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I'm a Behavioral Scientist. Here's the 3-Step Exercise I've Been Using to Beat Personal Doubt

Nick Hobson 5-6 minutes 9/13/2022

Have you ever doubted yourself? Well, seeing that you clicked this headline, I have a sneaking suspicion that you have. That's OK. Me, too.

After all, it's a human experience to fret over who you are, why you do what you do, the direction you're heading, etc. For those superhumans who claim to not experience any self-doubt, my professional opinion is that they're lying to themselves.

At the heart of it is uncertainty

This type of stress is the result of what's called "personal uncertainty." It stands opposite to "informational uncertainty," which happens when more information is needed, and usually available. But personal uncertainty is something altogether different. It's the mischievous version of stress-inducing self-doubt that can't be resolved by "finding out more information." You're battling your "you," something that you can't just Google to figure out.

Personal uncertainty has been shown to cause feelings of anxiety, anger, and irritability. Its negative impact on brain and bodily systems is astonishing, with evidence showing impaired central and peripheral nervous system functioning. And it's been shown to hinder our basic cognitive and creative problem-solving abilities.

It's bad for you all around.

The trick is not to avoid personal uncertainty (that's impossible). Rather, the solution is in a psychological workaround that lessens the impact of personal uncertainty. It's called "self-complexity."

High achievers have multiple layers to themselves. They diversify their identity portfolio, so to speak, like a broker does with his or her assets in order to mitigate financial uncertainty. The opposite in this case is someone who has only one version of themselves. For these people, if there's a hit to that version of themselves, they don't have any others to fall back on. The doubt becomes all-consuming. 

Here's how it works. 

First, put away the computer

It's as easy as setting a timer and removing all distractions. This means no phone, no computer, no digital devices of any kind. It's old-school, with pen and paper.

Why is this important? Scientists are finding that the pen is mightier than the keyboard. The somatosensory experience of putting pen to paper sends signals to the brain that help encode and effect lasting cognitive change. So, yes, ditch the laptop for five minutes. Doing this first step is the easy first cue that triggers the habit/reward loop that then reinforces the subsequent behaviors that follow.

Second, write about different versions of yourself

With pen in hand, the next thing to do is think of different versions of the self. Importantly, it's a pragmatic exercise in self-reflection. It's not a time to question one's own sense of self from an abstract, philosophical view. Doing this can lead to even greater stress.

With a pragmatic focus, the next thing is to draw and map out a hypothetical self-concept. See the image below as an example. Usually a person will have at least two self-concept maps. For example, one is a "work" self-map and the other a "life" (or non-work) self-map.

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As you can see in the image, the middle row includes an individual's self-concepts. Using a work self-map as the example, these are things like an official employee title (e.g., senior analyst), an education background (e.g., MBA), a specialist title (e.g., change-management training), a designated role among the team (e.g., ad campaign guru), etc. 

The bottom row includes their personal attributes. These include things like optimistic, focused, energetic, friendly, assertive, etc.

Third, rank and focus on stable identities

The last piece to the process is ranking each of the self-concepts and personal attributes on a scale from 0 (not at all certain about) to 10 (completely certain about). The questions asked are: "Am I certain of myself in this role at work?" "Am I certain of my ability to do it well?" "Am I confident in what I do in this role?" and so on. If the answer is a definite yes to these questions, then that box would be scored and ranked a 10 (most certain) rating.

Then, lines get drawn to connect the self-concepts (middle row) to the personal attributes (bottom row). A connecting line simply means that a personal attribute (i.e., being creative) allows a person to fulfill a self-concept role (e.g., an ad campaign guru).

And finally, looking at the finished self-concept map, a person can get a clear sense of what part of themselves they are most certain about (versus less certain about). A self-concept that is higher in scoring (8-plus) and that has multiple lines running from it to the personal attributes indicates a version of a person's identity that is solid, stable, and predictable.

This simple three-step practice leverages research in identity psychology, which suggests that we each have multiple identities -- different versions of ourselves that we hold in mind. Bringing attention to the fact that we're complex is a necessary step to battling the stress of self-doubt.