Self Doubt & Inner Critic

Self Doubt: What is it & Why it Matters

No matter what language you use, Self-doubt, Inner Critic and Imposter Syndrome are all terms many women are familiar with and will talk about as roadblocks when it comes to going after what they want in career and life. The 2020 KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report found that “Seventy-five percent of executive women report having personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career”. The same report also found that, “Seventy-four percent of executive women believe that their male counterparts do not experience feelings of self-doubt as much as female leaders do”.

Self-doubt is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a feeling of doubt or uncertainty about one’s abilities, actions, etc”. Harvard Business Review defines Imposter Syndrome as “doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud”. Inner Critic is defined by Forbes as referring to “a sub personality that many of us develop, that judges us, demeans us and indiscriminately shines a spotlight on our weaknesses”. Self-doubt and Imposter Syndrome both encapsulate feelings of uncertainty and scepticism about one’s own capabilities, while the Inner Critic is an internalised voice that amplifies these doubts by highlighting perceived flaws and weaknesses. All three concepts centre around an individual’s internal questioning of their worth, skills, and accomplishments.

And whilst most of us are aware of it’s existence, few understand and can articulate the cost and consequences this phenomena is having on individuals, organisations, economies and society more broadly.

  • Time – achieving tasks, progressing on career ambition, productivity of organisations and economies 
  • Financial Equity – not asking for pay rises, discounting skill, capability and experience or waiting to be 150% ready to apply for roles

Self-Doubt: What’s really going on?

Most women know how derailing self-doubt can be having likely experienced imposter syndrome regularly or a loud inner critic warning of all the terrible things that could happen if you ask a question and sound foolish or go for a promotion or pay rise and are not successful. 

THIS IS COMPLETELY NORMAL  – we know because we have conversations with women everyday and one of the most common pieces of feedback is complete relief that they’re not alone. That their experience of self-doubt, imposter syndrome or their inner critic is something that most women struggle with.

While it would be easy to believe the inner critic is intentionally trying to get in the way of you achieving what you want in career and life, the opposite is in fact true. Your inner critic is actually trying to keep you safe; safe from getting it wrong, from being rejected, from failing and from everything else that can go wrong when you are stepping outside your comfort zone. What’s been learnt over decades of interactions is that it can be risky or dangerous to speak up, to assert an opinion, to ask for what we want or advocate for our value, especially when we are not 100% certain of what the outcomes or consequences could be.

So, it makes complete sense that even though you’d like to be brave enough to ask that question, or challenge someone else’s opinion, or try to go for that stretch promotion opportunity, that the fear of all the things that could go wrong means it’s safer and more comfortable to pull back and do nothing.

And in that moment the danger feels REAL – we notice it in our bodies as a visceral response in our gut or heart. As humans we have learnt that if something feels high risk, the best option is to pay attention to the warning sign, stop and then proceed with great caution. The problem here is that the brain can’t tell the difference between real and perceived risk. Once we think we’re in danger, the brain will behave as if it is real and focus on its top job: your survival. 

Unfortunately, the brain does not understand that in many cases the data source is flawed; while it might have been true at some point (often much earlier in life) that the consequences of getting something wrong, appearing stupid or asserting yourself threatened your survival, it’s likely that at this time your brain is overreacting to the real risks in your current circumstances.

Once you understand that the function of the self-doubt / inner critic is to keep you safe, there is an opportunity to increase your self-awareness and start the journey of beginning to challenge the long held default assumptions, beliefs and fear that have likely been roadblocks to achieving what you want in career and life.

Self-Doubt: Where does it come from?

The cultural conditioning and societal expectations of many girls and young women drives them towards being more risk averse, because they learnt early in life that the safest way to be liked (…..included, approved of and rewarded) was to be quiet and fit in, get the answers right (hello perfectionism) and not challenge authority figures.

From a very early age girls are praised for being quiet, helpful and putting others first; they are encouraged to work really hard, know all the answers, get things right but discouraged from talking about their achievements or how good they are at something (that would be ‘boastful’ or ‘getting too big for our boots’). Given how often these messages are reinforced over the years, it’s hardly surprising that so many women have a highly attuned antenna to the risks of doing anything counter to what is safe and/or rewarded.

Ask around and you will be hard pressed to find any women who didn’t have some ‘mean girl’ moments during her schooling years, where being left out or ridiculed and feeling isolated, afraid and scared was part of the ‘growing up’ journey. While some of these issues are being addressed with adolescents in schools, it’s a big cultural leap to stamp out the mean girls dynamic and the parental and societal expectations of girls wired in over decades. 

So what can be done about it?

Self-Doubt: How to – Leaders, Mentors, Sponsors

If you’ve noticed that one of your team, or a woman you’re mentoring is super talented, doing great work yet doesn’t back herself, there’s a number of things you can do to support new behaviour.

Appreciate the Perspective 

While you may not have found the same activities difficult or challenging, appreciate that for others this may be really hard and likely be the result of decades of societal and cultural conditioning that will take a little while to disrupt. 

Look for Opportunities to Practise Small Acts of Confidence

When you know there will be an opportunity for her to share an idea, opinion or present a part of the work you’ve done, invite her to take the lead. Coach her through the steps so that she’s prepared and clear about what she is doing and why it’s important. While this won’t stop all the nerves, it will make it easier and shows your belief that she has what she needs to be successful.

Ask Good Questions (Leader as Coach)

Rather than making assumptions that your team member or mentee lacks confidence, ask questions so they can develop some awareness and share with you what may be going on. For example:

  • What would be different if you could 100% back yourself in the x meeting and share your expertise about Y?
  • What do you feel is holding you back? How is that playing out?
  • What can I do to make it a little easier for you to speak up, ask that question, share another perspective?

Build Community and Courage

Offer her the chance to learn from and with other like-minded professional women in a compassionate, time effective and well-structured environment. Our women in leadership program, Acts of Confidence brings together a community of incredible women who achieve transformative results including:

  • 97% of participants now have the right strategies to support them in achieving their career & life goals
  • 70% of participants have been able to create more time in their personal life by setting effective boundaries and saying no 
  • 97% of participants tamed their inner critic and minimised self doubt 

Self-Doubt: How to – Individuals

Slow Down & Acknowledge the Fear

The automatic reaction that arises in our body in response to the perceived risk or fear is in most cases working on false data (an old experience or story, that is no longer true).  Slowing down by taking a few deep breaths and attending to the anxiety that’s arising in the moment reminds our body and brain that this situation, while stressful, is not necessarily exactly the same as what’s happened before. 

Trying to ignore or push through the fear is hard; the simpler way is to acknowledge what is. Right now, I feel really worried that if I say or do this thing, something bad will happen. This simple acknowledgement can dissipate the intensity of the feeling. For some people thanking their self-doubt or inner critic can be helpful; ‘Thank you. I know you’re trying to keep me safe, and in this instance, I’m going to give it a go anyway’.

Start Small

To shift these long-held assumptions, beliefs and default behaviours about what is risky or dangerous, we have to start small. This is one of the core behavioural change methodologies of our Women in Leadership Program, Acts of Confidence. Each of the 7 modules (7 Acts of Confidence) provide opportunities for participants to take each week, small acts of confidence in a low stakes environment. As these actions are taken, new feedback and evidence is received by the brain that challenges those old stories and beliefs that the inner critic was flagging as risky or dangerous.

The Act of Confidence comes Before the Feeling of Confidence. 

Be Kind and Compassionate to Yourself

As your self-awareness expands it can be tempting to get angry and frustrated at the wasted time and missed opportunities this self-doubt / inner critic has caused. During this time it’s important to be kind and compassionate with yourself as you unlearn these embedded traits that for what seemed like very good reasons were necessary to keep safe. If a close friend or colleague was having this self-realisation and beating themselves up, you’d counsel her to be kind and gentle; we encourage you to take your own advice and practise self-care.

Get Support

Asking for Help (Act of Confidence #4) is key to shifting old patterns of behaviour. Sustainable behaviour change is easier when we have the support of those around us. We regularly see across the Acts of Confidence program the benefits participants experience when they fully embrace the buddy group experience, finding it easier to take actions outside of their comfort zone. The encouragement of a leader, friend or mentor may also be useful, if you give them clarity of what you are working on and ways in which they can support you.

Seek Out Opportunities

Once you start taking small Acts of Confidence, actively seek out places where you can practise speaking up, asking for what you want or challenging the status quo. When you look at the week ahead and the meetings you’ll have or the stakeholders you will encounter, consider where and how you can more actively share your great work, ask for what you want or take the initiative in a discussion or project.