Stop Being So Hard on Yourself

From The Harvard Business Review:

One of my clients, Ben, a research and development director at a pharmaceutical company, arrived at our coaching session feeling distraught. “A situation happened at work today that I can’t get out of my head,” he said. It turned out that Ben had spent hours preparing for an all-hands meeting with colleagues across the globe. He reviewed the agenda, drafted his talking points, and logged on to the conference software ready to contribute.

Then, things went askew. Ben struggled to be heard above more dominant colleagues, and when he did get an opportunity to speak, he felt flustered and flubbed his words. Afterwards, Ben was preoccupied by the incident. He couldn’t quit beating himself up. Why hadn’t he spoken up earlier or been more assertive? Why did he over explain and blabber on instead of sticking to his talking points?

Ben is what I call a sensitive striver — a high-achiever who is also highly sensitive. He is driven and demands excellence from himself at all times. But when he falls short of those impossibly high expectations, his innate sensitivity and thoughtfulness cause him to spiral into self-recrimination. If you can relate to Ben’s reaction, then you also may be too hard on yourself. This can take the form of harsh, punitive judgements, overanalyzing your shortcomings, rumination over minor missteps, worry, and assuming fault.

Perhaps you have thought that self-criticism is what keeps you sharp. Sensitive strivers like Ben often use it as a form of motivation, hoping that if they’re tough enough on themselves, they’ll be compelled to perform. But research shows that self-criticism is a poor strategy. When used excessively, it is consistently associated with less motivation, worse self-control, and greater procrastination. In fact, self-criticism shifts the brain into a state of inhibition, which prevents you from taking action to reach your goals.

Being hard on yourself may be ineffective, but it is also a hard pattern to break. It requires consistent attention and practice. Here are a few strategies I shared with Ben that can set you on the path to taking a more balanced, emotionally equanimous approach to your performance.

Name your inner critic.

Create psychological distance from self-criticism by personifying it. For example, choose a silly name or a character from a movie or a book. Mine is called Bozo, but you might name yours “the little monster” or “gremlin.” I once had a client who called his Darth Vader (of Star Wars fame). He purchased a small Darth Vader action figure for his desk, which reminded him to keep the critical voice in check.

Naming your inner critic leverages cognitive defusion — a process by which you separate yourself from your thoughts. Defusion is shown to reduce discomfort, believability, and the stress of negative thoughts. It also promotes psychological flexibility, or the capacity to steady your mind, manage your emotions, and be aware, open, and adaptive to changing demands.

Avoid generalization.

When I pressed Ben for details about the all-hands meeting, it became clear that no one noticed he was flustered. In fact, the COO later told Ben she thought his comments were the only moment of clarity in the conversation. This shocked Ben since it did not match his impression. It was a clear example of the spotlight effect — a tendency in which you misjudge and overestimate how much attention others pay to your behavior.

To combat the spotlight effect, consider your performance on aggregate versus zeroing in on a singular negative event. Think of a bell curve: you’ll likely perform average or higher than average most days. Some days will be below average, and that’s normal. Keep an eye on the bigger picture. Ben realized that while the all-hands wasn’t his best showing, he was only paralyzing himself further by taking this one unfavorable meeting and generalizing it to an ongoing pattern. Specifically, I coached him to avoid using extreme statements like “I always mess up,” “I’ll never get my voice heard,” and “This happens every time.”

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

1 thought on “Stop Being So Hard on Yourself”

  1. ‘Name your inner critic’ is good advice. I call mine Truman, and when he hectors me I put his rants in the voice of Rich Little imitating Truman Capote. (This voice is much funnier than the actual Truman Capote; for those who haven’t heard it, it resembles Droopy, the cartoon dog.) It does considerable good. An acquaintance of mine, hearing of this method, made her inner critic talk in the voice of Fran Drescher. Elmer Fudd and Gilbert Gottfried are, so far as I know, still available.

    The inner critic is a fool, who makes his living by saying stupid things with a tone of infinite authority. By making him say stupid things in a voice that has no authority whatever, you can put him right off his game.

    Reply

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