• Self-confidence is often upheld as the ultimate goal, the result of having moved past self-doubt and imposter syndrome

  • But, argues therapist Irena Sekulska, it's self-compassion that will get you there

  • We have therapists available to support you here

Friends and clients alike often ask me how to build self-confidence and move past the self-doubt and imposter syndrome many of us feel plagued by. Here is a simple, but perhaps surprising, answer: The cure for self-doubt is not self-confidence. It is compassion.

The trap of self-confidence

Self-doubt is quite a familiar place for me. When I first became aware of this tendency, like most of us, I stumbled upon various therapeutic, coaching and spiritual aids to 'build self-confidence'. I don’t know how that worked out for you, but it didn’t work out for me at all.

The trouble is that when we work on our self-confidence, we replace one belief about who we are (a negative and unhelpful one) with another belief (a more positive and constructive one). The key word here is, of course, 'belief'.

By definition, beliefs are not facts, neither are they an embodied truth. Because of that, wherever there is a belief (positive or negative), there is also space for doubt, second-guessing, comparison, self-deflation, self-inflation and so on…

But that’s not the only obstacle. Here is the bigger one: the deep-rooted beliefs we hold about ourselves are not easy to let go of or 'just replace' by shinier ones, because they are consistent with our internal image of who we think we are. 

In other words, those of us who struggle with imposter syndrome believe on some level that we are our deflated separate identity or ego.

This dynamic becomes obvious when the self-doubt persists despite many examples of the opposite. For instance, we may have objectively had a lot of 'evidence' in life that we are competent or loved, good enough, successful by societal standards, you name it... And yet, there is a part of us that struggles to enjoy the success, receive the love that is expressed or feel enough.

This part stubbornly continues to whirl in the old 'not good enough' swamp. We either identify with it fully and continue to self-sabotage, or we rebel against it and try to prove the opposite. In both cases, there is an inner struggle and an old belief that has gone unexamined – that we might indeed be 'not good enough'. 

Now here's the next surprising bit: the part of us that feels 'not good enough' is intelligent.

In my personal experience, becoming curious about this part was the beginning of transformation. Ironically, it started with giving up all my efforts to fix it, meditate it away, get rid of it, overcome it or push through it. None of it truly worked. And what a blessing! When all my attempts to fix myself and become more confident failed, I could finally inquire into it with a beginner's mind.

I first discovered that this part of me felt very young – it had the temperament, stubbornness and shyness of a child and was somehow arrested in an earlier stage of development. To try to reason with it and talk to it in a judgmental and directive way was just as helpful as it would be if I tried to reason with a four-year-old who is having a tantrum.

More surprisingly, I discovered that this self-doubting part of me was intelligent and not to be fixed or suppressed. And that’s the healing nectar – the seemingly unhelpful and debilitating beliefs we hold about ourselves are not random, however absurd they may sound to others or to our rational grown up mind. They have played an important role in our survival as a young nervous system and typically protect a deep wound. 

In other words, they’ve played a benevolent and loving role. To ignore these beliefs, dismiss them or simply plaster them with some other more positive beliefs is to ignore the lessons they hold for us. As we finally learn these lessons, there is a possibility to heal and expand into a freer, more fulfilled and open version of ourselves.

The cure for self-doubt 

So what’s the secret? How to move past self-doubt? The simple answer is…don’t move past. Instead, let your attention turn towards it with curiosity. 

Follow the pain of 'feeling not good enough' in the body. It will lead you to parts of your psyche that you may have overlooked. It will uncover cognitive mistakes that you made about your nature at a young age. It will help you discover first hand what is actually true for you, beyond your beliefs about yourself or the reassurance of others. 

Here is a simple inquiry that you can do on a sheet of paper or as a meditation.

1.Connect with your body and your breath, feel your feet on the floor and your bum on the chair. Invite a sense of grounding and feel the support of the earth or chair underneath you.

2. Instead of pushing the negative beliefs away or quickly switching to 'I’ve got this', try the opposite – invite the pain to be fully experienced without judgment or agenda. For a moment, put down all your mental attempts to convince yourself that you are indeed 'good enough' and allow the fear of being 'not good enough at all' to arise. It is already alive in you, so why deny its presence?

3. Take a moment to examine it directly and experientially. What if what you fear is true: you are indeed 'inadequate', 'a failure', 'a fraud' (or whatever words come for you)?

4. Notice whether it has a physical location in the body. How would you describe it to someone who has never felt like this before? Does it have a colour, a weight or any other characteristics? Allow it to be for a moment, dare not to fix it or soothe it. Be as you are. You may discover that this small surrender is already a relief.

5. If it feels good, you can go deeper. How old is this feeling in your body? When do you remember feeling this way for the first time? What was happening in your circumstances?

6. What else do you see from the perspective of a grown-up that could explain what happened (other than this younger self not being good enough)? This is the cognitive mistake I mentioned above.

7. What did this younger self need back then that she didn’t receive? What have you been giving her all this time? Are you willing to support her with what’s actually needed?

That’s all. It is a radical, but honest and loving self-investigation. Mysteriously, as we turn towards rather than away from these old wounds, we find deep compassion for the tender parts of ourselves that never grew up. We also find love and gratitude for the mechanisms that protected us. We see first hand that the very impostor syndrome we were fighting against is actually made of love. It falls naturally when it is no longer needed to protect the old wounds.

In this sense, the cure for self-doubt is not self-confidence. It is your natural wisdom and compassion that arise from seeing yourself more accurately and clearly than you did as a child.

Irena Sekulska is a verified Welldoing therapist in North London and online

Further reading

Understanding your self-critic: how to stop being so hard on yourself

The benefits of being curious about who you are

Why a compassionate approach to living with anxiety is key 

The wisdom of uncertainty and not knowing

The birth of the false self: surviving a difficult childhood