From Self-Doubt to Self-Trust

There are certain intrinsic resources that are our birthright as human beings. We’re born curious. We’re born open to learning. We’re born with clear access to our emotions and an unencumbered ability to express them. We’re born with a need to attach onto a caregiver, both emotionally and physically. We’re born with a desire to love and be loved.

And we’re born with a strong and healthy resource of self-trust. We’re born knowing when we need to eat, sleep, connect and play. We’re born with an inner barometer that tells us when we need closeness and when we need separateness. As we get a bit older and if the self-trust is still in tact, we effortlessly know what clothes we want to wear, what people we like and don’t like, food preferences, and how we want to spend our time. Even if we don’t know exactly what we’re talking about, we trust ourselves enough to say it anyway. (Just yesterday I was in the garden with my 3 year old and I said, “Where do you think we should plant our tomatoes?” and, without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “I’ll show you, Mommy. I’m going to dig out the place for our tomatoes.” Then he walked to a random spot in the garden, said, “Right here,” and starting digging.)

So then why do so many people struggle with self-doubt? Why do certain clients say that they struggle with nearly every decision, from which clothes to buy to their choice of marriage partner? What happened to the innate trust that every child is born with? Sadly, it’s obliterated by well-meaning parents and teachers who follow a system of child-raising predicated on the belief that children don’t know who they are and need external validation in order to become good, kind citizens of society. We don’t trust that kids know when they’re hungry and when they’re full. We don’t trust that they know what they love to do and how they want to spend their time. Instead we stuff them full of rules, activities, and schedules from the moment they pop out of the womb, telling them when to eat, sleep, play, and connect. If a child expresses aversion to someone that we think they should love, like a grandparent, we say, “Oh, you love him! You’re just feeling tired.” In those small moments, children learn not to trust their innate wisdom and instead place their trust outside themselves, onto parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Those small moments click together to form a chain of experience that results in lack of self-trust. When we don’t trust kids to follow their most basic bodily functions, intrinsic interests, and natural aversions, how can we expect them to develop a healthy sense of self-trust? The message we deliver is, “I know what’s best for you in every area of your life. You’re too little to know so you have to trust me.”

The reasons for this child-raising style extend beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that it’s largely rooted in a need to control. For example, if a mother were to adopt an early feeding philosophy that says, “I will nurse or feed my baby whenever he’s hungry, whether that’s every ten minutes or every three hours,” she would need to let go of her need to plan out the details of her day and instead follow her baby’s lead. If she’s attached to needing structure, this no-plan plan won’t work for her, and she’ll end up following the mainstream advice that says, “Babies need structure so you need to develop a feeding schedule. It doesn’t matter that he’s screaming out in hunger ten minutes after you fed him; he needs to know who’s in charge so you must stick to the schedule.” For the control-addict, this is very comforting advice, and even when there’s something inside that may be screaming against it or heartbroken when her baby is screaming for comfort or food (often the same thing for a little one), the control part often wins and the cycle continues.

The punishment and rewards system, both at home and at school, is quite possibly the single most influential factor in destroying self-trust. This means that when you were young you received the message that your parents or teachers would approve of you if you made the “right” choice or received good grades. Conversely, if you didn’t do what was expected or behaved in ways that your parents didn’t like – pushed your sister, didn’t clean your room, received a “bad” grade (less than an A), expressed frustration or anger – you were punished with a time-out, the silent treatment, a spanking, or other forms of physical abuse (of which spanking is one). The message for children is clear: Do what I want you to do and you’ll receive the gold star or the smile; don’t do what I want and you’ll be punished in some way (and yes, I view time-outs as punishment – controversial, I know).

Now that we’ve laid out the problem, what is the solution? How do you repair damaged self-trust?

1. Review past decisions – both the big ones like where to attend college and the small ones like which shirt to buy – and ask yourself if you typically make good choices. If you’re like most people who find their way to me, chances are that you’re a very responsible, thoughtful, trustworthy person who has generally made good choices for yourself. Once you see yourself as you really are, you can start to form a new belief system that says, “I know how to make good choices. Somewhere I learned that I don’t have this skill but if I look at my life I see that I do have it.” Now this doesn’t mean that you always make good choices, but we’re not striving for always here!

2. Explore your belief system about making decisions: do you have a belief that says that you will only receive love if you’re perfect? This is where the connection between self-doubt and perfectionism comes in: I will only be loved if I’m perfect, and if I make a “wrong” choice than I’m not perfect and, therefore, won’t be loved. But here it’s essential to understand that you’re confusing love with approval. Your parents or teachers or bosses didn’t actually love you when they set up a conditional system that equated “good” actions with approval. Real love between adult and child is unconditional and is predicated on a message that says, “I love you no matter what you do. I love you for who you are. I love your essence, your true nature. I love you because you exist. There’s nothing you could do that could ever change my love for you. I might not always like everything that you do, but I’ll always love you and I won’t withdraw my love based on your actions. And if I do (because I’m only human and I will get triggered at times) I will come back with full accountability so that you know that you didn’t cause my withdrawal.”

3. Examine your perspective on what it means to make a mistake. This is connected to point 2, but also separate in that many people carry an unconscious belief that says that it’s not okay to make mistakes instead of one that says that there are no mistakes, there’s only growth and learning. If your wounded self or perfectionist is running the show, there’s no room for error. The wounded self is generally a rigid taskmaster that carries a fixed idea that there’s only one way and one path for your life, and you better get it right or else… But the kind and forgiving part of you recognizes that it’s only through a life fully lived, which includes so-called mistakes, that we learn and grow.

So the shift here is one from judgement to compassion, from fixed to flexible, from unloving to loving.  As with any shift in perspective, it can take time to loosen the grip on the habitual mindset and pry open something new, but if you set your compass in a new direction and spend time each day contemplating what it would feel like to live your life from this new mindset, you will eventually notice your perspective shifting and a corresponding inner spaciousness and kindness that allow you to live more freely and trust in who you are.

9 comments to From Self-Doubt to Self-Trust

  • Veronica

    Sheryl, what a great article. The belief that disapproval means I’m unlovable is one of the main sources of my anxiety. Especially as it pertains to my choices in relationships with men. I’m always worried about what friends & family will think.

    This may be slightly off topic, but I’m very curious how you discipline your kids since it sounds like you are opposed to the popular “time out” model.

  • Erin

    This post spoke volumes to me. Having been raised by a narcissistic mother, I was very much taught that I was being loved for what I did, not for who I was. I was also taught that I was unable to make good decisions, despite having made many wonderful decisions. I’m still working on shifting my beliefs and realizing that I can make good decisions, that I can be loved without being perfect and that mistakes are normal.

  • Sophie

    Like Erin this post really spoke to me. I too was raised by a narcissistic mother. I wasn’t allowed to make my own choices for a very long time. I was either all good orcall bad in her etes. I’ve never experienced The middle ground. It’s only recently that I have been able to link the anxiety I have been experiencing to its root (relationship with mother) that I have had the strength to draw back from her. This has diminished my anxiety so much. I am learning to trust myself to make choices and make my own mistakes. It’s very very liberating!

  • K

    Being prone to anxiety and self-doubt masked by extreme confidence, I can honestly say I do not feel like I know how to foster such emotional intelligence in my child. He is, like me, highly sensitive and highly emotional.
    I try to approach his emotions in a way that both allows him space to go through his own process and also lets him know that “it’s normal to feel scared, no one likes feeling scared, but this feeling will pass.” I try to not focus on the “you’ll get over it” because this seemingly normal statement peaks my own anxiety, because once that is the expectation, “what if I don’t get over it?” But certainly I want him to know that it will pass. He has started really focusing on his emotions and talking about them, and I feel like he is looking to me for guidance, and because of my distrust with my own emotions, I feel as if I don’t know how to mother that. What can I do that is different than how I was parented? That’s my thought process. Anyway, thanks for the great posts!

    • K: You say that you don’t know how to foster emotional intelligence in your child, and yet it sounds like you’re doing a beautiful job! What’s your relationship like to your own emotional life today? Have you read The Highly Sensitive Person and The Highly Sensitive Child? I find that with my two highly sensitive sons, the most effective approach has been to do exactly what you’re doing: validate and normalize the feeling, allow for space to move through it, and reassure that he can handle it and it will pass. The handling piece is essential as the feelings can feel so big that it feels like he’s going to split one apart and that he can’t handle it. But he can, especially if he’s being held by you through the storm.

  • Sophie

    Apologies for the typos, on my iPhone. It should read: ‘I was either all good or all bad in her eyes.’

  • Hi Sheryl! As usual, your eloquent and lovely presented post is inspiring and motivating. I love this topic and subscribe to the same parenting approach. I love the angle on self-parenting for moving from self-doubt to self-trust. Thanks so much for writing this!

  • Carly

    Thank you so much for this post Sheryl. It is really helpful to make the clear links between perfectionism, control and self-doubt. Unlike some others who have written here, I was raised by a very loving, kind, adoring mother, but one who was somewhat stressed, anxious and perfectionistic herself. I’ve recently realised that one of the messages I internalized from her was that, if things are difficult or unpleasant, it’s because you’ve done something stupid. E.g. If I was struggling to finish an assignment the night before it was due, it was because I had stupidly started too late. If we went on a hike and it became hot and unpleasant, the hike was a stupid idea in summer. If I was struggling in a relationship then probably I’d made a stupid choice. She rarely put it like that, but the message I received was ‘an entirely perfect and pleasant and easy life is possible, and you can only stuff it up by making stupid decisions’. This taught me to judge myself for struggle or for finding things difficult, rather than to rise to the struggle and handle it. I can clearly see that my mum had her own very forgivable reasons for developing that world view, and given the tumultuous upbringing she had, did a superb job as a mother. It’s important to recognize the impact of our childhood messages, and unravel them, but also to recognise that in most cases our parents did the best job they knew how to do. Thanks again Shery. I just love your work!!!

  • Veronica: To answer your question about how we discipline our kids without time outs, I have to first say that the word “discipline” rubs me the wrong way as it implies that kids need to be wrangled and tamed, and I’m a big believer in supporting kids’ inner wildness (please read “In Defense of Childhood” for more on this topic; absolutely brilliant book). But when our kids are being unkind or acting in ways that aren’t appropriate for a situation, we talk to them. Because we’ve never done anything to break their trust, the bond between us is solid and they know that we’re not trying to control them or break their spirit. My husband is quite brilliant at using play and humor to diffuse a situation and I’ve been grateful to him on countless occasions for his ability to transform a negative situation into a positive direction. He naturally embodies the principles in the book “Playful Parenting.” To be honest, I’m sure we’ve made hundreds of “mistakes” in our parenting, but part of the point of this article is that we’re not going for perfect as parents as we know that’s an impossible goal. We lose our tempers, we act in ways that aren’t always the best, but we’re always, always responsible for our actions and always take responsibility towards repair. We rely a lot on intuition. We lose our way and find it again. We tune into what’s best for our kids, remembering that what worked for one won’t necessarily work for the other one. We don’t believe in formulas because kids aren’t robots. We seek support when we need it. We start with love, end with love, and allow love to lead throughout our days and nights with these precious little ones.