As a therapist, I have conversations with people about anxiety several times a day. It’s a word that’s become synonymous with a whole range of emotional experiences, from worry, to fear, to nervousness, to a general sense of unease, and beyond. No matter the context or variety, there tends to be a common element of negative anticipation, which is often related to knowledge gained from past experiences of oneself or others.
Anxiety, Confidence, and Doubt
A lot of people seek solutions to anxiety in response to a sense of not measuring up. This often comes with a fear of being inadequately equipped to handle challenging aspects of their lives. Usually, as the details unfold, people acknowledge that this kind of anxiety has a lot to do with their confidence being undermined. Through this work, I’ve come to see that the juxtaposition of confidence and doubt can have a lot to do with anxiety in some contexts.
Anxiety is an understandable emotional response to the notion that we may not be able to handle the challenges life serves us. It can feel like anticipating being tossed into the deep end of a pool and not being sure if we can keep our heads above the water. The inner dialog is generally not entirely dominated by doubt – there’s usually a sense that a positive outcome is possible – but we’re doubtful enough to warrant feeling really uncomfortable. In situations like these, anxiety can tell us that our safety may be in jeopardy and we may not have what it takes to stay whole. It’s a feeling that we likely would not have if our sense of confidence in our abilities (or our trust in others – depending on the context) was unquestionably convincing.
In light of its concern for our safety, I don’t see anxiety as an inherently bad thing for us to experience. Instead, I see it as an adaptive response to physical or social danger and a lack of security. Although anxiety has our best interests in mind, I do understand and respect when people say that something about their anxiety isn’t working for them – such as those who identify as having an anxiety disorder.
Helping Confidence Along
So, what supports us in feeling confident? From my experience, factors that bolster confidence are often exceptions to the doubts we hold. When we feel safe enough to challenge those doubts, and are adequately supported (both internally and externally), we’re likely to experience some degree of success, which then stands in contrast to anxiety-informing doubts.
1. Opportunities to succeed
- When we’re given fair chances to prove our abilities to ourselves and others.
2. External support
- When other people and systems in our lives support us in succeeding and offer encouragement.
3. Past successes
- When we’re able to draw on knowledge gained from other times we were able to succeed.
Essentially, when we’re able to hang on to the knowledge that we do in fact have what it takes, we’re able to align more closely with our sense of confidence. When this happens, we’re likely to feel less anxious when we face adversity.
Doubt and Anxiety
Doubt can really put our confidence to the test. It can undermine the knowledge we have about our capabilities and leave us feeling unsure if we’re really up to the task. So what supports doubt? Well, for starters, we live in a world that sends us a fairly constant stream of messages about our so-called deficiencies. These messages can come from cultural ideas spread through various forms of media, or from people we have direct relationships with. Many of the folks I speak with about anxiety have had other people in their lives explicitly tell them that they don’t cut it – that they lack in skill, ability, or worth. It understandably follows that these people might feel more anxious and reluctant to do certain things if there’s a chance they’ll struggle and be labeled deficient in turn. In these circumstances, as awful as it might feel, anxiety can indicate a concern for one’s own safety, dignity, and well-being.
- disaffirming messages about our abilities,
- receiving judgment or condemnation from others when we struggle,
- messages that imply that we’re deficient in key ways.
I’ve noticed that negative, doubt-supporting messages often carry more weight for people than their positive, confidence-supporting counterparts. This can make the struggle to feel confident particularly challenging. However, it is possible to resist doubt. Doing so makes more room for confidence to inform our sense of ease and security – thereby reducing our anxiety in those kinds of situations.
Diminishing Doubtful Anxiety
Because everyone’s life circumstances are different, there are no universal rules to follow when resisting doubt in favour of confidence. Some people might choose to avoid those who do and say things to bolster their sense of doubt and diminish their sense of confidence. Others might remind themselves privately that they are indeed skilled or knowledgeable in the ways that doubt might deny.
I’ve asked the following questions to clients in the past to help them align more with confidence and less with doubt:
- When do you feel most Confident? When might you feel most Doubtful? What are you doing in either case?
- If you were to personify Confidence and Doubt, what kinds of people would they be?
- Which would you prefer to spend your time with and why? (likely a no-brainer)
- If spending time with Doubt was a bit of a downer, how would you resist it coming around?
- How would you keep Doubt from getting too close to you if you noticed you were feeling down around it?
- If Confidence helped you feel good, how would you hang on to its messages despite contrary opinions expressed by Doubt?
- What might Doubt not know about you that you and your supporters do?
- What lessons could Doubt stand to learn about you and your abilities?
- How could you remind Doubt of these facts when its standing against your Confidence?
I’m all for doing more of what already helps. In many cases, it can be helpful to remember how and when you feel or felt confident, and to do your best to re-establish that sense. If you were able to diminish anxiety-informing doubt in one circumstance, could that apply to other contexts?
About Will Bratt
Will Bratt is a counsellor in Victoria, BC, specializing in therapy for trauma and interpersonal violence. He is passionate about addressing stigma through depathologizing human suffering. In addition to writing for Healthy Minds Canada, he runs his own blog on his website, Will Bratt Counselling. You can connect with Will through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.