Self-Doubt in Student Leaders: Ways to Overcome Insecurity and Encourage Yourself

Students entering college face a transformative period in their lives. Going to university is many students’ first experience with completely independent everyday decision-making. Aside from going to class and making sure to eat, students are also facing enormously important internal hurdles. They are asking themselves questions about their values, their futures, and their identities. During this process, some students see leadership within their realm of opportunity. In my experiences, self-doubt pervades this driven group of students the most.

I don’t believe this correlation is just coincidence. On top of academics, work, and social lives, higher education vigorously calls upon its students to take on leadership roles within their peer community. During orientation programs and involvement fairs, leadership transforms from a developmental skill into a mandate for a true/happy/good college experience. Want to have the best, most rewarding time during your stint at university? Lead something!

Who wouldn’t buy into leadership following that formula? From volunteerism to clubs and organizations, students who take on this call to action begin their journeys in leadership with an unparalleled passion. Campus leadership is absolutely and with 100% certainty going to make them better students, people, and, of course, leaders. They believe in their abilities to change the world, and they know their impact is going to be astounding.

What occurs over time, though, is that leadership positions become ultimatums of self-worth. You’re either a successful student leader, or you’re failing the optimal college run. When students are banking on leadership positions to fulfill what they believe to be the only way to have a meaningful college journey, the results of regular failures and human mistakes can be catastrophic. Burnout. Dejection. Resentment. And, perhaps worst of all, self-doubt.

As a senior at university who has wrestled with these ideas since my freshman year, I have a few tips for student leaders facing self-doubt.

Make self-worth intrinsic

If you are feeling devalued, anchor your self-worth in your existence. I know this is a lot to ask from people with marginalized identities who are invalidated by systematic power imbalances daily, but this seemingly monumental task can be life-changing. When your value is unconditionally untouchable, self-doubt cannot thrive within you.

How do you accomplish this? Step one is knowing that asserting your worth is a constant, conscious decision that demands hard work to truly be achieved. Making your self-worth intrinsic means countering every negative thought with its spin. It means understanding that people’s criticisms are reflections of themselves rather than you. It means understanding yourself enough to know when you need help outside yourself to discover your value.

Most of all, it means committing to the idea that you have value as a person–without any qualifiers. Memorize the sentence, “I have value as a person,” and follow wherever that statement leads you.

Allow mistakes to be learning opportunities

I know this is a cliché, but I believe it is an important one. Student leaders are especially vulnerable to thinking their mistakes are world-ending. I don’t blame us for being this way. It is programmed into our young brains that if we are not perfect, we are not trying hard enough. As messed up as that state of being is, it’s a reality for many.

Be conscious of the ways you speak to yourself when you make a mistake. Instead of beating yourself up, be gentle. Understand that nobody is correct all the time. Internalize that it is a beautiful marker of your humanity to be able to experience mistakes and grow from them. Additionally, try to stop yourself from going outside sources of blame. This detracts from time you could be spending finding solutions, and it usually results in serious resentment. Allow yourself the peace of mind that usually comes with moving forward.

Soak in your brilliance

Self-doubt is more or less the antithesis of self-confidence. When we doubt ourselves, we are questioning our ability to succeed. We’re succumbing to the voice between our ears that’s telling us we’re not good enough. No matter how much evidence we have of the contrary, we as humans tend to listen to the negativity more often.

To counter this, spend more time celebrating what makes you amazing. If you did something awesome, recognize yourself. Cheer yourself on when you’ve made even a small step toward progress. When people pay you compliments, believe them. Humility is a respectful trait, but excess of anything good is bad. Be unapologetically proud of yourself. You are worth the hype. Let yourself be brilliant.

Accept and appreciate help

The amount of responsibilities that come along with leadership can be overwhelming. In addition to the sheer amount of tasks we have to complete, we tend to think we have to do everything ourselves. Do we really deserve praise or recognition if we had help every step of the way?

Let your answer to that question be a resounding yes. Know that there are resources in the form of information, people, and past experiences surrounding you all the time. Understand that nobody is an island; everybody receives some kind of help on their journey. Taking help does not mean that you are not good enough on your own. Gracefully allowing help into your life shows that you are resourceful and that you care enough about your well-being to know when you need assistance.

Don’t just stop at allowing yourself to be helped, though. If anything cures self-doubt, it’s being called on as an expert in others’ times of need. Be grateful when you ask for help, and it appears, and be willing to help when it comes time for you to pay it forward.

Speak up when you stand out

Has an event you planned ever gone so well that it’s been used as an example of excellent programming, yet in the same breath been attributed to someone else or been otherwise recognized with no mention of your name, hard work, or dedication? Even worse, has your work been completely unrecognized despite the powerful impacts you’ve had on your peers’ lives?

This happens all too often, especially to people who lack the privilege afforded to certain groups of people in powerful positions in our society. This kind of behavior from others breeds self-doubt. It makes you question whether what you’ve accomplished was as meaningful or important as the people around you originally made it seem.

My suggestion, though it isn’t ever easy, is to speak up when you stand out. Don’t let another person mention something you created without your name attached to it. Stop letting people be comfortable with gifting your talents to a community at large instead of you yourself. Like I mentioned earlier, you are worth the hype. Make people recognize your name, your worth, and your contributions, even if you have to remind them to do so.

Recognize the hurdles you overcome every day

My final tip is simply to realize that life is difficult. For some of us, getting out of bed to face the day ahead is an accomplishment. Don’t belittle that. Don’t allow yourself to doubt the importance of whatever you consider an accomplishment. Victories are victories, no matter how small they seem to you or the outside world. The moment you begin counting how often you have overcome hatred and adversity is the moment you will realize that you have already come so far in life.

Don’t forget, student leaders: you’re in college! That’s an enormous accomplishment, and it’s one that’s somehow not recognized enough in the student leader atmosphere. As far as I’m concerned, everything you’re doing aside from schoolwork and surviving is the cherry on top of your already stacked ice cream sundae of greatness. Remember that when self-doubt kicks in.

I’m not perfect at any one of these steps by any means, and I don’t expect anyone to read this post and suddenly obtain a perfectly healthy and self-approving headspace. That takes years of work and professional brain unpacking. I think even considering one of these tips to help you overcome feelings of doubt is a success on your part, though. If you’re reading this because you’ve been doubting yourself, thank you for considering my ideas, and congratulations on taking a step toward adopting a different mindset.

As student leaders, I think our field as a whole needs a little more validation of our awesomeness. These are just a few of the ways I’ve handled my own self-doubt throughout my college journey. What else have you done to help ease feelings of self-doubt?

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