Challenging Self-Doubt

According to social scientists, a mindset based on self-doubt leads to two common coping mechanisms among children and young adults. The first is called “self-handicapping,” which is when students underperform as a way to shield themselves from the psychic consequence of working hard yet doing poorly. The other is “subjective overachievement,” which is taking heroic measures to guarantee a successful outcome, and attributing that success solely to effort. The overachieving variant of self-doubt is common among modern high school and college students. While many experience it, these students also tend to take steps to conceal their anxiety and self doubt. It is therefore possible to know many subjective overachievers and never know or appreciate their internal struggle.

Self-doubt among students is very prevalent among students today. American culture places a premium on talent, which is rooted in the belief that success is a function of innate ability. In other words, those born with natural talent are the select and privileged few, and in order to gain favor, individuals must demonstrate innate competence. Teachers and parents today constantly monitor SAT scores, achievement tests, and grades as indicators of natural ability. Fast-moving social changes also contribute to widespread self-doubt.

The emotional drawbacks on self doubt are intense. Relentless suspicion about one’s abilities corrodes confidence and limits learning, even when that anxiety produces successful outcomes, as it does with subjective overachievers. Stress, anxiety and health problems associated with spikes in cortisol levels are byproducts. Persistent fear of failure and focus on the outcome also impede clear thinking, which can also compromise learning.

Parents and teachers of self-doubting kids can take steps to help, however. For one, talk to students about changing the meaning of doubt. Ordinarily, the first stabs of worry about an assignment can provoke internal questioning: Students think that if they’re feeling doubtful about their ability to tackle a project, then the work must not be for them. Students need to be reminded that doubt is a normal emotional response to a challenge rather than an indication of incompetence. Just as a tough workout in the gym might result in sweating and sore muscles, a difficult intellectual challenge should involve mental struggle and uncertainty.

Challenging the self-doubting thoughts is another essential step. While some self-doubt is normal and healthy, it becomes a problem when it starts to seep into relationships, body image, and other aspects of well-being. If your brain says, ‘I’m dumb,’ ask yourself, ‘Is that a thought or a fact? Do ‘dumb’ people get into good colleges, get a good grade, etc.? What is a more productive and rational thought?’ Working to alter an unforgiving self-perception is essential to avoid long-term psychological consequences. You don’t have to believe everything you think.

Focusing on the process rather than results can also help. Rather than praising a child for being smart when she receives an “A” on a paper, acknowledge her effort and attention to the process of writing it. Focusing on the learning process rather than the final result enhances learning and soothes emotional distress, while chipping away at the notion that innate ability determines all.

Lastly, help students to visualize their successful future self. A tendency to fixate on negative outcomes and ruminate on coming failures is common among subjective overachievers and self-handicappers. To draw mental attention away from these intense and negative mental images, children can be encouraged to dwell on their strengths and visualize their future selves succeeding. Help them build their desired possible self—one that’s rooted in their competencies, rather than their potential failures.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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