Self-doubt is a powerful emotion that can stop us from doing even the smallest of things. It can be a roadblock to living a fulfilling, engaging life and when in excess, can lead to the development of mental health conditions.

What is self-doubt?

When someone questions their own ability, they’re engaging in self-doubt. Self-doubt is the manifestation of a lack of confidence in oneself that shows up in one's thoughts, feelings, and actions. Many people who doubt themselves will hold themselves back in multiple aspects of life, including the workplace, in relationships, with friends, and even with hobbies.

People who have self-doubt have a hard time believing that they’re capable of what they want to do. This doubt is often a false assumption created from warped thinking and can lead to feelings of frustration, disappointment, or self-resentment. Sometimes, people aren’t even aware that they’re holding themselves back. Other times, people know that their lack of confidence leads to them missing out on opportunities, leading them to therapy for help managing their doubt.

Origin of self-doubt

Self-doubt develops for a number of reasons. People who have self-doubt may have grown up in an environment that wasn’t conducive for the development of self-confidence. They may have routinely questioned their abilities or received negative feedback from the adults in their life, to the point that they internalized incompetence.

Others develop self-doubt after adverse experiences. This could include traumatic events, toxic relationships, or painful memories. After going through a traumatic experience, an individual may have a hard time believing in themselves again or may have difficulty trusting themselves.

Self-doubt can also be a symptom of a larger mental health condition. People who have anxiety, depression, PTSD, or bipolar disorder may continuously doubt themselves and tell themselves that they are incompetent. This is called a cognitive distortion and can become a habitual thought pattern that pulls them towards a reluctance to engage in activities. It can also be the cause behind a negative mood, and in extreme cases can lead to self-harming behaviors.

Symptoms of self-doubt

When someone has self-doubt, they may need other people’s reassurance or validation to feel comfortable or to engage in an activity. To get this validation, they may constantly ask others for their opinions or talk about their ideas until someone responds positively. Without validation, the individual may become stuck in indecision. They might also pull out of plans at the last minute or give up on a task or hobby at the first twinge of discomfort. Around others, individuals with self-doubt may make jokes at their own expense or blame themselves when plans don’t go smoothly. They might have a hard time accepting compliments or deflect positive feedback.

Negative self-talk is a huge element of self-doubt. People who have self-doubt may beat up on themselves internally, engaging in harsh self-criticism. They may tell themselves that they don’t deserve to have fun, be successful, or have friends. These harmful thoughts can lead to a depressed or anxious mood, including feelings of sadness, loneliness, frustration, disappointment, or self-hatred.

Therapy for self-doubt

Therapists who specialize in self-doubt teach clients how to identify instances of self-doubt. They’ll also encourage clients to reflect on the ways that self-doubt holds them back in their lives, including how it impacts their feelings of fulfillment or enjoyment of activities. Therapy is a space where clients can feel safe talking about their feelings and unpacking their negative self-talk. Therapists empower their clients to stop engaging in cognitive distortions or harsh self-criticism, instead replacing those thoughts with healthier ones.

Therapists also teach clients who suffer from self-doubt about self-compassion and help them develop self-compassion practices. These practices, meant to boost feelings of self-love and confidence, lead to increases in self-esteem and self-worth.