Why self-doubt may be good for you

Originally posted on Cafe.com

Some people seem to be brimming with self-confidence. They never really doubt themselves or their abilities and believe they can do pretty much anything. If, like me, you’re not one of these people, you might wish you were. In most social situations—especially when I don’t know others well—a little voice in the back of my head asks:What do they think of me? Do they like me? Are they finding what I’m saying interesting? What are you supposed to do with your hands when standing without a drink, anyway?

I used to really envy the perpetually-confident types—but I don’t anymore. As I've thought more about self-doubt and about those questions in the back of my mind, I’ve realized that up to a certain point, that little voice is doing me good.

Being confident certainly has its advantages. For starters, doubting oneself generally doesn’t feel very pleasant, and, intuitively, we might expect people who experience less self-doubt to be happier and more successful. In fact, Martin Seligman, the founder of the field of positive psychology, has suggested that having an “optimistic explanatory style”—attributing one's successes to one's own hard work, and any failures to external factors out of one's control—makes people healthier and more successful. Furthermore, a variety of research supports the idea that “positive illusions”—seeing oneself in an overly-positive light, and overestimating one's ability to control the future—can be good for mental health. For example, Professor Frederick Gibbons at the University of Connecticut found that prompting people to see themselves as better than others helped depressed people to feel better.

When self-confidence comes at the expense of being realistic about one's abilities, though, it can have its downsides. If someone believes he is already perfect and good at everything, then he's going to miss out on opportunities to improve: he's much less likely to seek feedback, or to notice when he makes mistakes. Christine Riordan, Professor of Management at the Daniels College of Business, suggests that when companies become complacent after past successes, things often end up going downhill; they stop innovating and are less inclined to listen to problems. The same thing can happen on an individual level: If someone thinks she's doing great, she's not going to push herself to improve or look for things she might be doing wrong. The balancing act is a delicate one—there has to be enough self-doubt that one is open to change and improvement, but not so much that one becomes paralyzed by fear.

The perfect dose of doubt

To illustrate the careful negotiation between overconfidence and crippling self-doubt, let’s consider three different characters, who all have varying attitudes towards their own social abilities. (All three are loosely based on various people I’ve come across over my lifetime, but they aren't representative of any specific individuals.)

First, there’s Overconfident Ollie. Ollie never doubts his social prowess and always thinks he’s the most charming person in any room. Perhaps he is pretty charming, but in being so sure of himself he becomes oblivious to small mistakes that he makes. Sometimes people feel like he’s not listening to them properly, or other times he offends people with his abrupt tone. A tiny bit of self-doubt would allow Ollie to perceive these nuances and improve the way he interacts with others.

Next up is Doubting Dan. Doubting Dan is basically the opposite of Overconfident Ollie in how he thinks about his social abilities. Dan constantly worries about what people think of him and is hyper-aware of every mistake he makes. Unlike Ollie, Dan’s aware of a million ways in which he could improve—but he struggles to make any progress because every time he gets into a social situation, he becomes crippled with self-doubt.

Finally, there's Realistic Robert. Robert is, as you might guess, somewhere between Ollie and Dan on the self-confidence spectrum; he tries to cast situations in a positive light. If he’s not sure how a social interaction went, Robert usually gives himself the benefit of the doubt and tries to focus on the things he did well in a given situation. They seemed pretty interested in what I had to say! Robert will think, rather than, But maybe that one sentence had too many umms in it... He doesn’t sugarcoat things, either: Robert is aware that he’s not perfect, so he seeks feedback by paying attention to social cues and asking his friends and family if there are things he could do better.

Clearly, Realistic Robert is the balance we want to aim for. But what exactly sets him apart from his over- and under-confident friends? The key is that unlike Ollie, Robert is open to the fact that he has flaws—but unlike Dan, he doesn’t let those flaws get him down. Instead, he sees them as an opportunity to improve.

The sweet spot: 'realistic optimism'

Sandra Schneider, a psychology professor from the University of South Florida, has a great paper on the benefits of "realistic optimism" (and how it differs from "unrealistic optimism") that changed how I think about the world. I used to think that there was a tradeoff between realism and optimism—that having a realistic view of the world meant less happiness was inevitable. Schneider’s explanation of what it really means to be "realistically optimistic" made me realize that it’s not only possible, but much easier to be both realistic and optimistic about the world and one's abilities.

To explain the difference between realistic and unrealistic optimism, Schneider points out that it is rarely, if ever, possible for anyone to have an entirely accurate picture of the world. There’s almost always some reasonable latitude in how we interpret events and situations. This applies especially when it comes to the social world and our evaluations of ourselves. There’s no clear, objective scale on which we can evaluate our social abilities or those of others. Terms we use, like “charismatic,” “friendly,” and “awkward,” don’t have precise definitions.

This doesn’t mean that we have total freedom to interpret things however we wish. Even if we lack precise definitions for social behavior, there are still reasonable constraints on how we interpret social situations; someone who ignores others at a party or in the middle of a conversation wouldn’t be called “friendly,” for example.

Here lies the key to the difference between realistic optimism and unrealistic optimism: the unrealistic optimist assumes that the world is how he wants it to be without seeking confirmation from reality. To revisit our characters, Overconfident Ollie believes that he's the most charismatic person in any room and that everyone loves him—even though there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. But if Ollie ever paid more attention to social cues or even asked for feedback, he might get a few surprising opinions.

It makes sense in principle that being realistic about our abilities while focusing on the positive is best, but how can we make sure to do this in practice?

Realistic optimism in action

First, it’s important to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Be lenient with yourself when it comes to interpreting past situations. Don’t distort the past to make it fit what you’d like to have happened. Instead, given what did happen, select the most positive interpretation. If you’ve just had a job interview, for example, and you’re not sure how it went, try to focus on what went well and what you're proud of rather than looking for things that might have gone wrong. Rather than looking for ways you could possibly have come across poorly, think about what might have come across well. Of course, if something clearly went wrong—if you accidentally burst into song mid-interview and couldn’t stop, for example—then you might have to accept that things didn’t go so well. Even so, you can focus on learning from your mistake. (Probably best not to sing in interviews in the future.) A little bit of self-doubt can be useful if it opens you up to ways in which you can do better next time.

When thinking about the future, especially as regards tasks or ways of being that we find difficult, we can choose to see either opportunities or obstacles. We can either frame our goals as approaching positive states—“I’m going to feel so great after this run!”—or as avoiding negative states—“I’ll be so annoyed with myself if I don’t go for this run.” Research shows that the positive approach leads people to develop greater persistence, find more creative and flexible solutions, achieve better outcomes, and attain higher subjective well-being.

How we view ourselves has a huge impact on our lives in terms of how we feel, how we interact with others, and what we achieve. Believing in oneself and one's abilities is important, but we all make mistakes and have ways in which we could improve. A small dose of self-doubt can be healthy if it allows us to accept the ways in which we are imperfect and see the future as presenting new opportunities for improvement.

© 2014 Jess Whittlestone, as first published on Cafe