Taming the Critical Voice of Self-Doubt

While it has some value when it comes to developing innovative approaches, grad students and others can usually benefit from curbing or controlling it, writes Kay Kimball Gruber.

June 14, 2021
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I am not sure at what age or moment it began, when critical self-talk arose and self-doubt seeped in. It could have been when my first-grade teacher threw a pet rock I painted out the classroom window, declaring that it did not look like a ladybug and stating that I should “try again.” My workaround was to retrieve the rock and give it to my mom, who displayed it for decades near our telephone.

Another significant memory of self-doubt was when I had to periodically defend my seat as a cellist in the high school orchestra. Musicians could challenge anyone to a solo and potentially take the place of the individual seated ahead of them after a vote by the entire orchestra.

While these situations could be seen as character building, abusive or reflective of the times, both moments fed my critical voice of self-doubt.

Fast-forward a few decades, and it is apparent that we all experience situations where we question, “Am I good enough?” and where the phrase “I think I did OK” seems more comfortable than “I did a great job!” How about for you? Do you recall the age, event or situation where you first became aware that self-doubt existed?

As a career education practitioner, I often encounter the critical voice of self-doubt when talking with graduate students. I have advised students who only think they did something well and are certain that they bombed an interview but are then selected as a finalist or given an offer. To some extent, graduate education invites a critical voice to settle in with the hope that students contribute to new knowledge, develop novel approaches or discover innovative techniques.

This is why I suggest taming the critical voice of self-doubt, because I am not entirely convinced that it has no value. But I am convinced that many graduate students can experience positive benefits from curbing or controlling it.

I don’t want to proceed without acknowledging that, depending on the nature and severity of your or the students’ critical inner dialogues, counseling might be the best or crucial next step. The advice that follows is not meant to replace counseling but rather guide conversations toward reducing the frequency and extent to which words and phrases are expressed that facilitate self-doubt. I also want to acknowledge that not all readers will have the same associations with the words or phrases that I share in this essay. What induces negative or positive emotions for one person can differ for another, but everyone can think of words or phrases that increase or perpetuate self-doubt for them. Since an abundance of research points to how word choice can bolster self-confidence, influence how individuals are viewed and experienced by others, and contribute to self-efficacy, I have made it a priority to invite students into conversation about the words they choose when conveying their experiences and actions.

With the students I advise, I notice words and phrases of self-doubt emerge when they speak and write about their accomplishments. They are quick to insert qualifiers that detract from what they do well. Words and phrases like “I think …,” “maybe,” “sort of,” “I tried …” and “I hope to …” are widely used and only diminish what the people actually did -- and did well!

Let’s explore the phrase “I think I did OK.” This phrase surfaces frequently in career coaching conversations, whether debriefing an interview or discussing revisions to a document. It is a rare occasion when a student simply states, “I did well.” In many instances, the critical self-talk is cautioning the individual to not be too confident, to question their ability to achieve the task or desired outcome and to cast doubt about the quality of what they created.

I also realize that students may be concerned about seeming boastful. When I ask them, “What did you do well?” it builds in a moment of reflection, and most often, the student is able to share one or more aspects that they did do well. This question, unlike asking, “How did you do?” is effective in helping the student to quiet their self-doubt.

I then ask, “What would you like to do differently next time?” This question reinforces that the individual has agency in enhancing or developing the particular career preparation skill on which they are working. In conversation, students have similarly told me that saying, “I think I did OK” means they could have done better, because their inner voice tells them that doing well means being perfect. This can be a great opportunity to guide the student to think of a time when they were aware that someone else was operating at less than 100 percent yet that person was still amazing at what they were doing. Coming up with an example can help them to decouple the concept that doing something well means doing it perfectly. Having given my mom a shout-out, I would like to include that my father, who used to say, “Doing something well is to do it with a sense of excellence, and it is not about doing something perfectly well.”

An Affirming Inner Dialogue

As we hear students talk and read what they write in job application materials, we can offer insights into how the words and phrases they choose are revealing or projecting self-doubt. We can guide them toward using different words and phrases that contribute to a more affirming inner dialogue. For example, consider helping your students to replace:

  • “I tried to” with “I have” (identifying specific actions or steps taken and including results or outcomes)
  • “I think I will” or “I hope to” with “I intend to” (and include how)

Do you also hear some of these phrases in your conversations with others?

The words and phrases of self-doubt are many, and they can show up in casual and formal conversations, in writing and presentations, in teaching and in relationships. When they surface, they will always make an individual appear less confident, tentative in the formulation of their ideas and less capable than someone choosing words and phrases that signal confidence and clarity. For the person using the words and phrases of self-doubt, their critical voice will be fed, their outlook for what is possible will be narrowed, their confidence will erode and what some experience as the greatest self-doubt, impostor syndrome, may take up residence.

Consider developing and implementing strategies to tame and quiet the critical voice of self-doubt. You might focus this effort on yourself and/or on the graduate students you guide, teach or train. In addition to choosing different words and phrases, other ideas include:

  • challenging the critical voice by thinking of examples that illustrate an alternate view of a situation;
  • reframing the input of the critical voice to messaging that is more affirming;
  • gathering examples of success and shaping confident narratives about those;
  • inventorying what you or your student intends to do or accomplish, including how;
  • creating an accomplishments board that is kept visible and includes small and grand achievements;
  • suggesting that your student ask three people who know them well to write a few sentences about how they value that individual and see them as being competent;
  • replacing words and phrases that perpetuate self-doubt with ones that are more affirming and convey confidence and clarity.

While this may be obvious, the critical voice of self-doubt does not get us closer to believing in ourselves, to engaging in our abilities or to visualizing our potential. It does not facilitate our ability to effectively write or speak about strengths and competencies. It does not lend support in situations requiring an extra dose of confidence. I am compelled to raise awareness and to encourage others to engage in conversations to tame the critical voice of self-doubt, as it is through seemingly small but consistent and intentional steps, like being selective in the words we choose, that we can begin to believe that we are good enough and that we actually did do a great job.


Kay Kimball Gruder is assistant director of graduate student career programs and services at the University of Connecticut and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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