“It’s important to push past feelings of professional self-doubt. Just ask Emma Stone”

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Moya Crockett
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Stone says she had to overcome serious insecurities to take on one of her biggest roles. We could all do with following her lead, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett. 

When it comes to work, I would rate my insecurities as average. I don’t think I’m the best writer to ever open a Microsoft Word document, but neither do I spend my days plagued with insecurities and imposter syndrome.

Several years ago, though, my relationship with self-doubt was very different. I was in my early 20s, and had just started a masters’ degree in journalism. And every morning I woke up feeling paralysed with dread.

This dread was a physical sensation, a sort of cold tingling grip around my throat and my chest and my arms. I knew why I felt it: because I didn’t believe that I deserved my place on the course. I was convinced that I’d never be able to find a job, because I just wasn’t a good enough writer. Truth be told, I couldn’t see how I’d make it to the end of the first term without my lecturers discovering that I was a fraud. I spent most days feeling as though there was an invisible anvil dangling above my head, held by a rope that was becoming more frayed by the minute.

As a textbook, lifelong high achiever, I’d never seriously doubted my own abilities like that before. It was a nerve-shredding, deeply unpleasant time – but despite that, I look back on it with real gratitude. Why? Because it taught me two things: first, that I’m not immune to debilitating insecurity; and second, that I have the ability to push past it.

For me, pushing past my insecurities meant keeping my head down and plugging diligently away at my work until I realised that I was competent and capable. But everyone has different ways of tackling self-doubt. At a recent event at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, Emma Stone explained how she used anger to help her overcome a lack of confidence while filming Birdman in 2013.

Stone on stage at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado discussing her experiences with self-doubt 

Stone said that she felt anxious from the very beginning about taking on the role of Sam Thomson in Birdman, which eventually bagged her a nomination for the best supporting actress Oscar. 

“I wanted to [do it] very badly but was nervous about what that would be [like],” she said. “My nerves were confirmed because it was so hard and so technical and challenging and I felt like I was going crazy.”

At one point during filming, Stone continued, she felt she “had reached a breaking point”. She went to her dressing room and chain-smoked some of the fake herbal cigarettes used by actors in film and theatre, which did nothing except give her a sore throat. 

“Then we went out to do the scene and I was spitting angry with myself,” she said. “And Alejandro [Inarritu, Birdman’s director] just looked at me like, ‘There it is!’ I was like, ‘OK!’”

Realising that she could channel anger as a way of overcoming self-doubt was revelatory for her, Stone said. “[It] changed something me, not to be afraid to let parts of myself break open, in a way that I was afraid [before]. I was 24. I’m 29 and still learning.

“Since that [movie] I have found joy and challenge in such a new way. All I ever want to do now is reach that breaking point, because the other side of it is so incredible.” 

Stone at the 2015 Academy Awards, where Birdman won four Oscars 

It’s not necessarily healthy for everyone to force themselves to “breaking point” as a way of conquering self-doubt – and most people wouldn’t want their boss to witness their inner fury. It’s safe to say that while Inarritu was delighted to see the rage in Stone’s eyes, the average manager probably doesn’t want to hold a meeting with employees who are “spitting angry”.

But given that recent research by the University of Glasgow suggests that 75% of women lack confidence at work, it is healthy for women to think about how they can overcome their own professional insecurities. And Stone’s anecdote speaks to the importance of refusing to allow ourselves to be cowed by the voice in our head that tells us we’re not capable of doing the work we really want to do.

That voice can be deafening, but it is possible to subdue it; to turn down the volume on it, until one day you realise you can’t hear it anymore. The trick is discovering a method of quietening that voice that works for you. Perhaps that means showing your secret creative work to your most trusted friends and asking for their feedback, or possibly it means agreeing to take on a professional project that scares the s**t out of you – to prove to yourself that you can do it.

Maybe, if you’re like me, the only way to defeat that voice is to keep quietly persevering, until you’ve built up a body of work that acts as a physical rebuke to the idea that you’re not good enough. Or maybe you’re more like Stone, and you need to transform your anxiety into empowering anger (I’d recommend kickboxing) before you can feel strong enough to proceed.

Whatever way you choose to tackle self-doubt, I have no doubt that you can do it. The voice in your head is a liar. You can beat it.

Images: Getty Images