A lively debate in a workshop raged over whether being self-critical could be helpful. Some leaders thought that it is necessary to be demanding and tough on their own performance—they believe this is the only way to achieve results and avoid complacency. Other leaders thought that self-critical chatter interrupts work flow. Worse, it can demotivate, depress and even bring a team down.
While talking with a depressed patient, the stream of negative thoughts (Everything bad always happens to me. I am no good at anything.) is persistent. On the other hand, consulting with a manic patient, there is little humility and delusional thinking (I'm the best. They love me. I never fail).
In our 2022 Global Resilience Report, 100% of those in the bottom decile of resilience scores selected self-critical Very Often or Nearly Always.
In the top decile, 32% selected self-critical.
Is being self-critical good or bad?
It depends. Most of us are familiar with the stream of negative thoughts that flood awareness before an encounter (Am I good enough? This looks impossible. What if I fail?) and after an adverse encounter (That was awful. I am so stupid. I never get anything right) If it is just one thought that quickly passes, it poses little threat. However, if the stream of self-abuse rages for days before an exam or keeps you awake all night, it is clearly destructive. We will label this self-abuse.
Alternatively, when we strive to be the best version of ourselves, considered and humble, self-coaching can help us succeed. For example: This is important. Pay careful attention. Respect others. Be brave and push through. It has a very different impact. Or, after a difficult event: Well, that was not what I expected. I can be more attentive. I’ll apologise and ask for a follow up call. Let’s call this self-coaching.
The chatter in your mind has a wide range. At the extremes, it becomes delusional and a symptom of mental illness. Mastered, it keeps you alert, respectful and inspired. Your mental chatter can be trained. If not, it can become a persistent and disabling habit. There is no time to waste. If you are not on the journey to self-coaching, the mind’s negative bias is taking you deeper into self-abuse.
The Journey from self-abuse to self-coaching
Calm and Connect
Your mind is not coachable when captured by the reactive emotions of fear, anger and sadness. Your first step on the journey is to calm strong physical and emotional reactions. If needed, step away from the drama. Take time to get outdoors, walk and breathe. Name, tame and reframe the main emotion. As calm is restored, you are able to connect with your feelings and thoughts. You cannot progress without this step. Clear thinking is not available.
When calm and connected, you can think about your thinking. It is called metacognition. You step out of the stream of negative chatter and pay careful attention to it. What are you saying to yourself? Is that conclusion accurate? Is it helpful? Thoughts become an object to notice, define and examine. When you are objective about a stream of thought, the thought loses power over you. Metacognition allows for attentive, insightful and wise reflection upon the stream of mental chatter. You see clearly. Wow, was I really thinking that?
Detach and Attend
Negative chatter is persistent. Escaping the streams of criticism takes practice and time. You may say to yourself: So that is what I'm saying. Got it. Thanks. Now what would I rather think? When you can identify a thought, you can acknowledge it and let it go. My preference is for a long slow exhalation to release the thought and sink into my body. Then, I direct my attention to the feeling of breathing. Using your own technique, detach from the thought and attend to a more useful experience. You can replace a negative thought with a more useful one. When you hear, I am useless, replace it with, I’m working on it.
Success in ‘detach and attend’ is enhanced by building attention. When you resolve to attend to your breathing—humming, stretching, affirmation, or nature—focus deeply on it. Give your new focus full commitment for a few minutes at least. Deliberate practice is required. This might be a piece of music, a complex sport, writing or meditation. As a general rule, aim to work at focussed attention for at least 5 minutes every day.
In order to move from self-abuse to self-coaching, you need fresh perspectives on the situation. A sports coach examines a play to find a range of solutions to test and practice. Your challenge is to activate creative problem solving. When you hear in your head: I will never get this right, your challenge is to come up with useful options. I will find a way. It could be done this way or that way. Perhaps I can get some help on this. What if I tried this?
With metacognition, you notice that self-abuse is dull, repetitive and futile. It has no function other than to make you feel worse than you already do. You can be so much more interesting, creative and exploratory with your mind. To expand your range of flexible perspectives it can be useful to journal and analyse a situation after the event. Alternatively, this is where a good coach or therapist can be very helpful.
Reframing consolidates your new perspectives into patterns of play. These new patterns of thinking are repeated until they become habits. I always upset her, is reframed as, She is sensitive. I can be gentler. When you can pair a new thought with a constructive emotion, it becomes easier to embed the habit. In the above example you pair the new thought with respect and compassion. I’m useless dredges up sadness. I can get better with practice pairs with hope.
Remember that the optimism of reframing demands accurate and realistic thinking. Move one achievable step at a time. The speed of reframe will get faster. Eventually the unhelpful self-abuse is displaced by the reframe.
In flow we are at our best in challenging situations. A key criterion for flow is the absence of thought. All the hard work of metacognition, focusing, perspectives and reframing has become a habit. In fact, you are so clear in your self-coaching that it fades into the background. Your attention merges with the challenge. There is no need to think. You have done the hard work. All your effort is free to focus on success.
When a doubt or a rude remark about yourself emerges, as it surely will: Stop. Step back. Detach. Attend. Flex. Flow
Please note: This article is republished with the permission of Dr Sven Hansen from the Resilience Institute—our global research partner.