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How to Handle Self-Doubt

If there is ONE problem out there that every musician suffers from, regardless of age, skill level, profession, or whatever, it’s self-doubt. Self-doubt, I swear, kills more careers and opportunities and dreams than anything else out there. At least a third of the messages I get on my social media are about how to improve confidence, how to stop doubting the sender’s abilities, how to believe in themselves, how to stop beating themselves up about stuff. ALL of these things are code for one underlying problem – you got it, self-doubt.

So, my advice is: believe in yourself! Don’t doubt yourself! You got this!

Great, that was a short article.

What do you mean that doesn’t help? You want actual advice? Well, fine. I guess.

The problem with self-doubt is that everyone’s reasons for doubting themselves are different. One person might doubt themselves because they were told they sucked back when they were younger. Someone else might doubt themselves because no one has ever actually criticized them and so they can’t tell whether they’re actually good or if people are humoring them. Another person may just have low self-esteem in general. The uniting factor is that each one of these people cares a great deal about what other people think, and not enough about their own well being. With that in mind, here’s a list of things you can do to stop doubting yourself and get a move on.

Compare yourself to no one but your past self.

You aren’t here to beat anyone. As competitive as music may sometimes feel, the goal isn’t to BEAT anyone – it’s to perform music, and maybe get paid for it. As long as you’re improving your own skills, at whatever rate is most comfortable to yourself, then you, my friend, are successful. If you can play scales better than you could two months ago, or if you have gotten over stage fright even a little bit, or heck, even if you’ve managed to not lose all your abilities after suffering a performance injury, then you are succeeding. In a world where everyone is expected to go into engineering or other high-prestige fields, by sticking with music and doing your best to improve, then you are successful. I promise.

Be easier on yourself.

Now this might feel counter-intuitive, or like it goes against what I just said, but hear me out. You want to compare yourself to your past self, yes. You want to improve, yes. HOWEVER, you can want to improve, you can be motivated to improve, you can be upset when you don’t improve as much as you want – without beating yourself up over it. Instead of thinking “Geez, I suck,” after playing something less than perfectly, or after fumbling some words, try thinking about it like, “Geez, that sucked. What can I do better next time?” There are two important differences.

  1. You’ve separated your self(worth) from the thing that went poorly, using “That” instead of “I”. That’s an important distinction! One incident does not a person make. You’ve got this.

  2. There’s an entire extra phrase! It focuses on improvement! Don’t just wallow in doing something wrong. That’s self-pity, which is honestly just as bad as self-doubt, and maybe more annoying. To move forward, try to figure out how to avoid that mistake in the future. The past is in the past, you can’t change it. So focus on what you can change.

So basically, don’t beat yourself up. Accept what goes wrong, and move on.

Take time to figure out your goals.

Know what you want from life. If life as a whole is a tall order right now, then maybe just figure out what you want out of the next year, or six months, or another time period of your choosing. I talk a lot about goals in last week’s post on burnout, and goals help here too. If your goal is to be amazing at opera, then what does it matter if you have a worse belting voice than the musical theater person? It literally does not matter even a little bit. If you do compare yourself to someone else (it’ll probably happen at some point, even if you do get good at mostly avoiding it), just keep in mind your goals and theirs. If they’re different, then you’re comparing apples to oranges.

Find validation.

This can be tricky, I know. But go find things that you do well. Ask a friend or a teacher for reassurance. Go back and listen to recordings that you’re proud of, uncritically. Sing in the shower, play your favorite song, knit. Do something that you like, or return to something you did well. There’s tons of things you’ve done well, I know it.

Be free to be vulnerable.

Sometimes, you are going to make a mistake. I’ve made at least four five  that I can think of today that actually affected how today went. (I made another as I was writing this point, actually.) I made at least three large enough that I can still cringe about them on my recital last month. However, I made those mistakes because I put myself out there. If you’re feeling a lot of self-doubt, a big chunk of it is usually fear of failure, not actual doubt about your abilities. But if you never put yourself out there – if you never make yourself vulnerable to failure – then you’re never going to have the kind of success that you want. Vulnerability to failure means vulnerability to success. If that makes sense. Be open to making a mistake, because that’s the only way to actually get anything done.

Self-doubt can’t be killed with a magic bullet. It needs time, and effort, and in some cases a fundamental shift in your viewpoint on a lot of stuff. That doesn’t mean you’re stuck, though. It just means that you’re going to have to take some fundamental stuff like what’s above, and then spend some time examining your life. You’ve got this. I believe in you.

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