You Can Teach Yourself to Turn Down Your Self-Doubt

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Photo: Walter Hodges

One would think that Meryl Streep would be free from self-doubt, as she alone has the distinct advantage of, you know, being Meryl Streep. Yet the actress has said that she struggles with insecurity. “I say to myself, ‘I don’t know how to act — and why does anybody want to look at me onscreen anymore?’” she once told O: The Oprah Magazine.

Whether it’s comforting or concerning that even a talented and successful Hollywood star is still sometimes plagued by self-doubt is a matter of opinion. Fortunately, in recent years, psychologists have found an effective way to reframe those negative thoughts about yourself, as writer Elizabeth Bernstein notes this week in The Wall Street Journal. It’s called cognitive reappraisal, and it essentially means changing the way you think about your own thoughts. Instead of viewing some mistake you made at work as evidence that you are, in fact, very bad at your job, for instance, people who practice cognitive reappraisal would see this setback as a challenge, or an opportunity for self-improvement.

If you do not naturally tend to see your world from this point of view, you will be glad to hear that cognitive reappraisal is a skill that can be learned. In her piece, Bernstein provides a kind of how-to approach to cognitive appraisal, which basically can be boiled down to these: First, think about what you’re thinking about. “Write down the thoughts,” she suggests. “Identify what triggered them. Be specific: ‘My boss came in to talk to me, and I started to worry that he hated my work and I am a loser.’” Next, consider the claims you’re making about yourself. Is there really any evidence to support them? And is there another way to look at this situation? “Examine the evidence,” she writes. “Maybe you don’t succeed all the time; no one does. But you might succeed much more than you fail.”

Finally, keep practicing — Bernstein cites one 2014 study in which participants were indeed able to decrease the amount of negative thoughts they had about themselves by using cognitive reappraisal, but it took a while (four months, to be exact).

The point, by the way, is not to indulge in positive, narcissistic fantasies about yourself. “The goal is to reframe your thoughts constructively, so they are based in reality,” Bernstein writes. Instead, it’s a way of quieting your self-doubt before it spirals out of control, so that you can get back to the more interesting work of self-improvement; so many of life’s smaller stressors depend a lot on how you look at them. Streep knows all about this, by the way. “Lots of actors feel that way,” she said later in that same magazine interview. “What gives you strength is also your weakness — your raging insecurity.”