How to overcome self-doubt can pave the way to a more confident life. It can help you look at your life in a different way. To keep your focus and work towards your goals. And even if you don’t reach your goals, you’ll then be able to reflect in a healthier way. Although I still struggle with my episodes of self-doubt. It’s no longer crippling to the effect that I stop with my plans and back down. Someone who helped me overcome this and still does is Marcus Aurelius. He does so through his personal notes that we can still read today; called the Meditations.
As we look into self-doubt and how Stoicism can help us overcome it, we will use Marcus as our guide. The beauty of this book is that there are different layers in how it can be read and how one can interpret it. What I mean by that, is that it can speak to you in many ways depending on your state of mind. Whether you seek views on Stoicism, how to deal with mortality, grief, your place in the world, change, etc. Or in this case, when your self-esteem is low. Marcus Aurelius will have something for you.
No nonsense Marcus
“Character and self-control”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 1.1
He opens with what he learned from his grandfather Verus. In a moment of self-doubt, at least for me, these are the sort of brief entries that help get back to where I need to be. Straight to the point.
“Not to waste time on nonsense.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 1.6
Another one like that. He brings this one up at the beginning of his lessons from Diognetus. Again, right to the point. But how can this help us when we are caught in a moment of self-doubt? What do we understand by self-doubt and how harmful is it? Can we learn to minimize it and even use it for good? These are some of the things we will look into.
What is self-doubt?
If we look at the definition of self-doubt, we find the following in the Oxford Online Dictionary.
Self-doubt: “Doubt in oneself, one’s abilities, or one’s judgment; lack of self-confidence.”Oxford online dictionary
When we doubt ourselves, we are not judging our abilities with objective eyes. We look at them from different angles. For example, we can compare ourselves to someone else, a task that seems too big for us to handle, or we might suffer from a lack of sleep or our health is not optimal. There can be a wide variety of reasons for these thoughts of undermining oneself. Some are so severe that professional help is needed. For me, the Stoics helped me out a lot. They showed me that it’s ok to be me and as long as I do my best at everything I do, then the results will be what they will be. The lesson learned by Marcus from Maximus is one example of a sentence that stuck with me.
“The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than being kept on it.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 1.15
Others are humans like us
We often forget that the people around us are human beings like ourselves. Yet, we only see the exterior. We don’t see their doubts, at least not when we see someone achieving greatness. Or boasting about it in the ever-abundance of social media. This post delves a bit deeper into that topic. But we live in our minds, that’s what we can control. And depending on how good we feel about ourselves, the external world can either feel scary or wonderful. We are not alone in this. That’s something we need to remind ourselves of. Others doubt, fear, or suffer as well.
“Yes, keep on degrading yourself, soul. But soon your chance at dignity will be gone. Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 2.6
You have the ability to control your thoughts
One of the reasons why this book helps me overcome moments of self-doubt is because these are his personal notes. He wrote these to himself without the idea of having them published. So why is he writing this to himself? Why does he feel that his soul is degrading itself? If even he has these feelings, the Emperor of Rome, then I’m not that different from him as a person. And he is known as one of the five good emperors. Maybe I should be kinder to myself. Instead of talking myself down and relying on others for my happiness, it is time for me to respect myself and take control.
He even reminds himself of this, to understand that you control your thoughts. You can recognize them and then stop them. Use that to look at the situation from a different angle. Instead of doom and gloom, learn to look for lessons and opportunities. Your thoughts take you on a ride, they tell you these things. Practice telling them to stop. That’s what helps me overcome my self-doubt. This post was started by one of those moments.
“Your ability to control your thoughts – treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions – false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submissions to the divine.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 3.9
Discard your self-doubts
These moments happen though. Thoughts of self-doubt come up. In my first years as a teacher, whenever I would be observed by a peer or superior, I would be nervous. My mind would take me places and would expose me as a fraud. But even nowadays, as I’m creating content, the thoughts still show their faces. Whenever I press publish or speak in public about my views, I question myself. And there is Marcus again. With some advice, and some beautiful lines, that tell me where my power lies.
“Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 9.13
He didn’t escape it, he discarded it. Not running from it but taking it for what it was. He brushed it aside because he knew it came from his mind. The same goes for self-doubt. It comes from ourselves. Learn to look at it from that angle. We set ourselves limits that don’t exist. We can discover our limits by trying, not by thinking.
Don’t worry about other people
How do we overcome self-doubt as a Stoic? Well, let’s first acknowledge where it starts. In our mind, nowhere else. Then we can tell ourselves to stop. Reflect on what we are doubting about and see it for what it is. We create our reality, so we can change it as well. Then we must learn to stay close to our nature and purpose. From that framework, we can build and tackle any obstacle that comes our way.
When that little voice pops up, discard it. When you find yourself in awe of someone, tell yourself that they are only human. No different from you. If you do your best and make sure you know what you need to know, then you’re no less than anyone out there. I’ll leave you with two more quotes by Marcus to wrap this one up.
“Look inward. Don’t let the true nature or value of anything elude you.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6.3
“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people – unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 3.4