As a women’s leadership coach and former high-tech leader, I’ve struggled with self-doubt at various points throughout my career. Because I’m also wired with high anxiety, if left unchecked, my self-doubt can become overwhelming.
The fear of inadequacy coupled with the physiological symptoms of anxiety can create a sense of panic. Unfortunately, as those of us who know these experiences all too well, it’s not easy to recognize the irrational nature of our thoughts and feelings when we’re in the moment.
Let’s imagine a common scenario. You’re asked to present an update at a meeting of senior-level leaders. Your first thought might be excitement. This is a great opportunity to increase your visibility and expand your influence.
As that fleeting thought slips away, however, new, more disruptive thoughts emerge. You begin to ask yourself, “Who am I to speak to such a powerful group?” or, “What if I fail? My career will be over!” As ridiculous as these thoughts might seem, once again, we don’t see them that way when we’re experiencing them.
What is really happening in this situation is that this opportunity to play on a bigger stage triggers our primitive defense mechanism that is designed to protect us from physical threats. You may know it more familiarly as the “fight or flight” response. Sharing our expertise with a group of leaders may not rise to the level of defending ourselves against a predator in the wilderness, but our brains process this information the same way.
When we experience this fight or flight response, we lose access to our reasoning system. With all of our resources allocated to physical self-defense, we can no longer problem solve in cognitive ways. And because the threat is not a bear that we can escape, but a presentation that might not happen for another week, we feel trapped in a state of overwhelm that can persist for days.
So, what can we do about it? As a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, I would never consider myself “cured.” But I have found a strategy that has virtually eliminated the stress that results from these pseudo-threat situations. Each time I experience those familiar physiological sensations of heart racing and rapid breathing, I ask myself this question:
What are my options right now?
I stumbled upon this solution during a real-life “crisis.” I was convinced my situation had only one dreadful conclusion and there was nothing I could do to prevent it. Then I asked myself what other options I might have. And as soon as I shifted from anxiety to reasoning, I suddenly found that there were multiple possibilities I hadn’t considered. And the outcome was very positive.
When you find yourself in a paralyzing state of self-doubt, ask yourself what other options you have. Consider these variations of the question:
- Is this the only way to think about this situation?
- If I were advising a friend in this situation, what additional options might I propose?
- What resources might I leverage to help me with this situation?
- What would help me to feel more prepared for this opportunity?
- What would be a useful next step right now?
The simple act of disrupting that primitive brain response and engaging your cognitive abilities will reveal many more options than you imagined.
For example, if we go back to our initial scenario, you may find that your options include: meeting with select leaders to better understand the goals of the meeting, reaching out to a subject matter expert to validate content in advance of the meeting, or seeking the advice of your mentor or manager on how to most effectively communicate with this audience.
Each of these options empowers you to take greater control of the situation and address specific areas where you need more support, rather than get caught up in amorphous anxiety.
Here are three steps to manage these moments of self-doubt in the future:
- Observe your physical and emotional responses. Notice how you respond to these stressful situations of self-doubt. The more you understand yourself and your physiological reactions, the more you can effectively recognize them and intervene in the future.
- Ask yourself a question. Find a variation of, “What are my options right now?” that feels right for you and ask yourself the question. Shift into problem-solving gear by actively considering your response to your question.
- Take action. I have found through personal experience that the mind can be a very dark place, so don’t get stuck there! Find even one small action step that you can take immediately and you will find that your confidence grows quickly.
Self-doubt is real and it can be a struggle. But asking yourself a simple yet powerful question can help you manage it much more productively and effectively.
Originally published on Ellevate.
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