Self-Doubt: What Colour is your Gremlin?

By Deirdre Murray, Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with PEOPLE RESOURCES

“When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.”

Honore de Balzac

How is it that when we are nearly of the cusp of something great, when we are just about to publish that first book, when we are just about to go for that big interview, when we get a golden opportunity to present in front of a key audience, we can totally sabotage ourselves! Some people are able to harness self-doubt and overcome it. For others, it consumes their everyday thoughts and becomes totally overwhelming.

Here I explore the world of self-doubt and outline 5 key steps to help you overcome it!

No matter how well prepared we might be, no matter how many hours we’ve spent practising, that powerful, little green gremlin can tap us on the shoulder and start to whisper in our ear, “Who do you think you are? What made you think you were good enough to do or say this?

We pause. We panic. We start to tell ourselves, “What if no-one reads this book? What if they think it’s rubbish? Or worse still, “What if they think I’m rubbish!” What if I make a fool of myself in this presentation? What if I become a shambling wreck in this interview and lose my complete credibility?” Our brains go into overdrive and we haven’t even started! So we don’t go for that big interview. We don’t publish that book. We never get to be our best self.

What is self-doubt?

Self-doubt has been defined as ‘lacking faith or confidence in oneself.’  It is the opposite of being confident in our abilities, which comes from the Latin, “con fidus,” with faith. Therefore, to diminish self-doubt, we have to build confidence from the inside out; be comfortable in our own skin. Fear, one of the basic emotions behind self-doubt, is the most prevalent.

As Brené Brown tells us, we live in a world of never enough. We are not clever enough, fast enough, or good enough! Sometimes, from early childhood, we may not have been given enough reassurance by parents, grandparents or teachers. In their eyes, we were not good enough and this can impact feelings of self-worth. We can carry around this insidious nagging doubt, like a big green gremlin that makes us second-guess everything we do. An intriguing study by Booz Allen in Strategy & Business discovered that when CEOs were asked what they most feared their answer was, “being found out.” It can follow us right to the top ! When we do make a success of things, we succumb to what is known as ‘impostor syndrome,’ and we question the legitimacy of what we have achieved, even if it is well deserved. For example, Simon achieved a first class honours in his Accounting degree, but never felt that it was good enough, as his father had told him he’d never make anything of himself. Therefore, he never gave himself credit despite such a great achievement.

What steps can I take to diminish self-doubt?

Here are 5 key steps you can take today to diminish self-doubt

  1. Trust yourself and your own judgment

I think this is often the biggest issue for many people. They don’t trust their own judgment and the seeds of doubt set in. Often, when we are just about to make a major breakthrough, all manner of resistance appears and we hesitate. So much so, that the opportunity can pass us by and we live with regret. Start saying ‘yes’ to opportunities.  As I heard one person say recently, “I may lack confidence but I can be brave!” Ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” “What is the worst that might happen?” Step forward, feel the fear and push through! Stephen Pressfield, author of The War of Art, once said. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

  1. Acknowledge your strengths:

Write out your 5 key strengths. What do you bring to the table? What are you good at? When do you show up at your best? Write out 5 key things you have done well over the past six months in any aspect of your work or personal life. Make a list of all those who ‘have your back’ and are there to support you in good times and bad.

By harnessing self-doubt in a positive way, you can create opportunities for growth.

  1. Be the observer of your thoughts. Replace ANTS (Automatic Negative Thoughts) with CATS (Confidence Affirming Thoughts):

According to psychologists, we all have approximately 50-60,000 thoughts per day.  Remember, they are just thoughts. Many of these thoughts relate to what we did/didn’t do in the past, or what we are going to do in the future but fail to focus on where we are right now!

Automatic Negative Thoughts can pop in and out of our heads.  These ANTS are unproductive and zap valuable energy.  The challenge is to become the observer of your thoughts and filter what actually gets in.  What we focus on grows. If you keep focusing on negative things happening, it is more likely to become a self-fulfilling prophesy! Reframe your thoughts and build confidence affirming thoughts, not ones that can create self-doubt. Examples are shown in the figure below:

ANTS Automatic Negative Thoughts CATS Confident Affirming Thoughts
“I am not that good at my job” I am a natural leader and a positive inspiration to others.
“I always dread presentations to the board” “I am always fully prepared and deliver confident presentations every time”
“I am a poor communicator” “I communicate with ease and conviction”
“ I feel foolish when I make mistakes” “I am not perfect.  I see setbacks as learning opportunities”
“My staff don’t feel appreciated” I give my staff positive compliments and encouragement at every opportunity”


  1. Confidence means deliberate practice!

Act as if. Prepare well for what you want to achieve and adopt purposeful, deliberate practice. Luck and opportunity come to the well prepared. As Amy Cuddy tells us, “don’t fake it till you make it; fake it till you become it!” Keep doing what you fear most and you will become good at it! One client I worked with was terrified of presenting. He doubted that he would ever be able to present well as he was so nervous. His hands shook, he couldn’t talk clearly and he mumbled into his chest. We worked on changing his self-doubt in to a positive feeling of motivation that enabled him to work on his physiology and mental state before a major presentation. He is now presenting with ease and confidence!

  1. When in doubt, bounce your idea off a colleague or friend.

When you doubt you are on the right track, ask a trusted colleague or friend for advice or to give you a different perspective. They will help challenge your negative self-doubt and support and crystallize your ideas into positive action.

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.”

Elizabeth Kubler Ross

So go on, take your power back and knock that Gremlin off your shoulder !

About the author

Deirdre Murray, Founder and Director of PEOPLE RESOURCES, partners as an Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with leading multinationals and public sector bodies across all sectors.
Deirdre is co-author of “Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – A Leadership Imperative!” Her second book in the management briefs series, “Communicate with Impact! Communicate & Influence Successfully,” is out now at She is a regular motivational speaker at conferences, seminars and on radio broadcasts and provides journal entries for leading business magazines.