In my previous post, we talked about why we engage in self-criticism.
We followed that up with how to reach high performance without taking the self-criticism too far.
The reality remains, however, that this is still a very unpleasant experience for many of us. It hurts. It drains our motivation. It brings up shame and guilt.
At best it is annoying, frustrates us, contributes to untimely mistakes, and limits what we can do. At worst, it can be a major factor causing depression and debilitating anxiety.
So how can we deal with it? And not let it get out of hand?
I got you.
You may not “like” what I have to say. I respect that. I don’t “like” it either.
At the same time, I promise you, it is absolutely the best answer based on the research, my personal experience, and both the experience and outcomes of my high-performing clients.
And we start here: Be careful of the emotional agenda.
What I mean is emotional avoidance. When you say “how do I deal with it?”, if you mean, “how do I feel better?” or “how do I stop it or get rid of it?” then your agenda is to avoid unpleasant emotions.
I get it. Who wouldn’t want to feel better? The problem is that such a focus hurts your performance in two ways.
First, emotional avoidance has a focus on a goal that doesn’t work. When we “don’t” want to feel a certain way or we want to “stop” doing something, these are called “dead person goals.”
Goals that a dead person can do better than I can.
A dead person doesn’t think negatively. A dead person doesn’t make mistakes. A dead person doesn’t get anxious or feel angry.
A dead person doesn’t engage in self-criticism.
All these things that we want to stop thinking or doing or feeling, a dead person does better than we do.
Living people actively do things.
So if you want to stop your self-criticism, what do you want to do instead?
“Well, I want to let it go” is a common response.
That seems like a positive action, but let’s look at it a little more closely.
We are often told by coaches, coworkers and friends to just “let it go.”
Let that self-criticism go. Let that anger go. Let that mistake on the last play go.
I don’t know about you, but I spent years trying to figure out exactly how to let go of some pretty rough experiences, thoughts and feelings.
Things that had happened to me. Childhood experiences. Self talk, that was really unhelpful. I just wanted to get rid of it all.
And the more I tried to let it go, the more I had it.
What I learned was that the best way to let something go is to wholeheartedly invest your heart and attention somewhere else.
You can’t think about two things at once. Even if you are multitasking, you aren’t doing them at the same time. You are rapidly cycling your attention between things. You have to set all other things down when your attention picks up the one important thing.
The problem is when you struggle to let go of something, you are still focused on it! You have no direction about where to go from there even if you do let it go. Then it is the first thing to pop back into your mind!
Identify what you do want to hold on to, and when you invest in that, everything else fades into the background.
The more you don’t want something, the more you have of it.
The more you struggle to give up your self-criticism, the more you focus on self-criticism. The more you fight with it, the more you keep it alive in your life.
So what do you do instead?
Carefully choose your self-talk.
There is a lot of attention given to thinking positive and feeling confident. However we don’t control these things. It’s great when we can do and feel positive, but we can’t count on it.
What we do control is our reaction to self-criticism, and what we say to ourselves in response. And with practice, these responses can become a more productive mental habit.
There are four qualities of helpful self-talk that I want to highlight, and then I’ll talk about how to use each to your advantage.
- The first is, when you talk to yourself, it’s either going to be instructional, or motivational.
Research has found that instructional self-talk tends to be a bit more effective to direct the specifics of your action, particularly in fine motor skills. This makes sense because if you’re telling yourself what to do in the moment, your attention is on what you’re doing and you’re paying more attention to details of doing it.
So your instructional self talk, talking to yourself like a coach, is often going to be beneficial.
The exception to this is with well learned skills.
For example, if you’re breaking down all the details of your golf swing, this can disrupt the fast and natural flow of a well learned swing. Whole swing thoughts tend to work better on these occasions. “Down and through” for example may be better than trying to focus on your backswing, your wrist, keeping your head down and following through. That chatter can be disruptive. The speed of processing all those thoughts is slower than the actual movement.
On the other side, you’ve got motivational self-talk.
For well learned skills, or for real power moves, you can really get yourself jacked up and excited with some motivational self talk, where you can just let your body perform and explode.
Understandably this won’t work as well when you really have to pay attention to what you’re doing. Focusing on your feelings like this is a distraction from the task at hand.
- Self-talk is either automatic, or intentional/deliberate.
Research suggests about half of what we think by accident. Things just pop into our heads. Thousands of thoughts a day. (Good luck controlling this!).
The other half, however, is deliberate. And this is the skill we want to develop, particularly what we say to ourselves intentionally after our automatic self-criticism.
- Self-talk is either positive or negative in content.
Do not confuse this with right (positive) and wrong (negative), or should (positive) and shouldn’t (negative), or assume one is helpful (positive) and the other hurtful (negative).
And while self-criticism tends to be thought of as negative, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the impact it has on you.
- Self-talk can either be facilitative or debilitative.
Self-talk, including your self-criticism, either moves you toward your values and goals, or holds you back. It helps or it hurts. This is the most important self-talk quality of the four.
Think about it. What difference does it make if it is positive or negative, whether you say it intentionally or by accident, or if it is instructional or motivational? It comes down to if it works for you or if it doesn’t. What’s the effect of your self-criticism?
For example, if I’m on the free throw line, and I’ve had a lukewarm game, and I’m up there and all of a sudden my head starts talking, and it’s saying: “Oh, man, you got this, you’re awesome.” That’d be motivational. It’d be maybe automatic, it’d be positive.
But is this positivity helping or hurting me because if I need to be really focusing on getting on my stance and focusing on a target, I’m here jacking myself up saying that I’m awesome. I’m confident but not focused on executing the shot and that might be the reason I miss the free throw.
If I’m saying: ‘Oh, man, you’ve sucked all day, you gotta go, you gotta be better, you’re better than this, stop being lazy!’ Again, sounds negative, that might be automatic, might be intentional.
And if that negativity actually locks me in and moves my attention to what I want to do, it really gets me serious about the free throw and I nail it … then all that negativity and self-criticism is fine.
Focus on the workability of your self-criticism.
On the workability of anything you say to yourself.
In the next post, I will go into greater detail about how to interact with each of these “positive” and “negative” parts of yourself for your best performance. Because each part of your mind deserves and needs a specific different response from you.
Self-criticism is a significant barrier to progress and performance. It keeps us stuck in negativity and doubt and holds us back from achieving our goals and dreams. It’s time for you to break free of this self-limiting mindset. Join us inside the Success Stories Community. Inside you will have access to all the lessons I teach my high performers to be their best when it matters most. You get to work at your own pace, on your own schedule. And you’ll be able to journey with others who are working to achieve consistent excellence in their own lives as well.