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Is Second Guessing Really Bad For You?

second guessing

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Is Second Guessing Really Bad For You?

If you’re into second guessing these 10 tips are for you

Oldest psychology joke in the book:

Two psychiatrists pass in the hall. The first says, “Hello.”
The other thinks, “I wonder what he meant by that.”

A variation:

Two people pass in the hall. One says hello and then thinks, “I wonder what I meant by that.”

If you self-psychologize, you’re not alone. Still, you may have noticed that not everyone does. Here are some tips for us self-psychologizing second-guessers.

  1. Second-guessing can be good for your health: When we like it, we call it self-awareness or introspection. Look before you leap–it often keeps us from making one false move. A second-guess in time saves nine–it often makes us better learners, able to think about what we’ve done and whether to do it again or something else.
  2. Second-guessing can be bad for your health: When we don’t like it we call it being self-conscious. It can distract you from things that matter, it can makes us slow and inefficient, tongue-tied and weak—a pushover since anyone’s raised eyebrow can tip us easily into self-doubt.
  3. In a debate with those who don’t second-guess, you’ll lose even when you’re right: The self-certain know they’re on the side of truth and virtue. In debate they’re only mission–indeed their solemn duty–is to win by any means possible. Dirty is fine–even virtuous—if it enables them to prevail. Watch Donald Trump for a current master of self-certainty. In contrast, second-guessers have two missions, winning and advocating what’s right, which means wondering what is right. The self-certain can tangle second-guessers up in self-doubt just by challenging them, but the second guessers can’t retaliate since the self-confident will deflect all challenges. Audiences  are usually swayed by confidence more than content. The Donalds of the world will win.
  4. Many people think they second-guess themselves but don’t: The self-confident follow their nose toward any kind of self-affirmation. With these folks, it’s easy to lead them by the nose into to a claim that they second-guess themselves, even though they don’t. Just ask them, “Are you self-aware?” which makes it sound positive. “Sure,” they’ll say even if they’ve never really doubted the words coming out of their mouths or the thoughts floating around in their heads. We aren’t all born second-guessers. And for those who don’t second-guess naturally it takes a whole lot ofeducation in critical thinking before they shine their power to doubt back on themselves. Most people turn an education in critical thinking into ways to doubt others more effectively, which makes self-certainty that much easier.
  5. They can’t hear you thinking unless you let them: Second-guessers can hear themselves loud and clear, but others don’t unless you show it. Get good at editing your vocalized doubts. Get rid of that six-pack forehead you raise when you’re second guessing yourself. Bite your tongue rather than blurting your doubts and then saying, “Oops. Was I talking?” Publicized self-doubt invites doubts from others. Engage in some image control to prevent having to do damage control.
  6. Try as you might, you won’t get to the bottom of it: “Why do I second-guess myself?” is third-guessing. “Why do I wonder why I second-guess myself?” is fourth-guessing, and you can go from there, doubting every doubt and every thing. “What is the one true reason I do these things?” is not going to yield you a definitive answer because we never do anything for just one reason, and even if you come up with one, you could still doubt it. Self-questioning doesn’t stop because you’ve gotten the answers, but because you’ve gotten over the questions.
  7. The bottom of it isn’t in your upbringing: You can hire therapists to help you get to the bottom of it. Many therapists have been trained to pour over the details of your upbringing to find the true cause of your behaviors. But stop to think about it: How often do you find siblings with the same temperaments? Sure, every sib’s upbringing is different, but even when upbringings are more or less the same, siblingtemperaments vary a lot. Explaining yourself to yourself doesn’t usually boil down to something that happened in your childhood, even if it happened a lot.
  8. Study the thin bottom line: The closest you’ll get to the bottom of it will come from getting familiar with the dilemmas we all face. We’re exposed to these dilemmas in a different stacking order, but by adolescence you will have encountered them all: Doubt about when to have the serenity to accept or the courage to try to change things, about when to care and when to not care, about when to try harder and when to give up, about when to keep doing what you’re doing and when to do something else, about when to hold out for delayed uncertain gratification and when to hold onto that bird in the hand rather than trying for those two in the bush. Even doubt about when to second-guess yourself and when to shut up and just keep at whatever you’re doing. There’s a thin line between situations that call for one or the other of these opposed options. Study it.
  9. It takes all kinds:  “Am I doing this right?” is a more pressing question when there’s only one right way. There are often many right ways and anyway you can only guess about which way will prove right in the future, since the future isn’t here today to guide your decision. You’ll do things differently from others who have a different temperament. Most of the time, that’s OK. It takes all kinds. The right way to do things isn’t as narrowly defined as you may think.
  10. You can get more efficient at second-guessing where it helps and not where it hurts: It may be easier for self-doubters to tone down their self-consciousness than it is for the self-certain to turn of their self-awareness. Time hones self-doubt. We often get over self-doubts through fruitful exercises in futility, doubting the same thing repeatedly to no good effect until the doubt becomes so obviously a waste that we just stop it. Aging helps. Wondering whether you should change something you have no practical way to change is making a mountain out of a moot hill. Eyes on the prize, self-doubting where it’s likely to pay off in saved stitches and fast learning.

[Jeremy Sherman]

Vital stats: Berkeley, 57, partnered, three children (M34, M28, F24), married once for 17 years.

Educationally: Ph.D. in evolutionary theory, masters in public policy

Vocationally: MBA professor of strategic foresight, business consultant and communications trainer, academic researcher.

Historically: I’ve taught over 250k college-student/hours in psychology, sociology, rhetoric, philosophy, advertising, economics, history, English, cultural studies, marketing and strategy. I founded a non-profit environmental lobbying organization in DC, worked as a business consultant and public affairs director for large companies, ran a foundation, designed and implemented water projects in Guatemala. For seven years I lived on the world’s largest hippie commune, and was an elected elder there at 24.

Authority: None.

I never refer to myself as an expert in anything, but rather a specialist in those questions that interest me (see below). I write with no authority. I read lots but cite rarely in my articles which should be read as opinion pieces, not declaration of scientifically proven fact. I will not pull rank on readers: My ideas are only worth considering only if they’re based on good reasoning. I change my ideas over time. Caveat emptor. They say “don’t believe everything you think. I’ll go one further: I don’t believe everything I write, in that for every argument I make, I aim to be able to express convincingly the counterargument. I try to live by the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Self-expressively: I’ve written over 600 articles for Psychology Today, coined over 400 psychology neologisms. I write songs and limericks. I play bass and sing in jazz, Latin, funk, and Nigerian groups three nights a week.

Intellectually, yet intimately, my middle-age spread spans several life-sized questions.

* Most cosmically, how did mattering emerge from matter?, life from non-life? mind from chemistry? economics from physics? information from energy, questions I address as a member of a 16 year research project with UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon.

* More practically, though not unrelated, how do and how should we shop among interpretations, deciding what’s significant and how to respond to what life deals us?

* Also practically and related, what is a butthead other than someone we butt heads with? since in a free society we should define morals negatively–not what you should, but what you shouldn’t do. We say “don’t be a butthead,” but define buttheads subjectively as people we butt heads with. I seek a more objective distinction between what’s morally in and out of bounds.

* How do and should we balance the ambigamist’s tensions and what is the underlying structure of such tensions? For this I use the Serenity Prayer as a template, and think about levels of analysis (going meta).

I’ve written five books, only one published but the rest out soon one way or another.

Negotiate with yourself and win: Doubt management for people who can hear themselves think.

Purpose: A natural history

Doubt: A user’s guide; a natural history

Mind readers dictionary: Terms for reading between the lines with greater comprehension.

Executive UFO: A field guide to unidentified flying objectives in the workplace.

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