How to cope with self-doubt

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A very major publication just reviewed my friend's book. The reviewer loved the book and as I read the review, each laudatory sentence makes me more ill. I feel an overwhelming moment of self-doubt coming on. I get sweaty and my heart pounds and I feel like the world will end if I don't have sugar.

My moments of self-doubt always begin with the panic that I will not do anything important in my life. I panic that I will not even figure out what is important, let alone do it. Then I have flashbacks to all the teachers who wrote, “Penelope is bright, but she does not work up to her potential.”

Tonight I am so upset I can't even finish my stack of reading. I fear I will read somewhere in my pile that the Nobel Prize committee has decided to make 100 simultaneous awards and they are all to people I know and now everyone I ever talk to will have a Nobel Prize and I won't.

Tonight I am worrying that other people have greatness and there is a finite amount of greatness and it is slipping out of my hands. Also, it is embarrassing to admit to wanting greatness knowing that there is a risk that I will not achieve it.

To calm myself down I eat some Oreos and as the double-stuffness clears my mind, I remember the aspects of my friend's life that are so destroyed that not even an outstanding book review will help:

1. He has been married for fifteen years and cheated on his wife about fifteen times.
2. His mother is overbearing and controlling and spent his book advance on purchases that will not improve her life, or his.
3. His wife's friends hate him so much for his arrogance they do not talk to him.
4. His dog does not play well with others and you can't teach old dogs new tricks.

Okay. There. I am feeling better already.

So I sit down to do the only thing that can make things better: I do my job. I am sure that the best way to face self-doubt is to push through it.

I remind myself that this guy had writer's block for six months, and nearly lost his whole book contract because he wasn't meeting deadlines. He ran out of money three months before he delivered the book and he lived off credit cards, hoping that the book would sell so well that he would earn over and above the initial advance. He pushed himself in the face of failure and even bet on himself a second time.

I can do that. With a clear head I know that everyone who has wild success is someone who had to eat a box of Oreos. Everyone has her moments of huge self-doubt, often in the face of someone else's grand success. But there is not finite success in the world. There is just a finite amount of people who can stomach the pain of wanting success so much.

So tonight I stomach pain. I put the book review on my fridge to remind myself that my friend pushed through his own self-doubt and garnered laudatory reviews from his peers. I sit down to write another column, and eventually my self-doubt dissipates. It always does.

31 replies
  1. Nina Durfee
    Nina Durfee says:

    Penlope, I’m a life coach pitching a magazine article about self-doubt and looking for comments, stories, words of wisdom, commiseration to include. Specifically, I want to know what works for people to push past doubt and move forward.

    Are you willing to contribute a story or a quote to enliven my article?

    Thank you very much!

    Nina Durfee

  2. Chris Pommier
    Chris Pommier says:

    I just discovered your blog today, and I have been additively reading post after post all morning. Thanks for being so open. It helps me clarify some of the same concerns and issues that I have. And also you write well.

  3. lori nelson
    lori nelson says:

    This post is so wonderfully honest .. I love., love, love how open and self-revealing it is. Self- doubt and jealousy go hand and hand. Have you seen this Oscar Wilde quote?

    It is not uncommon to commiserate with a stranger’s misfortune, but it takes a really fine nature to appreciate a friend’s success. – Oscar Wilde

  4. Joy-Mari
    Joy-Mari says:

    This is probably one of your bestest posts. I also binge on your posts. Some of them force me to look at things differently. I love it, and I hate it. But I think I mostly love it. Thank you for this blog.

  5. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:

    I have had a few major deal breakthroughs in my life that came just as I was being, literally and figuratively, put in the street. That last big success was a while ago, and I am hurting now after a term of relative success as an analyst, working for some prestigious telecoms and web enterprises. I never really learned how to save, and two broken marriages did not help the buffer.

    My internal dialogue says that I am getting old and don’t have the energy of yore to help incubate the next coup.

    Of course, I am now the Willy Coyote, as opposed to the Road Runner.

  6. NYC
    NYC says:

    I think about this everything: that I will not do anything important in life, that I will not even figure out what is important. Why is it that someone has a need to figure out and do something “important” and other people (most of my girlfriends) really just want to fall in love with a great guy?

  7. Eric
    Eric says:

    Holy crap! That’s the most inspirational post I’ve ever read! You really cut through the crap and get to the point.

    I’m going to print it out and hang it on my fridge to remind me that it is possible to make it as a blogger.


  8. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    So you feel better thinking about another person’s failures and shortcomings? Cuz that’s the takeaway here, not your sitting down to write more blog posts.

  9. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    This is disturbing and I agree with Barbara. Can’t you just be happy for the one thing that is going right for your friend, instead of tearing him down for everything else? If someone really has potential for greatness it will flourish, regardless of what everyone else is doing.

  10. Banu
    Banu says:

    I like reading your posts. I followed the link in your last post, about being an artist, to read this very interesting topic. However, it is very difficult to read this post. I think your writing evolved a lot in the last 6 years, cause your current posts are easier to follow. Thanks for making me smile (and think).

  11. Elly
    Elly says:

    I agree wholeheartly with your post. Having spent the last several years trying to “make it” as an artist, and watching a number of colleagues become successful, some without trying very much, I have felt the ugly demon of jealousy, and the similarly ugly demon of despair – that I have no talent, no ability, and will never amount to anything. These feelings come and go, usually fueled by seeing others’ work, and hearing of their success. Throughout this, I keep creating stuff that I like and hoping that others will like them. I dont think the self doubt will ever go away, but I dont let it stop me. Its nice to think that other people go through the same emotions, and get through it the same way.
    Cheers, Elly.

  12. Sam
    Sam says:

    Well, I think the two comments (from Barbara and ‘anonymous’) show that they are the ones who get jealous and cannot deal with it appropriately.

    Barbara, anonymous: you are projecting. (Look up the word in the dictionary).

    Every human being feels jealousy at times and to be honest about it, especially in print (with your real name and even a photograph; we do not know who “Barbara” and “anonymous” are) is beautiful. Makes it very easy for others to learn from that kind of a person. And besides, you ended this column showing how the friend you were jealous of helped you overcome your own self doubt. You ended it on a kind note.

    Great writing. I did some work as a columnist and was always told that it was because I put myself into my stuff so much that people were so taken by it.

    Keep up the good work :-)

  13. Todd @ The Personal Finance Playbook
    Todd @ The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    I’m glad you feel self-doubt about things, too, because you’re writing is incredible. It makes people burdened with mediocrity feel better to know that people who are truly great have insecurities, too. Thank you for sharing those insecurities on this blog. I can’t seem to stop reading post after post after post of all the great content here. You have an amazing gift and extra helpings of talent. I’m jealous of you. I admire you. Keep it up. All my best – Todd

  14. Helen Romeo
    Helen Romeo says:

    Oh God, Penelope, in this posting you ARE ME. Yes the need to succeed and the knowledge I can and the crippling self-doubt and the feeling of being trapped and the fear: they hurt. I cannot conceive not succeeding, in a big way. Not living up to my potential (which I know to be great). But so far it all eludes me as I ‘saw the light’ late and haven’t been striving for long enough, from early enough, feel time is running out, and then again, that fear…
    Thanks for what? well, for allowing me to realise that even those who I view as ‘successful’ and ‘who’ve made it’ (you) have been through the same thing…it’s a motivating factor and not an inhibiting one, for once…
    PS huge congrats on the marriage proposal – you’ll be happy on the farm, I know it too.

    Helen Romeo

  15. mb
    mb says:

    Great post. It reminds me of a fantastic TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert. She tells of people who used to ask her – before her “Eat, Pray, Love” success – if she was afraid that she would never make it as a writer, that she would die in poverty, etc. Of course, she did fear that, but the interesting thing that happened AFTER her great successful book, people asked her if she were afraid that she’ll never be able to top the success of that book. You can watch the whole talk (19:38)here:

    I laughed out loud at that, because it’s so true of so many people. I call them the “Yeah, but…” folks. You tell them just about any bit of great news, something truly wonderful and they say “Yeah, but…” Ex. ME: Hey, I just got a great new freelance gig I’ve been wanting! THEM: Yeah, but won’t that mean you’ll be too busy to walk Libby in the woods?

    We all know these toxic folks. I’ve been gradually whittling them out of my life. It means that I may have more Saturday nights at home, but that will mean I can spend more time with my dog Libby in the woods!

  16. Gloria
    Gloria says:

    who let my inner voice out? I self diagnosed myself w/asperberger’s at 14. Of course, it was dismissed and then self doubt crept in. I was after all reading the first volume of medical encyclopedias… there was still room for other afflictions. Still- this one’s my favorite to hopefully have over adhd. :)

  17. Mel
    Mel says:

    thanks for the honesty of your blog. And I thought it was only me who tore herself to pieces with self-doubt and self-denigration over every failing or non-achievement. It is not so much that we don’t celebrate a friend’s success it is such a punch in the guts though to our own dreams which seem then even further away. And chocolate biscuits( cookies) definitely are restorative. Many of us try and ” balance the accounts” of life by saying to ourselves well they may have won the prize there but in other areas they are clearly worse off than me. This is not really helpful in the end because it doesn’t push us along and I really like the way you used your friend’s example of self-belief and hope to inspire yourself to keep going. The only way to guarantee failure is to quit.

  18. amir bahadori
    amir bahadori says:

    Your posts are wonderful! I have wrestled with many of these same feelings believing nobody else could understand. And can be an exercise in futility explaining these feelings to loved ones who want to help. But now, i can just point them to your article – because you captured them yours so well. These posts are amazing. Please keep writing!

  19. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Oh my got we share a brain. I friggin wish that I discovered your blog earlier. You say what I’m feeling and now I see myself as a little less crazy.

  20. Happy
    Happy says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for more than a week now, every single day. I really love your stories and the honest advice you give.

    And this post about self-doubt resonates so much with me. I have literally been depressed for almost 5 years, feeling lost and unworthy and not living up to my potential, looking at other people’s happy photos of getting married, having babies, traveling and having great careers. Just recently I decided to do something about it. I am currently unemployed, and came here for career advice, but i am learning so much more – about myself, about life, about others. Thank you!! You’re great success!

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