’s wrong with this boy? Is he mentally disabled?”

When he starts school, his teachers and classmates think him a dunce. They try to teach him art and languages, but he doesn’t pick them up like the other kids. He’s only learned enough German to get by.

In high school, he repeats his sentences to himself. Everyone thinks he’s slow. He applies to college, but fails the entrance exams. Eventually, he earns his degree, but can’t get the teaching job he wants, so he spends his days working in a boring patent office.

But, through the many years growing up and thought of as a nobody capable of nothing, the young man told himself a different story. He knew he was good at something, and that something was science. He spent all his free time and energy honing his thoughts until he had something worth sharing.

The young man was Albert Einstein and, in 1905, he shared four ideas that would become the foundation of modern physics.” – Tyler Tervooren

You might just be a genius…much love xx

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Hi, I’m Katie. I am a kiwi neuroscientist with a love for consuming and creating content. This site is where I share my personal thoughts and the thoughts of incredible minds from around the world. PhD in Neuroscience, University of Otago.

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