How to Accept Success: Overcoming the Limits of Self-Doubt


When someone has low self-esteem or already thinks they aren’t any good at something (i.e., self-doubt), it can be hard to get them to change that view of him or herself.

Although success is usually deeply rewarding and motivating, the same can’t be said as easily for people who lack self-confidence. Some research has shown that when people with low self-esteem get feedback that they’ve done well at something, they tend to disregard that feedback or come up with other reasons for success that don’t involve their skill or ability.

This raises an important question: when someone is already convinced that he isn’t any good at something, how can he look at something he’s done successfully and think, “this actually means that I’m not as bad as I thought.” In other words, what does it take for someone like this to face a success and use it as a way to revise his negative self-views?

Thinking Abstractly

To get people to look at their success and realize that it means something greater about their own skills and abilities, new research by Peter Zunick, Russell Fazio, and Michael Vasey proposes that they should think more abstractly about their performance.

To take a simple example, let’s say Greg doubts his ability in the kitchen. He brings an appetizer to a potluck, and everyone tells him how great it is. He can either think concretely about this success, and think, “this appetizer turned out well because I used a recipe that instructed me to do everything in the correct order.”

By contrast, he could think more abstractly, and think, “this appetizer turned out well because I am someone who understands the importance of planning.

In the abstract version, Greg looks at the bigger picture, connecting the success to an enduring quality he has. Thinking in nouns (e.g., “I am someone who…”) implies a more enduring quality than thinking in simple verbs (e.g., “I used a recipe”). Focusing on why he succeeded is more abstract than focusing on how he did the activity. Invoking a sense of responsibility for the success is also key to generalizing from that success.

All of these dimensions of abstract thinking, Zunick et al. argue, are key to encouraging people to see their successes and realize that they say something meaningful about their individual range of skills and abilities. They refer to this strategy as “directed abstraction.”

Results from Public Speaking Exercises

lecture-278583_1920Public speaking strikes fear into the hearts of many, and a lot of people are insecure about their abilities in this area. As Seinfeld famously quipped, “to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

It’s no wonder, then, that psychologists would want to figure out how to get people who doubt themselves as public speakers to finally release that insecurity. If someone like this gives a speech that is, in fact, well received, how could they internalize that success and ultimately think, “You know what? I guess I’m not that bad at this after all.”

In their third experiment, Zunick and his colleagues wanted to see if getting people to think abstractly about a public speaking success would encourage them to actually see themselves as better speakers and feel more confident in their overall ability.

They recruited a bunch of people who openly admitted that they lacked confidence in public speaking and had them deliver a 3-minute speech to a video camera as if they were addressing a real audience.

To encourage everyone to see their speech as a success, they had everyone watch the footage themselves and told them to focus on how an outside observer would rate the speech. The idea was to get people to forget about how they felt during the speech and instead focus on how well the speech actually went. After watching themselves and getting positive feedback from the experimenter, everyone agreed that they’d done well on their speeches.

Once they went through all of this, everyone did a short writing exercise. Half of the people described what they did in order to deliver the speech (concrete thinking), and the other half were led to think abstractly about their success. They responded to this question:

Explain WHY you were able to achieve a successful performance on the speech. Begin by completing the sentence below: “I was able to achieve a successful performance because I am…”

After doing this whole exercise twice, everyone rated themselves for how well they thought they would do when giving speeches in the future and for their ability and confidence as a public speaker.

Compared to the people who just wrote about how they gave their speech, the people who wrote about why they were able to give a successful speech, focusing on what about them made them successful speakers, ended up seeing themselves as more competent and confident speakers.

Persisting in the Face of Failure

It’s also worth noting that when people think more abstractly about their successes, they don’t just view themselves as more competent; they actually start trying harder on those activities in the future.

Another of Zunick and colleagues’ studies gave people a test of “linguistic flexibility,” in which people had to unscramble a bunch of words. The test was challenging, but it was matched to each person’s abilities, so everyone ended up with a pretty high score.

As before, some of the people briefly wrote about how they completed the activity and everyone else briefly wrote about why they were able to achieve such a high score .

Afterward, people got a choice. They could continue to do the challenging linguistic puzzles or they could switch to an easier activity. Whereas only 18% of people in the control condition stuck with the difficult problems, 42% of the people who wrote abstractly about their skills persisted with the challenging problems, striving to master them.

Putting it All Together

It seems clear from this new research that getting people to think about their successes in a more abstract way is key to encouraging them to internalize those successes. The technique of directed abstraction boils down to a few simple ways to think more abstractly:

  • Start with the assumption that you were responsible for the success
  • Think about why you were able to accomplish this success
  • Consider the enduring aspects of who you are that encouraged your success

This post is part of New Research Friday: Each Friday, we aim to bring new research in social psychology to the blog, highlighting information revealed in studies that have only recently been published.


Feature Image: “Stress” by Firesam! is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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