The Constructive Power of Self-Doubt
Confidence may propel us forward, but doubt spurs us to prepare
“You have to believe in yourself!” my ballet teacher announced. I was 12 years old and heading into my first big audition. I had an identifying number pinned to my chest so the judges could call out “number 72, number 98, and number 102, thank you, you’re done” instead of naming you when they crushed your dreams. As soon as self-belief came into the equation, amid practical reminders to straighten my knees and not look down, my stomach dropped and I nervously plucked at my leotard strap. If this was a game of believing in myself, I had already lost.
Believing in myself has always felt like one more thing I could fail at. The self-belief mandate has trailed me in the form of well-meaning pep talks from professors, who reminded me that the first step to anything is “believing I can do it.” It has cropped up in phrases, illustrated in a loopy cursive font, that dominate motivational Pinterest boards or Instagram posts like, “She believed she could and so she did.” It has strutted around like the most popular person at the party, leading me to think that confidence was the only thing standing between me and the best version of myself.
Self-doubt is popularly considered a monster, something I should be working to outrun. But the further I wade into adulthood, and the more I notice platitudes of self-belief becoming prerequisites for doing anything, the more I think it might be self-doubt that keeps me going.
Not long after that audition, we had exams, where we had to repeat a ballet class from memory. In the weeks prior, the ballet mistress asked if we knew it, and I was among the only ones who responded “no.” The belief that I couldn’t do it led me to practice for days beforehand, and ultimately my honest “no” enabled me to master it once we took to the barre. I wasn’t confident; I was leaning on hours of preparation given to me by doubt.
If you’re not experiencing any doubt, you’re probably not doing much to push yourself.
This scenario has popped up in adulthood, too: Inevitably, the piece of writing I preface with, “This…