Five Tips for Overcoming Self-Doubt

Your comfort zone

Some self-disclosure here—I’m a rather sensitive person and I often tend towards self-doubt, thinking something is my fault if it doesn’t go well and lots of critical voices in my head always.  With time, I’ve learned to see this as a strength since it means I’m constantly evaluating myself and pushing myself to become better.  However, often in the day to day, this self-doubt can be difficult.  And especially so in the field of social work, where decisions made often have far-reaching repercussions.

Over the years I’ve had to develop methods to help me not to linger in my own self-doubt and to feel more confident in my decision-making.  I’m guessing there are other social workers out there who have struggles with self-doubt as well, so wanted to share the methods I’ve used and continue to use today, to help feel confident and to shake off the nagging self-doubt voice.  These are applicable to non-social workers, as well so feel free to share with others you know who might find these ideas helpful.

1. Regular self-reflection.

This almost seems counter-intuitive, but I’ve found it to be very helpful. For years, I don’t think I recognized or acknowledged my struggles with self-doubt and so maybe didn’t realize I needed the extra support.  It can be helpful to talk with your supervisor about your own self-doubt so that they can help you process what is reality versus what is going on in your mind. Once you become more accustomed to those kinds of questions, you can ask them of yourself.  This will help you to be able to figure out what is the truth in the situation compared to thoughts based on self-doubt. Are there tangible things to be learned that will help you improve your practice in the future? If so, learn from the experience and move on.

2. Continued professional development.

I love learning…and have found that when I know more about myself, about the profession, about current practices, current issues, etc., the more I feel like and am a competent social worker. It’s interesting, but I feel this area has actually gotten harder to take time for as my personal life has gotten busier and required more of me.  I didn’t realize how much I craved professional development until I did take two days a few months ago and went to a conference that for me was all about professional development.  I left feeling so recharged, confident, excited…and during a timeframe when if I had not gone I probably would have felt professionally drained and would have questioned myself lots and lots.  By taking the time for professional development, one grows. And when you know you are growing, self-doubt can take a back seat.

3. Be aware of your biases.

Letting my supervisors and/or trusted colleagues know my biases and asking them to push me on certain topics based on my own self-awareness has been extremely helpful. Self-reflection leads to self-awareness.  I know most of my biases…and have been sure to share the ones I know about with my supervisors. Often this has been within the context of case-specific work. When I know I’m struggling with a decision because of my own experiences and biases I share that.

I think it’s so important to know and acknowledge my lens and share it with others, not to convince them that my lens is right, but so that they can help by asking further questions and making sure my assessment is based on all of the facts of the situation.  Having others there to help me explore means a more collective decision-making process as well, and more minds and eyes on the situation generally lead to better, more well-thought-out decisions and less self-doubt.

4. Learn from perceived mistakes and trust your gut.

I’ve been in the same general profession, a social worker in child welfare for over a decade.  I’ve seen my successes and I’ve seen my failures.  There are, sadly, cases I worked on over 10 years ago that I ran across again because of failed adoptions or failed reunification…adoptions and reunifications that I was in some capacity a part of.  And hearing about these cases breaks my heart and makes me want to crawl under a rock because of my participation in something that did not turn out to be the positive ending that I thought it would.

But, once I’m ready to pop my head back out and again go back to #1 and reflect, usually there is some wisdom gained.  Sometimes it means I realize I had a gut reaction, and the next time someone else brings me a gut reaction about a case I will push them further—will point out the importance of the decision and will ask what else can we assess so that the gut reaction isn’t just a gut.   If you are a natural self-doubter and in social work, then PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, trust your gut. And then dig…you may find something concrete to support your gut.  I’m 98% sure of it.

5. Practice self-compassion.

No one is perfect. Even those who don’t struggle with self-doubt are not perfect.  As a natural self-doubter, you are also a natural self-improvement person and that is actually a sign of a true leader.  You will take the time to recognize what you need improvement in and improve it.  And when you doubt yourself and it’s not warranted, with time you will learn to treat yourself with the same compassion that you treat others with.  I’m still working on this piece, but am realizing how important it is to treat myself as I would a friend–listen, acknowledge, support, and be kind.  By doing so, I can move on and be better next time, without unnecessary guilt to hold me back.

Do you struggle with self-doubt in regards to your decision-making and/or work life in general?  How do you help to overcome it? Do you (like me) see this as a potential strength?  I’d love to hear from you so we can learn from one another!

The Social Poison of Gaslighting, and How to Deal With It

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The term gaslighting originates from a play/film called Gas Light, in which a man tries to convince his wife she is mad. He does this by changing her environment (e.g. dimming the gas lighting) and then telling her she’s imagining things.

As a psychological term, it is essentially a technique that allows someone to bully others by making someone doubt their own perceptions, memories, and feelings. It is used in cases as slight as passive-aggression to cases as serious as domestic violence, abuse, and sexual assault.

Gaslighting works as a poison – it is the victim’s doubts and mistrust of their own perceptions of reality that make the technique effective. That means that gaslighting is an excellent way of targeting someone with whom there is already a power imbalance (e.g. doctor or therapist and patient, teacher and student, adult and child, boss and worker, popular and unpopular).

Examples of gaslighting may be about brushing things off, pretending to get offended when issues were brought up, telling the victim that they were being unreasonable, outright denying that something was said/done, or claiming the victim has misunderstood (e.g. it was “banter”, deliberately over-reacting to make the victim feel silly, or suggesting that the victim is “too” (stressed, tired, sensitive). Additionally, gaslighters may bring in other people, who are ignorant of the whole picture, to shame the victim and emphasise the idea that it is an overreaction.

Usually, the events that constitute gaslighting are innocuous and small. It is not outright, clear abuse, but incidents that seem minor and build up over time. This means it’s easy to make the victim doubt their perceptions of what has happened, or how serious something is. By stirring up guilt and shame in the victim, or outright claiming something never happened, it is possible to do some pretty horrible things.

These small acts often progress like a trail of breadcrumbs. This progression of small things allows the perpetrator to “get a foot in the door” with their gaslighting, and push the boundary just that tiny bit further each time. By the time the victim realises things have gone too far, it may be too late.

Regarding pushing the boundary, an example may be a person in the workplace who is overly touchy-feely. The first time it happened they brushed past the victim when there was plenty of space. Then, a few days later, they may pass the victim a folder, brushing their hand against theirs. Perhaps they progressed and insisted on giving the victim a congratulatory hug for a minor achievement. Everyone in the office was watching and the victim felt unable to refuse the hug without looking like they were overreacting.

Such incidents continue, and the hugs start to occur in private places rather than in public. Yet, there is never any obvious problem such as sexual assault.

If the victim brought this up with the gaslighter, the person may retort that they are just being friendly, and suggest that the victim is arrogant to think otherwise. They may bring up the long history of hugging and suggest “It was never a problem before”. In the workplace, a gaslighter may bring colleagues in to publicly shame the victim “Have you heard this?”.

The key thing about this situation is that the first incidents were too small to bring up, because the person being gaslighted wasn’t sure what was happening. The first hug was done in public, and it was difficult to backtrack – and this leads the way to claim the victim is “overreacting, you were never bothered before”. This is especially difficult for women who are considered overreactive and unstable in the first place.

Gaslighting, aside from victims into unwanted situations, does insidious damage to self-esteem. It teaches victims that they have no understanding of people or of the world around them, that they can’t believe their instincts, or that they are helpless and vulnerable. It makes them feel they “need the support” and “can’t cope alone” which is another form of discrediting and gaslighting. Most importantly, the person being gaslighted is unable to trust their own feelings.

This is especially easy to perpetrate on people who already doubt their own feelings and perceptions, which may include those who have experienced abusive relationships, invalidating childhoods, women, children, and people with mental health problems,

To protect oneself, and others, against gaslighting, a physical written record is important. That prevents the victim from doubting their memory, and it allows them to track any gentle progression of behaviours. This also provides a record for anyone who is in a position to help, to support them in understanding and believing the victim’s situation.

Additionally, speaking to a trusted other who can provide an outsider’s view would be useful, if such a person were around. Especially regarding passive-aggressive bullying, or subtle sexual inappropriateness, it may be that others are also victims, or people who have the same emotional experience as the gaslighter. It is also crucial to identify someone with power who can provide support and help.

On an individual level, Gavin De Becker’s book ‘The Gift of Fear’ explains the importance of recognising gaslighting, and critically developing the skills of trusting one’s gut instincts, learning to be assertive (especially, but not limited to, women, who are socialised to be polite and gentle), building confidence, and being more forthright one’s wants and needs There are also free resources online.

One can also use simple statements such as “Can you explain why that joke is funny?”, “I never told you before, but I’m actually not a huggy person”, “I hear you say that it’s not on purpose, but it makes me feel awkward anyway, so can you stop it?”, “I know you think I’m overreacting but this is important to me. Is there a problem with changing your behaviour?”.

This is not at all to suggest that a victim is responsible for protecting themselves from gaslighting. The victim is not responsible for making the gaslighting stop. However, some of these ideas may support a victim in trying to recognise gaslighting, minimise the harm and seek appropriate support. Some of these individual techniques are impossible due to a power dynamic, or because of worries about physical safety. If it isn’t safe to use simple deflection techniques, then removing oneself from the situation and getting help from others are the best options.

It is important for us to recognise this process, in ourselves and with the people around us. Gaslighting’s key feature is invalidation. There is a crucial difference between a curious “Have you thought about it in this way?” and “You are overreacting, it’s not like that at all, you’re so sensitive”. It is true that an individual’s feelings may not always seem reasonable or understandable from an outsider perspective. Additionally, the way that one reacts to those feelings is not always acceptable (e.g. the valid feeling of anger does not make physical aggression okay).

However, feelings are real and they are true for that person. They are always, always valid, and nobody has the right to tell anyone otherwise.

Let’s all work together to put out those gaslights.

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