Override your self-doubt: 3 simple ways to vanquish your fear and accomplish your biggest goals

A librarian friend of mine recently told me about a conversation she’d had with a particularly prolific writer-artist. When she asked him how was able to publish so many books, he replied, “Constantly overriding my self-doubt.”

His choice of words really struck me.

It’s more common for people to say, “I have to overcome my self-doubt.” “Override” is a bit different.

The dictionary definition of “override,” after all, is:

“To interrupt the action of an automatic device, typically to take manual control.”

This is a perfect metaphor for what happens in our brains, particularly when it comes to emotions like self-doubt and its close cousin, fear.

We tend to think that we are in control of our actions and behavior, but when it comes to strong emotional states, the most primitive part of our brain — the most “automatic” part — controls us.

This primitive part of the brain is called the amygdala, and it governs our programmed response to fear. Emotions tied to fear, like shame, anxiety, sadness, and self-doubt, trigger a cascade of physical effects in our body: a heightened heart rate, shallow breathing, pain in the chest, butterflies in the stomach, etc.

When we think of this “automatic fear effect,” we tend to envision them in their most dramatic form, like when we are afraid of public speaking and are forced to address a big crowd.

But sometimes the fear response is much more subtle, and very easy to misinterpret.

For instance, if you’re trying to take on a big project — let’s say, write a book, learn a new skill, or start a business — you may start off in a burst of enthusiasm and then find yourself inexplicably feeling uncomfortable. You realize you have a vague physical sensation that something isn’t right.

And your default, even unconscious assumption might be, “Hmm…. Something is wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t try this after all.”

Self-doubt has reared its head. And if you haven’t learned how to “take manual control,” you will succumb to it.

What that artist was saying, when he explained to my friend that the secret to his success is “constantly overriding self-doubt,” is that he has mastered certain mental habits that allow him to push past those feelings of unease.

And that’s the critical point to emphasize: it’s not that successful creative people don’t have self-doubt, it’s that they’ve learned how to deal with it. As Maya Angelou said:

“The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.”

Take Manual Control

So what are the mechanisms by which you can “seize manual control” over those deep-seated, unconscious emotional forces in your brain and “override your self-doubt”?

The truth is that there are only three basic principles you need to master, and they are very easy to understand. The first is ACTION, the second is ATTITUDE, and the third is ACCOUNTABILITY.

Action

The Buddha observed, “What you think, you become.”

If you think you’re not the kind of person who is capable of writing a book, you will be the kind of person who is not capable of writing a book. If you think you’re not the kind of person who could successfully start a small business and quit her job, you will be the kind of person who is not capable of successfully starting a small business and quitting her job.

“OK,” you might argue, “but what if I’d like to write a book but I’ve never done it before? And I have no proof that I can do it? I can try to do it, but there’s no way I can know in advance whether or not I’ll succeed.”

You are correct that the future is entirely unpredictable. This means that you have no proof that you can write a book — but on the other hand, you also have no proof that you can’t write a book.

Because you have no way of knowing what will happen in the future, the only thing you can control is the present.

You have total control of the present moment.

When you are trying to tackle a challenging project and you start losing your confidence, ask yourself, what’s the smallest, simplest, concrete action I can take right now?

The fear or discomfort is not going to go away completely, but you’ll be amazed by how much it dissipates when you shift your focus from worrying to doing. And miraculously, big things happen because of the accumulation of many tiny steps.

STEP NUMBER ONE, WHEN YOU’RE TAKING MANUAL CONTROL OVER YOURSELF, IS TO ALWAYS DEFAULT TO ACTION.

When you find yourself feeling anxious or uncomfortable, look at your plan, decide what task makes sense to do now, and do it.

Attitude

It is human nature to compare ourselves to others, and all too often, to think that others have it easier than we do. They are more talented, luckier, more well-adjusted, smarter… etcetera, etcetera.

Correspondingly, when you are embarking on a big new project, it’s natural to look at other people who’ve accomplished similar things to try to figure out how they did it. But all too often, we skip straight to the finished product and assume that somehow, they didn’t struggle as much as we do.

The truth is that everybody struggles. But there are big differences in people’s attitude toward the struggle.

Certain mindsets are especially toxic toward creative endeavor:

  • “If only I had the resources/parents/background that Person X has, this would be so much easier.”
  • “If I were really meant to succeed at this, it wouldn’t be so hard.”
  • “I don’t want to look stupid.”

On the other hand, here’s the attitude that will enable you to push through any obstacle, no matter how massive or impenetrable it might be:

  • “It’s going to be hard. I’m going to feel afraid.”

By acknowledging in advance that trying new things, creating new work, learning, and pushing yourself into uncharted territory is uncomfortable, you will have a much higher likelihood of succeeding than if you try to suppress or ignore your fear.

In order to keep evolving and accomplish your goals, there’s no circumventing it — you must move toward your fear.

When you acknowledge your self-doubt, you are using your rational brain to override your emotional brain. Your emotional brain is freaking out, but your rational brain is talking it through, saying, in essence, “Hey there! I know you’re scared! Guess what — all these uncomfortable feelings don’t mean you’re doing something wrong, they just mean you’re a normal human being who’s afraid of trying something new. But I really want to try this new thing, so I’m going to help us move forward despite these scary feelings.”

Start by simply noticing your emotions. When you feel uncomfortable, say to yourself, “Oh, I feel uncomfortable.”

When you feel self-doubt, say to yourself, “I’m feeling self-doubt.”

When you feel afraid, say to yourself, “I feel afraid.”

Then, take a “timeout.” Take several long, deep breaths. Focus on your breathing.

Finally, go back to Principle One, decide what action you are going to take, and as you do it, consciously acknowledge that it might feel scary and uncomfortable, and that’s OK.

Rinse and repeat.

You’ll notice two results: one, you’ll start making progress on your goal; and two, your fearful feelings will slowly start to subside.

STEP NUMBER TWO, WHEN YOU’RE TAKING MANUAL CONTROL OVER YOURSELF, IS TO CONSCIOUSLY ACCEPT THAT YOU WILL FEEL FEAR, AND COMMIT TO MOVING FORWARD WITH IT.

Accountability

Everything I’ve described above may make sense to you on an intellectual level, but intellectual understanding doesn’t necessarily lead to changes in behavior.

Peer pressure and social norms, on the other hand, absolutely lead to changes in behavior.

If you want to put yourself in a position where external forces are conspiring to help you succeed, do whatever you can to find a community of kindred spirits.

You can’t conquer your fear in a vacuum. Trying to do things on your own almost guarantees that you’ll hit a brick wall.

Sharing your goals and fears with supportive human beings, on the other hand, offers a trifold return:

  • first, you get the encouragement of people cheering you on;
  • second, you get the incentive of having publicly stated your intention and now being held accountable for making progress;
  • third, human beings are hard-wired as social animals, and will calibrate their behavior based on the community surrounding them.

So if you want to evolve and challenge yourself in specific ways, you must surround yourself with other people who are doing similar things.

If you don’t know any people who are aiming toward the same types of goals as you, you must go out and look for them. Maybe you’re trying to start a business and you don’t know any business owners, or you want to break into children’s books but you don’t know any people in publishing.

In this day and age, if you put in some effort, you can absolutely find supporters, confidantes, and mentors no matter where you live or who you know.

Here are a few ways to build your network: Take a class. Join an industry association. Start a meet-up. Hire a coach. Attend events. Create a local or online group.

It doesn’t matter whether your network is one person or 100 people. What matters is that you commit to sharing your dream and being completely honest with at least one other human being (hopefully a few more than that), and that you ask for help and give them regular updates on your progress.

Of course, it takes time to build the relationships that will sustain your creative work over the long haul. You can’t expect to join a group or find a mentor and immediately get unconditional support and thoughtful personal insight. You must invest in these relationships and be willing to expose your innermost struggles.

If you do find and nurture a community of friends and mentors in the area where you want to grow, the time and energy you invest will pay off exponentially.

STEP NUMBER THREE, WHEN YOU’RE TAKING MANUAL CONTROL OVER YOURSELF, IS TO FIND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT AND UNDERSTAND YOUR CREATIVE WORK, AND SHARE YOUR JOURNEY WITH THEM.

Do you have a big goal, but feelings of self-doubt?

How you are overriding your own self-doubt? Or are you having trouble doing it?

Let me know in the comments.