What to Do When You Know You’re Smart, But Don’t Trust Yourself

Jordan Stark | Next Step Partners

Jane (not her real name) was a talented and high-achieving senior executive from a top business school. She was greatly respected by her peers and did excellent work. However, she constantly felt the need to prove herself: over-volunteering for projects and saying “yes” to too many requests, driving herself too hard, and always worrying about what others might think about her.

While Jane’s relentless pursuit of “proving” allowed her to demonstrate her value and gain recognition, people also sensed her insecurity.

Intellectually, Jane knew she was smart. Emotionally, however, her confidence was shaky. When faced with a challenge that she was fully capable of handling, she was anxious in a way that did not line up with her track record. Instead of trusting herself, she spent a lot of time worrying that she would fail or that people would think she was incompetent.

I’ve encountered this scenario with many executive coaching clients, including CEOs. When leaders do not have a genuine foundation of self-confidence, they focus too much on what others think, experience unnecessary stress and have a hard time accessing their wisdom – all of which hinders their leadership impact.

Until Jane was able to strengthen her sense of self-belief, she was limiting her leadership potential and the quality of her life.

Here are five strategies to help you cultivate deeper self-confidence:

1. Re-write your self-talk

Start by paying attention to your thoughts. To what extent do you engage in negative self-talk? Get caught up in self-doubt or fear? Often, we don’t stop and notice how harsh our inner dialogue can be. By consciously observing your thoughts, and countering them, you can start to shift them.


  • Pay attention to your inner dialogue.
  • Pick a negative recurring thought and write it down.
  • Evaluate the thought: is this objectively true? What’s the likelihood it will actually happen? What are some counter thoughts?

For example: a recurring negative thought could be: “If I don’t handle this presentation to the Board perfectly, I will be a failure.” Counter thoughts could include: “I have presented to the Board multiple times and it always went well. I know I’ll do a good job now.” Or “Even if it’s not perfect, this presentation is just one aspect of my overall performance.”

By objectively examining negative thoughts and considering counter perspectives, you can start to decrease your anxiety. This technique, from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, has been proven to help people overcome irrational, negative thinking. When you notice and shift your self-talk you will feel calmer and more settled in the face of challenges.

2. Take stock of your track record

So many of my high-achieving executive clients have something I call “success amnesia.” Despite a long history of strong performance and repeated promotions, they seem to feel as if none of it ever happened. When faced with a challenge, they forget how capable they are, and instead focus on an unrealistic threat of potential failure.

Here’s the truth: your past track record is a very good predictor of your future success – take stock of your career history and focus on that to stay steady and calm.


  • What is your actual track record of success and failure?
  • What percentage of the time during your career have you been successful?
  • How often have you actually experienced major failures?

Though all of us experience times when things didn’t go our way, our successes typically far outweigh any failures. Despite this, we often feel as if failure is right around the corner. This reflection will help you remember how often you have succeeded (98% of the time?), put the failures you’ve had in perspective and help you be more realistic about your capabilities.

Read the full article here.

By MIT Sloan CDO