By Helen Rothberg
September 10, 2019

What’s next?
Where do you want to be in the next three to five years?
What’s possible?

This is how I launch my visioning workshops.

People across professions, levels, and ages gather together to consider attributes about themselves and their worlds that might augment or curtail their success. I am often surprised when many people express uncertainties about their power to make things happen. Their beliefs about their shortcomings and missed opportunities don’t align with the successful and driven people I see before me.

After 30 years as a management expert and executive coach, I’ve noticed the same pattern. The only thing really keeping someone from actualizing their visions is themselves, and their self-doubt.

While self-doubt may not be completely debilitating, it is limiting and can sabotage a career in subtle ways.

Self-doubt can come from being told that you “can’t,” from societal stereotyping, or from powerful subconscious cues: the fear of failure keeps you from realistically going for a goal, the fear of success keeps you from completely sharing your capabilities, and impostor syndrome keeps you from owning what is yours and using it well.

Let’s unpack these seeds of self-doubt — and what you can do about them.

Illustration by Janice Chang

Do you have fear of failure?

A mid-careerist sets unattainable goals. He invests time and energy and comes close. Along the way, he gets accolades for working hard, for trying. He also avoids criticism for missing the mark because his reach was so high from the beginning. In the end, he feels satisfied for even trying and avoids failure.

But he also never completely advances to the next level. And sooner or later he runs the risk of working for someone who will not appreciate what they will perceive to be his poor judgment in assessing what he is able to achieve.

People sabotage their own success because failing causes shame. Instead of feeling disappointed, frustrated, angry or regretful about actions that led to failure, they can internalize and feel bad about who they are without ever risking. To avoid this toxic emotional rollercoaster, certain people play it safe, and only try new things that can easily be mastered or are out of reach.

Do you have fear of success?

A department head has what it takes to become a VP. Yet she avoids taking on assignments that would demonstrate her talents and give her more visibility. She’s afraid that she would be labeled an aggressive corporate bitch, or that her current network of peers would no longer include her in lunch dates or after work cocktails. She avoids greater success.

It may sound counterintuitive, but people can fear how success might change their lives. They do not doubt their ability. Instead, anxiety arises from knowing that they are capable. They fear cracking under pressure, so they avoid opportunities for visibility. Staying under the radar or minimizing their accomplishments when recognized are common fear of success strategies.

Success also can bring elevated financial rewards and fringe benefits that change how people live. Once there’s a taste of the better life, it can become an expectation — and one that may be hard to continuously live up to.

Do you have impostor syndrome?

An accomplished multi-credentialed person has built notable reputations in different fields. She’s confident, often promoted, and sought after for expertise, yet she questions whether her success is from being charming or being smart. She waits for the other shoe to drop.

Impostor syndrome is the fear that other people will discover their charade. Regardless of success, they feel inadequate. This is partly because they attribute their success to fate, luck, and timing, rather than skill, effort, and outcome. Impostor syndrome keeps them from reaching higher so their true nature won’t be discovered.

How you can transform self-doubt into self-worth

Self-doubt limits what we can achieve. And if it is palpable to others it can be used to manipulate our actions and reactions. Given that much of self-doubt may be subconscious, what can we do to rise above it and embrace all that we are?

Here are proven techniques to start making changes today.

1. Stop, breathe, ask, listen

When your knee-jerk reaction to an opportunity is anxiety, stop what you are doing. Take a deep breath. Wait 10 seconds and then ask yourself: Why do I feel this way? Am I afraid of failing, succeeding, being found out? Then listen to your Self. You are likely to discover that the anxiety is an old tape that doesn’t serve you.

2. Rewrite your story.

Instead of focusing on all the things you’re not good at, or why you don’t deserve an opportunity, or how you will be found out…try to think positively about yourself. Make a list of your skills, knowledge, and abilities that align with this opportunity. This will help you brainstorm solutions to your objections.

I consulted to a company that identified a respected salesperson for a promotion to Director for a new territory. There was only one problem: he didn’t apply for the job.

In a coaching session, he questioned his ability to lead others and said he didn’t want to spend more time away from home. After talking it out, we revealed that he already had been successfully mentoring new salespeople, and that he could limit his time away from home by remotely communicating with his team. He realized that he already was a leader and took the job.

3. Create a strong support network.

Remember that others feel the way you do, even if it doesn’t seem that way. It’s always better to talk about your fears than to give them a life of their own inside your head. Sharing your fears helps you see you aren’t alone.

Ask someone in your trusted network if they ever feel that what they do isn’t good enough, and what they are afraid to do, and why. You might be surprised by the answers.

4. Consider situations as unique.

When you feel inadequate in a setting, explore it. A bad experience in the past, perceived or real, is not necessarily all experiences.

A former student in her early career avoided opportunities to lead the special project teams that she kept requesting to be part of. She worked very hard with her peers but took a back seat when it was time to present to senior management. The reason? She believed she would choke. A bad presentation experience in college reinforced this fear. But when she compared her abilities then to her abilities now, and considered how her current work setting was different, she rethought her perspective and later stepped up.

5. Celebrate failure as an opportunity to learn.

Regardless of what our culture values, perfect doesn’t exist. Failure doesn’t define you. Some of our best lessons come from what doesn’t work. Own it, grow from it, and be kind to yourself.

An early careerist was competing for a job with a notable employer. In the interview, he was given a client problem to solve. He answered quickly and he didn’t get the job.

In a coaching session later, we reviewed his answer and he realized that if he gave himself more time to think he would have crafted a more thoughtful and thorough response. Exasperated, he moaned, “I could just kick myself.”

Instead, I suggested that he craft a thoughtful note to the interviewer owning his impatient response and what he now thought the answer was. He thanked the employer for the opportunity to learn an important lesson. A week later he was invited back for another interview and later was offered a position.

6. Have the courage to succeed.

While some of a person’s success can be attributed to fate, luck, or chance, the truth is that most of it comes from talent, hard work, persistence, and humility.

Being successful means that you must invest in yourself and discover new things about yourself — and these can be good things, too.

Embracing who you are and having the courage to face your fear and anxiety about what is possible can reap untold rewards. I promise you that on the other side of your self-doubt is your destiny.

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