How Highly Successful People Handle Self-Doubt

By Melody Wilding '11SW of the Columbia Career Coaches Network
This article originally appeared on

Think about the last time you felt fear and anxiety take control of your day. Maybe it stopped you from speaking up in a meeting because you felt like your opinion wasn't worthwhile. Perhaps a simple email took you hours to write because your inner critic kept telling you it wasn’t good enough—that you weren’t good enough.

Many high-achievers struggle with thoughts that they are a fraud and that they are incompetent, despite a track record of accomplishments. This psychological phenomenon, known as Impostor Syndrome, can show up in many areas of our lives including at work in the form of:

  • Downplaying promotions
  • Declining new responsibilities
  • Assuming you're not qualified enough for your job

While no one is immune from self-doubt, it actually impacts high-achievers the most and in my experience, this battle with the inner critic is one many successful people share—yet one we don't often talk about it.

The Truth About Self-Doubt

Fear of failure is a universal human emotion, experienced by some of the world's most successful people

Maya Angelou once admitted:

"I have written eleven books, but each time I think, "Uh-oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out."

Leaders from virtually every industry have spoken about feeling undeserving of success, including Neil Gaiman, Sheryl Sandberg, Emma Watson, and even Albert Einstein.

So if you are dealing with Impostor Syndrome, know that you are not alone. While it's true that self-doubt can be toxic, what's more problematic is the fact that we never learn to deal with this normal, expected emotion in healthy ways.

In my TEDx talk, I shared a simple two-step strategy highly successful people use to overcome self-doubt. The secret is approaching uncertainty as a skill and embracing a growth mindset that it's something you can get better at with time and practice.

You can watch my talk for the full details, but here are a few tips to get you started.

How Highly Successful Deal With Impostor Syndrome

1. They recognize repetitive thought patterns and actively change their mindset.

Out of the 60 to 70,000 thoughts we have every day, estimates suggest 98 percent of them are the same. This means your inner critic is really a habit—a thought pattern you can get control of.

Start by identifying underlying beliefs (potentially rooted in childhood) that may make you feel as though you don't deserve your success. Look for exaggerated, irrational, or unrealistic thoughts that come up again and again and practice identifying common cognitive distortions that trip you up.

2. They get curious and ask questions.

Your inner critic is really there to protect you, so do your best to practice self-compassion. Take the questions it poses at face value and use it for problem-solving.

For example, if your inner critic is cautioning that you may not be ready to pursue a new career path, address its concerns constructively. Use it as an opportunity to honestly assess your skills and evaluate gaps you need to fill.

3. They don't let fear get in the way of their purpose.

We all experience worry and confusion in the face of change and uncertainty. It's normal to be afraid. Our inner critic will always speak up anytime we try to do big things no matter how positive we try to be. Hearing the voice of your inner critic can mean you're about to do something brave and important to you. No one gets the luxury of living without fear–not even confident people.

So, it's time to start viewing your emotions–the good and the "bad"—for what they are: your greatest strength and most valuable tool.



Melody Wilding '11SW teaches human behavior at The City University of New York and is a nationally recognized Master Coach who distills psychological insights into actionable career advice. A licensed social worker trained at Columbia, she's helped thousands of professional women and female entrepreneurs master their mindset and emotions for greater success. She's worked with CEOs and executives running top startups along with published authors and media personalities. She can help you identify and remove mental and emotional barriers keeping you from reaching the next level in your career. Learn more about her approach and results at If you're interested in working with Wilding one-on-one, get in touch about special private coaching rates for Columbia alumni.

Learn more about the Columbia Career Coaches Network.

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