THAT SUDDEN FEAR OF HEIGHTS
Having a panic after the initial rush of excitement when you first launch yourself into a new venture is normal – and not a sign that you should give up, says psychologist Jess Baker.
Ever hurled yourself into a new thing – a passion, a sideline or a new venture – with great enthusiasm and confidence, only to have a major wobble a few months down the line? We call this confidence crisis The Six Month Blip. It can derail many an ambitious plan, leaving our laptops littered with half-written novels and our lofts full of bikes, video cameras, surf boards and assorted gear that got used to death for a while and is now lying, discarded and unloved, in a corner. And we don’t even talk about that plan anymore. If anything it’s become a sore point.
Because apart from the energy it takes to do something new and walk into the unknown, it also takes self-belief. Which, it turns out, can be a fragile and wobbly thing once the doubts creep in.
Self-doubt is a ruthless feeling that make us question our actions and beliefs. Its more extreme sibling, impostor syndrome – where we doubt our very right to be in our current job, position or venture – can get under our skin and take control of the situation, making us a passenger on our own journey. Imposter Syndrome is hugely common in all areas of big change – and in everyday life, too. It is thought that around 85% of people in the world (yes, the world!) suffer from low self-esteem and self-doubt which shows that whatever you do and whoever you are, you are not immune from your own worst enemy – yourself.
“You freeze with sudden fear at the enormity of the challenge and feel woefully ill-equipped”>
The Six Month Blip, where the initial feeling of certainty and excitement after taking a big step is followed by the sudden lurch to ‘I can’t do this!’, is like a form of vertigo – you freeze with sudden fear at the enormity of the challenge and and feel woefully ill-equipped when you stare into the void opening up before you. Self-doubt catches up, takes its grip on you with a vengeance and the initial joy and excitement that you previously felt gets swallowed by your inner critic.
When this happens your confidence is shaken by the inevitable obstacles and challenges of making this big change and you’re particularly sensitive to negative comments – even perceived ones. You start to doubt yourself as your inner critic takes the wheel and drives you to a wasteland of questions that you go over and over: ‘What if I fail’? ”What have I done’? and ‘What made me think I can do this?’. You feel like an impostor, a fraud, not good enough to carry your plans to fruition. Sounds familiar, right?
Business Psychologist and Women’s Leadership Coach Jess Baker says it only takes a negative vibe from someone and our self doubt kicks in. “If we talk to people about our new venture and are met with a quizzical look, a question or a critical vibe, we start to view things in a negative light, because that’s what our brain does – it assumes the worst. All it takes is for someone to ask an awkward question that pinpoints something we’re not quite comfortable with about this life change, and we’re in a self-critical tailspin”.
If you already have a few doubts, it will exacerbate that feeling. The more fear and anxiety you feel the more susceptible you are to feeling worse. It’s a downward spiral and your brain is looking for signs – people’s facial expressions, comments etc – to confirm what it suspects. “And because your brain is not wired to be happy but to protect you, it will more readily remember negative experiences. Your brain is constantly looking for things to protect you from – so you focus on the negative feedback, not the positive,” says Jess.
“Because your brain is not wired to be happy but to protect you, it will more readily remember negative experiences”
The thing is, we should cut ourselves some slack. Feeling uncomfortable and experiencing self-doubt about our abilities is normal when we’re doing something we’ve never done before, says Jess. Especially if we’re the kind of person who is already susceptible to self-criticism. “It’s all about what we expect, and if we’re perfectionistic and idealistic, we’re more likely to feel the fear and anxiety wrapped up in this new and challenging situation. Rather than being rational and thinking ‘It’s an unfamiliar role, I’m going to have to ask questions and learn as I go along,” we think ‘Everyone’s going to expect me to know what I’m doing on day one’. But it’s simply not fair or realistic to put that pressure on yourself. You’re learning as you go along, building information, filling in the gaps in your knowledge – you don’t have all the answers yet.”
But why are our brains wired to doubt ourselves? Believe it or not, these overwhelming feelings stretch back in time, farther than many would perhaps think. “When our distant ancestors were faced with danger, such as a cave bear, they experienced the fight or flight phenomenon, which makes your amygdala, the tiny gland in your emotional brain, become triggered. It sends messages round the body, increasing the heartbeat to send blood and oxygen round the limbs so you can fight or run if you need to. In our modern life, when we’re highly stressed because we’re out of our comfort zone, we have exactly the same reaction over a perceived threat – we feel that fear as if we’ve already failed, thinking: ’They’re going to find out I’m a fraud, ‘I’m going to fail’ . And that fear and doubt can be very convincing.
So now we know what causes it, how do we overcome the dreaded confidence blip?
ADJUST YOUR MINDSET
“Consider your thought process and engage your rational brain. Instead of ‘I’m rubbish, I’m going to fail’, reframe those thoughts. If your thought is ‘I’m not good enough,’ there is a well-established cognitive behavioural therapy method called disputation, where you simply ask your brain to provide rational evidence for that negative belief,” says Jess. You’ll find there’s no evidence. “What you’ll find is there’s every evidence that you’re new to what you’re doing, you’re learning and need to give yourself time, and it’s normal to feel the fear. If you weren’t worried at all you’d be complacent or overly confident which is not going to help you, so let yourself feel it, but don’t give into it completely”.
GET THE RIGHT SUPPORT
Don’t listen to the naysayers, who will only ramp up those feelings of self-doubt. Says Jess: “Find social support among people in a similar situation, with whom you can have a shared language and understanding. This network will help counter that self-doubt and help you solve the problems, offering solutions from their own experience. This will allow you to take the time to ask for feedback, as well as self-assess and be your own critic, in a space where you can look at ways to move forward – rather than ways back to your comfort zone.
REFRAME THOSE THOUGHTS
Jess adds, “If you’ve experienced self-doubt before in your life and have experienced failure, reframe what you’re going through. Say you’re committing to this for now, and if it fails it doesn’t make you a failure. Many of us have experienced failed enterprises and we learn a lot from the process and then move on. Often those learnings help us to succeed the next time around. But you also need to allow yourself to believe that it will succeed – and do everything you can to make this happen” .
CELEBRATE SMALL SUCCESSES
One of the most important things you can do is to be mindful. “Being in the moment, rather than the future or the past, allows us to focus on what’s happening around us in the present – those small obstacles, those little successes and achievements that you work hard to make happen should be accounted for and celebrated,” says Jess. In this way you will be letting your brain know that progress is being made and you’re heading in the right direction.
So, next time you’re doubting yourself over a big change you’ve been brave enough to take, don’t panic or lose faith. As somebody very wise once said “Feel the fear and do it anyway”.
Words: Lorna Toni Webb.