The Gremlins of Self-Doubt


Remember the classic 1984 movie, Gremlins? Cute, furry pets can transform into out-of-control little monsters if three very strict rules are disobeyed. All is peaceful as long as the tiny moppet is given 1.) no water, 2.) no food after midnight and, 3.) no exposure to bright light. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, I’m sure you can discern that all three rules are flagrantly disregarded and chaos ensues.

Why do I bring this up? It seems to me that Gremlins can stand in as a metaphor for those lower-case ‘g’ gremlins that tend to creep into our brain space to undermine our confidence at all the wrong moments. There you are, creating art or absolutely crushing a business pitch. You’re in the coveted flow, merrily building content and feeling good, when suddenly a voice from way in the back says, “I’m thirsty.” 


In the real world, the request is more like “Hey, re-read that email. Might it sound a bit, I don’t know, cloying?” It’s that little fur ball nagging you to indulge a request prohibited by the rules. And you watered it. The first seed of self-doubt is planted.

Just as there are three rules for keeping your mogwais manageable, here are three rules for edging out the self-doubt gremlins before they wreak havoc on your confidence.

(I’m so deep into this metaphor right now, just go with it.)

Design a judgment-free environment. 

I don’t mean where you work physically, but the emotional and psychic space in which you work. Give yourself permission to free associate, daydream, scribble, or dance if you need to. If working solo, imagine that anything you produce will go directly into an incinerator, never to be seen again. No harm in dashing down that wacky idea, right? If the project involves a group, you can agree to “be the incinerator” for each other. Discuss the judgment-free principles and agree on parameters. This not only fosters team camaraderie and let’s folks be vulnerable with each other creatively, but you just may save a few great ideas from “the incinerator” – with some respectful intervention. 


Take purposeful breaks.

Fatigue breeds second guesses so don’t put yourself in a position to weaken your confidence. Make a deal with yourself to work in pre-determined intervals with no revision or even review of what you’re crafting. For example, if you’re writing a chapter, decide that for 90 minutes you will write in free-flow without a care about typos, continuity, or any other thing that may cause you to re-read sentences. At the end of 90 minutes, get up from your desk and leave. Walk to a park, call a friend, go to the gym. Just don’t look at what you worked on. Give it some breathing room. Then, return to the work and from there you can have a read with fresh eyes, or you may decide to keep free-flow working. The trick is to get ahead of doubt creep.


Don’t let your mogwais become gremlins in the first place.

If confidence is an acquired habit, silencing your inner critic can be learned, too. You can coexist with self-doubt without it stopping your progress. Half the battle is recognizing the difference between your own voice and any past criticism you’ve internalized from family, teachers and managers. Once you do that you can lower the volume on any defeatist thoughts. All those other nagging, questioning voices are nothing more than your mogwai. You know he’s there. Don’t feed the little beast.