Self Doubt vs. Self Skepticism




Thinking bad things about yourself doesn’t make you humble

In last week’s Sensemaker we discussed the concept of Certainty and the way we can get trapped in our stories, especially when facing information that hits an emotional nerve. Many people, when first learning about our negative definition of Certainty, associate it with self-confident bluster or outward blame. However, in our work, we find another flavor of Certainty to be just as prevalent: the certainty of self-doubt. This form takes the “bad / stupid / lazy” narratives that shut down learning when applied to others (e.g. “they must not be trying very hard” or “it’s so obvious, how do they not get it?”), and simply directs them at ourselves (e.g. “I’m such a procrastinator” or “I’ve never been any good at this sort of thing”). This kind of Certainty can be even more insidious because it blinds us by giving us a false sense of humility. In the few paragraphs below, Jeff describes the dynamics at play in this kind of self-criticism, and the important ways in which it differs from learning-focused self-skepticism.

Self-doubt vs. Self-skepticism

Don’t confuse self-doubt for self-skepticism. Self-doubt is the inner critic. When it has a voice, it is the voice of fear that you cannot access. Self-doubt sounds reasonable and comforting. It validates everything your parents and people you cared about ever told you about yourself: that you weren’t good at something, that you shouldn’t put your head up above the crowd, or that you dream too big. Self-skepticism, on the other hand, is the conscious act of evaluating what you are missing. It starts with the belief that we are all confused and that confusion isn’t bad or good, just a reality to be dealt with effectively so we can unleash our potential. That belief leads to a habituation of the question “What am I missing?” And “What if I am wrong?”.

Self-doubt is the path to certainty. Self-skepticism is the path to Clarity.

People often confuse the two, because they think that being transparent about their self-doubts is a virtuous act. In fact, it is an act of false humility. It is an attempt to get others to accept you, to telegraph to them that you don’t pose a threat to them. That you don’t think you are worthy of them.

It doesn’t feel like that when you are doing it. We all have an inner critic. I am no exception. And I have often given voice to the inner critic to create safety for others. It is something most people do. But when we confuse self-doubt for self-skepticism we start to believe that we are involved in a virtuous act, rather than a protective one. We start to believe that our inner critic is vital to our safety.

When this happens we feed the inner critic. We reward it. And therefore we stop ourselves from traveling on the path to potential.

Giving transparency to self-doubt may result in a first-order consequence of creating safety through membership, but its second- and third-order consequences are devastating.

Giving transparency to self-skepticism also creates space for safety, but it does not feed the fear. Instead it feeds curiosity, mindfulness, and true humility.

  • What is a self-critical story you often tell yourself?

  • What underlying fear does it represent?

  • Is there a responsibility or an even scarier possibility you’d have to face if that self-critical story was untrue?

  • This week, keep a running journal of the times your “self critic” shows up — one sentence on what’s it’s telling you, and a brief note about what’s happening when it does (e.g. is it in certain meetings? in response to certain people? etc.)

  • At the end of the week, review your entries. What trends do you notice?

  • For each entry, try rewriting it in terms of a question about what you need to learn. For example, if your inner critic says “I’m a terrible salesperson,” rewrite it as “I’ve lost some recent sales, what might be causing that?”


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