Overachievement, Self-Sabotage, and the Other Faces of Self-Doubt

Do you consider yourself a workaholic? Are you bothered by the feeling that nothing you achieve is ever good enough? Do you sometimes unintentionally sabotage yourself by procrastinating, abusing substances, or by some other method? Do you ever make excuses for other people’s success (or your own lack of success) by looking for advantages that other people have but you lack?

This is a pretty eclectic mix of behaviors and feelings, but they have something in common. They are among the most common characteristics that we therapists see in people who have self-doubt.

When I use the term self-doubt, I’m not talking about questioning whether you’re a good person but, rather, whether you’re competent. Confidence that you know what you’re doing, whether at work, school, another domain of your life, or in life in general, is something that, ideally, you develop as an adolescent.

Self-doubt isn’t necessarily conscious and obvious—even highly successful people can have it and not know it—but people tend to compensate for it in a handful of ways that you might recognize in yourself or someone you know. And, of course, recognizing it is the first step in doing something about it.

Here are the top four telltale signs of self-doubt.

Overachievement: One way to approach the problem of self-doubt is simply to try to avoid questions of your competence by trying as hard as you can to succeed and achieve, all the time.

This approach can leave a lifelong sense of never having achieved enough; of being on an achievement treadmill, unable to rest, with failure and incompetence nipping at your heels. Plus, overachievement sets up a sort of no-win situation.

On one hand, extraordinary effort doesn’t guarantee success. On the other hand, if they are successful, overachievers aren’t out of the woods because they can never be sure if their success is the result of competence or simply brute force. So they keep pushing for an incontrovertible feeling of competence . . . which sheer effort will never provide.

Self-Handicapping: Self-handicappers take a different approach: rather than trying hard to avoid failure, they actually sabotage themselves. This way, they introduce more variables to which their failure might be attributed.

This is where procrastination, substance abuse, staying up too late the night before a big presentation, or starving your dog so that he eats your homework come into play.

Of course, using this strategy isn’t very conducive to being or looking more competent, or moving toward any kind of success. In fact, it tends to make you look irresponsible or like you have a problem, and it isn’t doing wonders for your own confidence in your abilities, either. However, for the self-handicapper, all of these consequences are worth being able to keep their competence unexamined.

The Impostor Syndrome: If you have the Impostor Syndrome, you’re already pretty successful, so that’s good. Whether you achieved that success in a healthy and balanced way or through overachievement, you made it.

Yet, you never resolved the self-doubt that resides down deep in your bones, so your accomplishments never feel legitimate. You live in fear that you’ll be discovered to be a phony. Somehow, you feel, you managed to fool everyone, and it’s only a matter of time until you’re exposed as an incompetent boob.

The Impostor Syndrome is surprisingly common, even among people who would universally be perceived as competent, or even geniuses. Consider this thought from Albert Einstein late in his life: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler."

Other-Enhancement: Philosophically, other-enhancers are similar to self-handicappers, in that they introduce additional variables to confuse the issue of competence. But in this case, it’s others’ advantages that are highlighted. For instance, a losing figure skater might attribute his or her opponent’s victory to favoritism from the judges.

Or, perhaps you imagine that your opponent got a head start in a race, or that his family wasn’t as dysfunctional as yours growing up, etc. Obviously, it’s true that sometimes people have an advantage over other people, but an other-enhancer employs these attributions as a matter of course (again, not necessarily being aware of doing so).

Of these four ways of coping with self-doubt, this is the best, it would seem, since it enables you to have the best of both worlds: do your best and win, or do your best and lose because of factors outside your control. Either way, your competence isn’t in question.

Am I Competent? That Is the Question.

Of course, the ideal situation would be to actually be competent, and be confident in that knowledge and feeling.

So, a good way to start working with self-doubt is with a rational, reality-based assessment of whether you know what you’re doing—in life in general, work, relationships, or whatever domain of life you notice these symptoms of self-doubt arising most often.

Ask yourself some questions to test the validity of your self-doubting thoughts and feelings, presenting the evidence for and against them—out loud, so you can hear what they sound like.

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 friend. 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 swindler?”

If the answers to these questions come up “yes,” then double check by asking some trusted friends and family what they think of your competence. If they have doubts too, then perhaps you should take some steps to improve your abilities.

Try taking a workshop or asking for guidance from someone you trust. Then implement what you learn, see if you feel better afterward and, if not, then repeat this process until you do.

Defusing Self-Doubt

On the other hand, if your investigations reveal that a reasonable person probably wouldn’t doubt your competence, then the problem is probably that you aren’t able to internalize the evidence that everyone else can see clearly. Here are a couple of things you can try.

1) Keep a running list of situations in which your competence was revealed, and read through it out loud every day. Then, proactively go out and do things you’re good at, in any domain of your life, not just the one you feel most unsure about. You’ll be building your competencies and adding items to your list.

2) Also, consider what types of motivations are influencing your life. In the long term, you should be aiming to exemplify values and qualities that matter to you deeply (including competence itself). However, intangible goals aren’t the best in the short- and mid-term.

It’s important to have objective, concrete mile markers of progress toward them. For instance, if generosity is a value that resonates with you, what are some acts of generosity you can perform right now? Think manageable, bite-sized acts that you know you can achieve. 

Taking action in this way gives you additional evidence of your abilities to add to your list. There are fringe benefits, too. For one thing, being able to see progress will keep you more motivated to continue. For another, since you’re moving in alignment with your core self, you’ll be building a sense of satisfaction and meaning that you may not get from random acts that exercise your abilities.

Despite all best efforts, you may still be unable to rest comfortably in the sense that you know what you’re doing. You might benefit from more intensive work, so it couldn’t hurt to seek the help of a psychotherapist to help you figure things out. Take heart in the knowledge, though, that self-doubt can be very subtle and insidious, so just coming to the realization that you have it is half the battle. 

Jim Hjort, LCSW

Jim operates a psychotherapy practice, helps people overcome roadblocks to self-actualization as a Right Life® coach, and appears at speaking and teaching engagements. He studied Sociology and Abnormal Psychology at UCLA and holds an MSW from USC, with a specialization in Systems of Recovery from Mental Illness. He has also been awarded the Certified Mindfulness Facilitator designation from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. 

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David Worley's picture

This is another fantastic article! Thanks for posting.

rightlifeproject's picture

Thanks, David, glad you found it helpful! 

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