Even during halcyon times, confidence can be hard to hold on to. And these, unfortunately, are not halcyon times. As we collectively face unprecedented levels of uncertainty, the concept feels even slippier.
And yet now might be an illuminating moment to stop and examine confidence—and its warped double, self-doubt—at their most elemental. Below, advice on how to use their interplay to your advantage, turning self-doubt into something that feeds your abilities rather than deflates them.
1. Maintain perspective.
On a personal level, self-doubt has the insidious quality of creeping into everything—becoming less a temporary state than a facet of my identity. From conversations with friends and coworkers, I know I’m far from alone.
When I’m feeling particularly unsure about a situation, I’ve found it helps to stop and perform an audit, in as objective terms as possible. What is my knowledge base, and what are my previously demonstrated skills? The former might be lacking, but the latter often equips me to learn quickly.
My advice: Keep these questions specific rather than existential. Instead of trying to determine your basic competence as a human being—an exercise primed to lead to thought spirals—simply focus on whether you are capable of performing the task at hand. If the answer is yes (even a tentative one), zero in on why.
My mom is one of the most confident people I know. But because she’s human, there have been occasions where she felt unequal to the task at hand. One of those times was back in 1986; she was 30, living in San Francisco, and had just secured a prestigious job as a graphic designer at a local television network. There had been over 100 applicants; her team was all male, save her boss, who made the final hiring decision.
“I was really scared because I had only taken one computer graphics class; I had never worked in television,” she told me recently. She was lucky—her boss was a good manager. “She told me I was hired for my design skills and that all the other stuff, the computer stuff, they could teach me.”
Still, the day-to-day felt daunting. She had to learn how to operate multiple machines, and how to get the graphics on-air. In the beginning, it was grueling: She’d go to work, come home, and continue working—poring over manuals until it was time for bed. She made mistakes, she learned from them, and within three or four months she knew more than she thought possible, in large part because of her boss’s faith in potential.
Not all of us are blessed with a boss like this, unfortunately. As a result, you might need to issue your own reminders: just because you don’t know everything right now doesn’t mean you are destined to fail. If you’ve been recently hired, promoted, or find yourself in a new, challenging professional situation that pushes you beyond your limits—it’s usually for a reason.
“For me, if it’s a new thing that comes up, and I don’t know how to do that thing yet… what if I’m bad at it?” the comedian and actor Sasheer Zamata told New York Magazine in a video on imposter syndrome. “But I have been good enough to get to that point, there’s no reason why I would lose all my skills and not be talented anymore.”
2. Play the part.
Most of us aren’t automatic experts; instead, competency requires practice. Growing up, Cristina Alonso loved the research element of journalism. “Ever since I was in middle school, I’ve enjoyed reading about stuff for hours and getting lost in a topic,” she said. Interviews were another story. “I used to HATE interviewing people. I was always really nervous that my questions would be dumb or predictable.”
It didn’t get easier overnight. Instead, Alonso grew more comfortable with interviews by doing lots of them: now a staff writer for Travel + Leisure México, she’s worked as a professional journalist for more than six years. The more interviews she did, the lower the stakes for each individual conversation, which allowed her to relax and enjoy the process rather than second-guessing her every move. “I don’t feel like I need to prove myself as this super smart interviewer,” she said. “I treat it as a conversation where I get to know somebody and let them teach me about what they do and who they are.”
Playing the part isn’t just about “faking it,” although there can be benefits to that, too. Instead, by diving in and doing the work even if you don’t feel 100% prepared, your skillset will start to improve as you get more practice.
3. Ask questions.
Speaking from experience, masking uncertainty tends to amplify it. When you’re viscerally unsure, asking questions is difficult—it can feel like turning on a spotlight when all you want to do is go unnoticed. But in many situations, questions are an important tool: the more comfortable you get asking for clarification or help, the smoother the path is down the road.
As a reporter, I’ve certainly found this to be true. Early in my career, I was loathe to stop an interview with a source to ask a clarifying question or admit that I didn’t understand something—I feared doing either would make me seem incompetent or stupid. This reluctance always came to bite me in the ass, though; it’s hard to write a competent, lucid story when you don’t understand the subject yourself.
As I’ve gotten more comfortable interviewing people—mostly just by doing it over and over again—I’ve grown better at asking “basic” questions. And as my ability to stop and ask for clarification has grown, so have my skills as a reporter—a positive cycle that reinforces itself.
4. Use doubt strategically.
In the right amounts, self-doubt can improve how you approach your professional and personal life. This requires maintaining the (sometimes precarious) balance of identifying relative weak points without spiraling into despair. Progress starts by zeroing in on areas you need to strengthen—and seeking out the necessary advice, information, or support you need to improve.
“I think a little bit of self-doubt is very healthy and it makes you keep questioning,” Dr. Kate Marvel, a climate scientist and writer, told New York Magazine. “In science, that’s what we do —we have to keep asking questions.”
A self-critical eye, then, isn’t necessarily the enemy of confidence but a tool towards achieving a higher level of performance. “It’s very instrumental to my identity, actually,” the actor Greta Lee told the outlet. “This kind of negative quality is something I’ve learned to embrace in a weird way.”
For Alonso, confidence is more complicated than simply feeling powerful or capable in any given situation. It’s about “believing in yourself, your talents, and strengths, but it also means giving yourself space to grow and learn,” she said. This definition embraces certainty but it also leaves room for moments of doubt and, instead of suppressing them, strives to listen and learn from them.