Conquering Self-Doubt

John Singer Sargent, an American portrait and mural painter, received phenomenal acclaim in the United States and Europe. He once painted a small panel of roses that was highly praised by critics as being nearly perfect. On many occasions, Sargent was offered sizeable amounts of money, but, in each case, he refused to sell it. People around him were puzzled why he insisted on keeping that one small piece of art. Sargent explained that he considered it one of his best works of art and thus, whenever he was deeply discouraged and doubted his abilities, he would look at it. Then his confidence would return to him.

That story offers two important life lessons. First, even the most successful people experience times of doubt and discouragement. Second, Sargent’s story demonstrates that we can conquer self-doubt. Here are some of those ways: 

1. Saturating your mind with Scripture passages of hope. It will be hard to remain discouraged and self-doubting if you fill your mind with positive, hopeful passages from the Bible. To get started, consider these verses (New King James Version):

  • Psalm 42:8—“The Lord will command His loving kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me.”
  • Philippians 4:6, 7—“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer. . . . let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds.”
  • Zephaniah 3:16, 17—“Let not your hands be weak. The Lord your God in your midst, The Mighty One, . . . will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.”
  • Isaiah 35:3, 4—“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are fearful-hearted, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come.’ ”

2. Be aware of the people in your life. The Bible reminds us that not every person we encounter is good for us. In Exodus 34:12 the people of Israel were warned: “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you” (NIV). The psalmist offers a similar reminder: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful” (Ps.1:1). Be aware and beware the people who make up your circle of family and friends. If there are individuals who routinely discourage you from being all that you can be, ignore that voice. If you allow their perceptions and words to impact you, it will be a case of the blind leading the blind. History is filled with successful, satisfied people who ignored the negative thinkers in their lives. Consider:

  • Fred Astaire: After his first screen test, the memo from the MGM testing director, dated 1933, read: “Can’t act! Slightly bald! Can dance a little!” Astaire kept that memo over the fireplace of his Beverly Hills home.
  • Louisa May Alcott: Before she authored the world best-seller, Little Women, she was encouraged by her family to seek employment as a seamstress or servant.
  • Ludwig Van Beethoven: He became the predominant musical figure of his generation and was the first composer to make an exceptional living from his music compositions without subsidies from court or church. One of his early teachers described him “hopeless” as a composer.
  • Auguste Rodin: He became a world-renown sculptor even though his father described him, saying: “I have an idiot for a son.” His uncle said Rodin was “uneducable.” Also, Rodin failed three times trying to gain admission to a school of art.
  • Vince Lombardi: Although he became one of America’s greatest football coaches, an early evaluation of Lombardi stated: “He possesses minimal football knowledge. Lacks motivation.”

The lesson from these examples: Override the negative voices in your life and keep moving ahead with your dreams and aspirations.

3. Boldly face your fears. Remember the encouragement from the apostle Paul: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). FEAR is a good acronym: False Evidence Appearing Real. There are three ways of dealing with fear:


A. You can try to avoid and deny it.

B. You can hope it will just go away.

Of course, those two will simply leave you continuously in the grip of fear.

C. Face your fear boldly.

Facing fear is what causes it to shrink. Author Terri Jentz nearly died after she was attacked by an ax-wielding psychopath while on a 1977 camping trip in Oregon. No one was ever apprehended, and the police eventually gave up their investigation.

Several years later she decided to try and find the man who attacked her. Jentz explains why: “I felt a deadening of my former vitality. I was so fearful in a vague, constant way, scared of everything. If a guy hissed at me on the street, what I heard was a rattlesnake. I had to take action to restore my former self.” She went back to Oregon and began her own investigation.

Piecing together evidence from police files, Jentz discovered a man whom some police officers originally suspected. He was on trial for another crime, so Jentz went to the court room and found that immediately empowering. “Once you give your fear a shape and form, it becomes manageable,” she says. “I was able to see that it was just this person—not everyone in the world—who was violent. And that restored my sense of inner safety.”

4. Let courageous role models help you tap the hero within. That advice comes from psychotherapist Kathleen A. Brehony, Ph.D., who says: “Particularly during difficult periods, our heroes can serve as our companions, illuminating the path before us. Reflecting on their journeys allows us to connect with the heroes within ourselves.” To tap into your inner hero, Dr. Brehony suggests three steps:

  1. 1. Study to learn more about your heroes.
  2. 2. Sit quietly, and reflect on your heroes. 
  3. 3. “When you are going through a difficult time, write a story about your difficulty, exploring how your hero might deal with the same crisis or problem.”  

5. Affirm your unique gifts and talents. Don’t buy into any cultural myths that say you can’t do something because of your age, gender, race, or economic circumstances. When those become issues, find ways to transcend them. Remind yourself you are a unique individual with considerable gifts and talents to be expressed and shared. Madeleine Albright became America’s first female Secretary of State, serving from 1997 until 2001. Because she was a woman, this was not an easy accomplishment. She told an interviewer: “It was very difficult for women of my generation to get anywhere. I graduated from college in 1959 and got married three days later. I wanted to be a journalist, but from age 24 to 39, I raised three daughters and did volunteer work and then I went to graduate school. Not the best way to begin, but you do what you can.” Winston Churchill continued plodding forward in spite of a lifetime of defeats and setbacks. He did not become prime minister of England until he was 62, and his greatest contributions came when he was a “senior citizen.”

6. Take on challenges that scare you. A powerful way to minimize and even eliminate self-doubt is by doing something that frightens you. Consider the example of one woman who says: “At one moment in my life, I decided I would do five things that scared me every day. These might include making a difficult phone call, signing up for a class, reaching out to befriend a new person, or something truly scary—such as skydiving, buying a ticket to a foreign country, or committing to running the marathon. Of course, I rarely did five scary things every day, but committing myself to reach beyond what I thought was possible opened my life—making me, essentially a timid person, brave.”

7. Always move forward. There is one more piece of advice worth following when experiencing self-doubt: Carry on in spite of it! That quality may have been the genius of Thomas Alva Edison. In 1878 he boldly announced he was going to invent an electric light bulb that would eventually light homes and offices around the world. To do this he sought massive funding from New York’s financial elite. Many invested in the new corporation, Edison Electric Light Company, which later became known as General Electric. Edison determined that the key to creating an incandescent bulb was finding the right filament fiber, one that would not burn out too quickly. He was confident he’d find it rapidly. He tested one fiber after another, failing to find one that would work. In all, he failed 6,000 times. No one knows for sure if self-doubt emerged in Edison’s mind, but what is known is that he kept moving forward. Sometime after the 6,000th fiber, he discovered carbonized filaments from cotton thread that worked well.

When experiencing self-doubt, remind yourself that just because you feel self-doubt or even despair, those feelings don’t mean you cannot move toward. Philosopher Edmund Burke wisely observed: “Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair.”

Victor M. Parachin
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists