Struggling with Career Self-Doubt? 10 Questions to Work Through Negative Thoughts

Truth time: No one is 100% confident in themselves and their decisions 100% of the time.

We all struggle with self-doubt, some more than others. If you’re great at shaking off those negative emotions and quickly re-centering yourself, that’s truly amazing and commendable. But this post isn’t for you.

If you’re more like me — someone who’s constantly fighting with their inner critic — I want to share a writing exercise that has helped me process some seriously negative emotions and pull myself out of downward spirals of self-doubt.

Stuck in a rut

Earlier this summer, I was in a pretty big career rut. It felt very similar to what Jessica Lawlor (one of my OG entrepreneurial idols) described in her blog post about a slump she experienced in her business. I felt withdrawn, disconnected, overly irritable, and completely unmotivated to do anything related to Lightning Media Partners.

My lack of drive made me fall behind on deadlines. The work that was piling up stressed me out almost as much as the fact that I would be letting my partner, my team, and my clients down if I didn’t turn things around.

This seemingly endless slump finally came to a head when I found myself in what I can only describe as a depressive fog. I was more or less catatonic. My already-short fuse had burned out and my mind was blank.

I felt empty and numb and hopeless. I could not see myself doing anything but lying in bed and staring at the wall. That night, I wrote the following sentence in my journal:

“Why can’t I picture tomorrow?”

Finding the root of negative thoughts and self-doubt

I’m no stranger to occasional spells of depression like this. I worked with a therapist last year to learn how to better cope with these feelings, so in a last-ditch effort to pull myself through the fog, I thought back to some questions she had asked me during our conversations, to help me reflect when I found myself in this emotional state.

I turned the page in my journal and tried my best to step outside my own mind and put myself in a more objective position. I wrote down these 10 questions, in this order, and then went back and answered each of them with raw, brutal honesty:

  1. What do you feel?
  2. How long have you felt that way?
  3. Are your negative emotions rooted in facts or perception?
  4. How do those facts and/or perceptions make you feel when you list them out and read them back?
  5. How would you like to see your negative emotions transform?
  6. What do you need to do to make that transformation happen?
  7. What is standing in your way?
  8. What can you do to remove those obstacles?
  9. What will happen if you don’t change your thought patterns?
  10. How will life look when you do transform your thoughts?

After I wrote my answers, I shut the notebook and thought about what I had just written. I still felt “down,” but forcing myself to articulate exactly what I was feeling and why I felt that way got some wheels turning in my brain. It cleared the fog just enough so I could see what was happening: I was working myself into a state of burnout.

I reviewed what I had written, going back and annotating things that concerned me. A few phrases that jumped out at me:

  • “I feel disconnected from everything and everyone I love.”
  • “I’m paranoid that people who care about me are getting sick of me being like this.”
  • “I wish I could take a break and do something for myself, but I never feel like I can because there’s too much work to be done.”
  • “I’m worried that I’ll never be able to fix this or go back to feeling motivated ever again.”

From self-reflection to positive action

I realized that the root cause of my burnout was failing to ask for help when I needed it, for fear of burdening others. Ironically, I felt more burdensome when I realized my silence required the people I love to talk me down and take care of me when I inevitably broke down from the stress.

I gave myself an “action item” of speaking up before I hit that breaking point and giving people a heads up when I feel myself about to go into ultra-stress mode. In these moments, I needed to remind myself that people will help me if I ask. (Spoiler alert: Learning to do this at the right time has changed my working relationship with a lot of people for the better since doing this exercise.)

With a clear plan to enact this change in mindset and behavior, I felt calm, collected, and ready to put it into action. When I reread my notes the next day, I felt like I was reading someone else’s words. I remembered feeling depressed, but I just wasn’t in that headspace anymore. I was beyond it now; I felt more like myself than I had in weeks.

Get comfortable with talking to yourself

Getting my feelings out onto a page and having a “conversation” with myself helped far more than I could have imagined. An outside perspective is certainly helpful at times, but when you’re talking to yourself, there’s no need to filter, censor, or explain anything — you get it because you’re living it right now.

It’s so easy to get trapped inside our own minds and stay stuck in that negative feedback loop. It’s easier to give into the self-doubt and fear than it is to fight back and question it. But it’s harder to achieve your goals and live life on your terms if you keep letting those feelings win.

We will never permanently silence our inner critic. We will always have the occasional crisis of confidence. But if we can learn to quickly shift from self-pity to self-analysis — if we can train the rational part of our mind to counter the emotional part in real time through an internal dialogue — we can overcome those negative moments faster and reclaim control over our thoughts.

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health expert and what worked for me may not work for everyone. If you’re experiencing recurring episodes of depression, anxiety, or any other mental health condition, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help/counseling or, in an emergency, call a mental health hotline to talk it out.

Image credit: Aaron Burden / Unsplash