I have never met a group of professionals more riddled with self-doubt than communications practitioners.
I admit it I am one of them. My name is Melanie, and I doubt myself. Often.
I have a million examples of this. When I was managing a communications team in government, I think at times my staff thought I was indecisive, but actually, I was constantly questioning my decisions. Now that I am a consultant I often question if I can deliver what a client is asking of me, despite years of experience (PS – I haven’t failed to deliver yet).
Self-doubt comes in many forms. We don’t speak up at meetings because we think we might be wrong. We read and reread an email in case the tone isn’t quite right. We don’t have a difficult conversation because we doubt our ability to handle it. We say no to project or a promotion because we don’t think we can do it.
What is the cause of this self-doubt and why is it so prevalent in our profession? I think there are two key factors, but I am sure there are many more and would love to hear your thoughts.
Is it because of what we do?
I don’t know if it is because what we do in communications is often intangible and based on gut instinct. Financial professionals don’t question if their profit and loss statements are correct, they just are (I am sure they have their own doubts). It’s black and white. Right or wrong. Two plus two always equals four.
What we do makes us question ourselves all the time – do we really understand what the audience needs, is this writing creative enough, will this journalist even pick up my story. What we do is not black and white. There is a lot of grey. Your approach could be right, it could be wrong, you may never truly know.
The “female factor”
Self-doubt in our profession could also be a result of the fact that a large percentage of practitioners are women, and women are more prone to self-doubt. A study done at Cornell University found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. Men are not exempt from doubting themselves—but they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do.
I had a conversation about this topic last week with my millennial communications students. They recognised that they often use the phrase “I just have a dumb question” “This is probably stupid, but …” or start a sentence with an apology “I’m sorry can you…”. We talked about how women are much more likely to use this approach and how it is a common way to cover your self-doubt. I am sure many of you have used one of these phrases in the past (probably multiple times). The practical part of your brain knows there’s no shame in asking a question, but the self-doubt takes over.
Are you kidding? I am certainly not the expert here! I don’t think there is a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to fixing self-doubt. Regardless of how many “the 5 ways to deal with self-doubt” or “13 powerful ways to overcome self-doubt” it’s really up to you. I think there are a few things you can do to head down a better path:
- Be self-aware: Know that you have self-doubt, accept it and live with it. Once you do this, you can start to spot those times that self-doubt is winning and you have more of a chance to talk yourself around. If you don’t know you’re doing it, or what situations really trigger your self-doubt you will not be able to overcome it.
- Be the cheer squad: Former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” It’s the same for communications practitioners, we are all suffering through the same challenges and facing the same obstacles. Who else understands what you are going through better than someone in your field. Support others and they will support you. Be there cheer squad! Tell someone they are amazing, “you can do it!”. They will be there to support you back.
- Remember, people don’t care that much about what you do or say: This is a hard one as we all seek recognition and acceptance by our peers at some level and kick ourselves when we think we have done something to reduce their approval of us. But despite the sleepless nights over that stupid thing you said in the meeting or the dumb mistake you made, almost no one else will remember it but you. I have often worried about something I said to someone at work, only to raise my concerns with a colleague who looked at me blankly… we have all been there. I’m not giving you the pep talk your mum gave you “don’t worry about what everyone else thinks”, I am just saying most of the time no one else cares.
- Fake it till you make it: I am great at this! Inside I am screaming “you can’t do this”, on the outside I am calmly saying “of course we can deliver that in the next two days”. Sometimes you just have to put on a brave, confident face and get on with the job.
Do you need a cheer squad? Happy to help! I’d love to have a coffee and chat about how you manage self-doubt. Contact Elm Communications and we can set up a time to chat.