Have you ever felt down about yourself? Self-critical? Lacking in confidence? Uncertain or insecure? Then you’ve felt self-doubt. We all feel self-doubt sometimes. You may not be aware of it because you haven’t labeled it as such before. Self-doubt impacts how we think, how we feel, and how we act. It gets expressed in lots of different ways.

For example, consider Meghan, a girl in her first year at college. She wants to try out for the field hockey team. She held her own on her high school team—and she knows it—and she loved the camaraderie she felt on the team. She’d hoped she would get to play in college, but now that she’s competing against the top girls for a few spots, she’s not sure she can do it.

Instead of heading to the try-outs thinking she has what it takes and that she just needs the opportunity to show it, she is full of self doubt. It shows up in her body: her stomach is queasy, her muscles feel tight, and her legs feel shaky. It dominates her feelings: usually outgoing and comfortable in her own skin, she feels shy, awkward, worried, and even a little ashamed as she steps out on the field for try-outs. It poisons her thoughts: her mind works double-time to convince her that the situation is unwinnable, that she doesn’t measure up, that she’d be happier doing something else— anything else. Her self-doubt makes her very uncomfortable, even miserable, and it saps her ability to do her best at the try-outs—or even to show up for them at all.

Or consider Joe, a sophomore in high school who denies he has self doubt. He says, “My group is really tight.” Yet when his friends make plans for the weekend, he often feels anxious, lonely, and left out. He wants to have friends over but thinks, Why would they want to hang out here? When Joe does hang out with his friends, he rarely takes an active role in making plans and just follows along with the crowd. He holds back because he secretly fears his friends won’t think he’s cool. He hasn’t put a name to it, but it’s his self-doubt that makes him question whether people like him, making him watchful and worried instead of being able to just let go and have a good time with people he likes— his friends.

Stress can intensify feelings of self-doubt until you feel overwhelmed by self-criticism, second guessing, and negative thoughts about many aspects of your life. Stress-fueled self-doubt can lead you to feel afraid, anxious, sad, and irritable. It can cause you to respond to situations more intensely than you need to, and to draw conclusions that don’t really add up—for example, thinking either that your teacher doesn’t like you or that you’ll get a bad grade because the teacher yelled at you for talking in class.

How Self-Doubt Can Affect You

Self-doubt can lie dormant for long periods. It can operate quietly, slowly and systematically affecting your whole identity in a negative way. It may also suddenly attack and destroy the factually based realistic and positive thoughts you have about yourself. Self-doubt:

skews past, current, and future information;

colors in a negative way how you think, feel, and act;

causes you to feel uncertain or insecure about how to face or respond to a situation;

bombards you with self-criticism, second-guessing, and negative thoughts;

causes you to take the blame for things, even when you know you’ve done nothing wrong;

leads you into fear, anxiety, sadness, or irritability;

causes your emotional reactions to be way out of proportion to the situations you find yourself in.

Where Self-Doubt Comes From

Self-doubt arises from our genetic makeup as well as our life experiences, the messages we hear, and our social interactions. Your own temperament has been part of you since birth. Did your parents or other adults ever tell you what you were like as a baby? For example:

confident men

Were you a baby who slept through everything? (And are you still a deep sleeper?)

Were you an easily startled baby? (And are you still awakened by the slightest disturbance?)

Were you a baby who had to be held all the time?

Were you a baby who sat contentedly in your stroller entertaining yourself?

Were you a baby your parents could take anywhere?

Were you a baby who was always screaming, or described as “difficult”?

Your answers to these questions are clues to your temperament. Babies who cling and cry are normal; babies who are mellow and calm are normal: they simply have different temperaments.

Think about how you react to situations now. What are you like? Do you consider yourself easy going, or over reactive? These are ways to describe and understand your temperament, and they are a part of the definition of who you are. For example:

Are you one of those people who jumps out of bed in the morning full of energy and crashes at night?

Are you the type who wakes up, moves in slow motion until fully awake, and then needs to wind down before you get to sleep?

Do you let people know how you are feeling?

Do you keep your feelings to yourself?

Do you like being around a lot of people?

Do you prefer to be alone, or with a few close friends?

Are you the eternal optimist always trying to make the best of any situation?

Are you the perpetual pessimist always seeing the worst in every situation?

Your answers to these questions tell you something about how you’re wired: how you express yourself and your social and individual nature.

Now think about grade school. If you had to leave the classroom for extra help (in reading, say), what were your thoughts and feelings? Were you upset because you were being separated from your friends? Were you okay with being pulled out of class because you had friends who were also getting extra reading help? Were you distressed because getting extra reading help made you feel stupid? What about if you were the last one picked for the team on the playground? Did you think it was because someone didn’t like you? Did you think it was because you weren’t good enough?

How you react to life situations tells you important information about how you define yourself. Your yes or no answers above paint a picture of who you are: tightly wound or relaxed, fiery or slow burning, a social butterfly or an independent, an optimist or a pessimist. Who you are plays a role in how situations affect you. Although all situations have the potential to generate doubt, most often it is not really the situation itself that upsets you but your interpretation of what happened. In the situations given above, needing extra reading help or not being picked for a team is a problem only when you allow it to mean something negative about you. When situations lead you to draw personal, negative conclusions about yourself, then you know your self-doubt has been activated. Your answers tell you where your doubt lies, whether it is doubt about your ability to perform or concern about being liked.

Clearly, if you experienced a lot of difficulties while growing up, you are more likely to experience self-doubt—though not everyone’s self confidence is compromised by difficult life events. Here are some examples of life experiences—some very serious and even tragic, others less so but still important—that can plant the seeds of self doubt, or make them grow:

Conflict or even violence in your home.

Parents separating or getting divorced.

Significant illness or injury—either your own or that of a family member or friend.

Death of a family member or friend.

Transferring to a new school or moving to a new area.

Perceived favoritism of you or a sibling.

Difficulties with your siblings.

Not making the team.

Auditioning for a part in a play or a place in a musical group and not getting it.

Having no one to sit with at lunch; feeling like you don’t fit in anywhere.

Being bullied or teased.

Not being invited to parties or included by your peers; not having as many social plans as your peers.

Struggling with schoolwork; getting poor grades.

Being placed in a lower track in school.

Being considerably poorer financially than your peers.

Being different in any way from most others in your school or neighborhood (height, weight, race, sexual orientation).

As an exercise, make a list of important events or situations that may have shaped your self-doubt: a parent who traveled for work or who couldn’t find work; moving to a different town or school; divorced parents; remarried parents; a sick sibling; a bad sports injury—the possibilities are endless, and will be different for everyone. Just one or two important events can plant the seed of self-doubt; later events provide the fertilizer for it to grow.

low self-esteem

As you think of the events of your life, consider how you view them. Because much of the time it is not the event itself that upsets you: it is your interpretation of it. You can grow up in a relatively safe and secure home and still be filled with self-doubt. Or you can experience many disadvantages or setbacks and still have a good share of self-worth. How you make sense of your experiences plays a role in whether or not you develop a sense of self-doubt because of them.

For example, not being invited to a particular party might cause one person to think she wasn’t liked, while another might think she wasn’t good enough, and another person would not take it personally at all. While one person might think his parents’ divorce is his fault, another might recognize that the divorce has to do with her parents’ relationship and not with anything she may or may not have done.

What Do You Value?

When you recognize that you matter and have something valuable to contribute to the world, then you have a sense of self-worth. Your self-worth is directly connected to what you care deeply about. Do you see yourself as possessing qualities you deem most important, such as being smart or loyal? If so, you have a strong sense of self-worth. Or do you believe you fall short of possessing certain important qualities? If so, then self-doubt is dominating your view of the world.

Many people gain their sense of self-worth in two main ways: through achievement or through social interactions and relationships. What makes you feel good about yourself is directly connected to which of these you value more. Do you care most about accomplishments and getting things done, such as getting good grades or performing well at sports? Then you are more achievement oriented. Or do you care more about your relationships and taking care of others, such as being a reliable friend, being liked, and being a good person? Then you are more socially oriented. Or you may be a mix of the two.

For example, if there were a sign-up sheet for an off-campus day, would you: a) sign up for what you think might look good on your resume; b) poll your friends before you sign your name to anything, paying less attention to what you’d prefer; or c) try to talk your friends into making a group plan to do what might look best on your college application or be the activity you would prefer?

What Bothers You?

If you care deeply about something, you may place greater value on your ability to succeed in that area of concern. The internal pressure you place on yourself to achieve or do well socially is normal and useful, but when you doubt your ability to succeed in areas that are important to you, your self-worth suffers. Situations are uniquely stressful for each of us based on whether or not they activate our doubt. It’s not the pressure to perform that creates your stress. Rather, it’s the self-doubt that you have about whether you can deliver that bothers you. Doubt causes you to see positive, neutral, and even genuinely negative experiences more negatively and as a reflection of your own shortcomings. When you see situations and your strengths more objectively, you are less likely to have doubt as the source of your distress. Whether you care about achievement, social relationships, or both will affect what situations bother you.

value of life

It is common to take for granted your strength in one area while feeling vulnerable in another. If you place high value on achievement, then anything that interferes with your ability to achieve is likely to activate your insecurity, while social challenges may be of a lesser concern. In contrast, if you place greater value on the social goals of being liked or being a good person, then real or imagined interpersonal conflict or rejection will more likely activate your insecurity, while not performing well at any given task may be less distressing. When you put high values on both achieving and being liked, your self-worth is likely to be more fragile, since trouble in either area may result in self-doubt.

What Bothers Achievement-Oriented People Most?

criticism, whether real or imagined

feeling as though you have no control

loss of independence; a feeling of being smothered

difficulty achieving a goal

being told to do something, not asked

not living up to your own expectations

What Bothers Socially Oriented People Most?

rejection, whether real or imagined

disagreement with another person

being left out or not included

having someone upset with you

a sense of awkwardness in a social situation

not being called or texted back

someone judging your character.