We need to move past self-criticism and negative self-talk to be happier, more resilient, and more successful at work.
“I’m going to fail. This is a total sham.”
“I’m not smart enough to do this. Why did I ever think I could?”
“Why is no one else having this problem? Everyone is doing better at this than me.”
Sound familiar? That is what we sometimes say to ourselves when things don’t go well at work and we’re feeling nervous or inadequate. Maybe we’ve missed a deadline, embarrassed ourselves during a presentation, or snapped at a colleague, and these thoughts come up relentlessly, wreaking havoc with our confidence and well-being.
Though telling ourselves these things may feel right at the time, they’re often just the result of old “scripts” we’ve learned in childhood—from parents, teachers, or other adults in our lives—repeated without thought or consideration about how they serve us. While they seem like they could motivate us to do better, nothing could be further from the truth.
As I write about in my new book, How We Work, negative self-talk doesn’t help us and can actually make things worse. Research suggests that self-criticism predicts depression, avoidance behaviors, loss of self-esteem, negative perfectionism, procrastination, and rumination. Ultimately, self-criticism compromises your goals and undermines your pursuits, whether they are academic, health-related, personal, or professional.
Of course, when things go wrong, that doesn’t mean we should do nothing, either. We shouldn’t try to ignore the problem, rationalize our behavior, or cover up our mistake. Instead, we need to find a way to honestly reflect on what happened and how to correct it. What can help with that?
Practicing self-compassion—a combination of mindful awareness, self-kindness, and a recognition of our common humanity. As defined by researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, it’s treating yourself much the way you would treat a good friend.
The opposite of self-criticism
For those who rely on negative self-talk to motivate them, you may be surprised to find that self-compassion works better. It helps us honestly assess our strengths and weaknesses and encourages us to make changes that serve us. This takes time and patience—it’s not easy. But it’s well worth the effort.
Research on self-compassion shows that it’s unequivocally linked to mental well-being, including less stress, anxiety, depression, and perfectionism. Perhaps that’s because self-compassion helps to soothe us when we fail. The inevitable negative experiences and emotions don’t disappear; but our responses to those experiences and feelings change. By relating to rather than avoiding negative experiences and feelings, greater well-being emerges.
Self-compassion also engenders resilience—the ability to bounce forward after setbacks. It empowers you to be nimble and flexible and gives you the ability to identify problems, accept negative feedback from others, and change habits that are no longer aligned with your best interests—in Silicon Valley parlance, to “pivot.” Openness to change and resilience from setbacks helps you grow, learn, form good habits, and ultimately be more successful.
To many, the idea that self-compassion can make us more competitive in the workplace is counterintuitive, to say the least. Many of us have internalized the idea that excellence is a result of not just discipline, but self-flagellation. But studies show that self-compassion meditation actually enhances willpower and our ability to stick with behavioral change goals. For example, one study found women who were given a self-compassion message after eating an indulgent sweet were able to resist a later temptation of candy significantly better than women who didn’t receive the message.
Self-compassion requires that we experience vulnerability and suffering, which is uncomfortable for a lot of us. To do a real recon on ourselves requires courage and accountability—we can’t just hide out or run away. If we simply intellectualize tough experiences or deflect awkward moments with humor or cynicism, we won’t be open to new experiences and thought processes that allow us to grow. Likewise, beating up on ourselves, avoiding situations where we might look bad, or compartmentalizing negative emotions limits our ability for self-awareness and personal growth.
How does self-compassion work?
Self-compassion is based on the recognition that underneath all the differences among people, there are also important similarities. Instead of seeing our negative scripts as true, we can see them as part of what makes us human. And, because self-compassion connects us to our common humanity, it helps us see that in the midst of our pain or guilt, we are worthy of receiving kindness.
Here are some ways you can practice self-compassion at work and avoid the pitfalls of self-criticism.
1. Find physical soothing techniques that work for you. So many of us suffer throughout our day—not just from the setbacks we experience, but from how we catastrophize these setbacks. We feel stressed, and we want to avoid the stress, so we get involved with an off-topic or less important activity—known as presenteeism—like cyberloafing, slacking, or writing emails.
But, when you feel ashamed or overwhelmed, it helps to anchor yourself in your body in a way that not only comforts your mind, but also helps down-regulate your physical response to stress. Becoming present in our bodies is the antidote to spinning out of control.
Neff suggests you put your hand on your heart and repeat kind phrases to yourself: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself. May I give myself the compassion I need.”
If this feels too corny to you, find another soothing prompt that works for you—taking a walk, keeping a cozy sweater at your desk, treating yourself to a cup of tea, or listening to your favorite music. Repeating phrases that feel right to you, but are still kind, can be good for your psyche.
2. Be a friend to yourself. We all feel like frauds from time to time. When you find yourself in self-deprecation mode, remember that most people suffer from “imposter syndrome”—the feeling that you are just pretending, that you don’t really belong, or will be found out, or are truly inadequate. The fact is that everyone you work with, no matter how self-assured they seem, experiences self-doubt. This is the human condition. Negative self-talk is just that—it’s not reality.
One powerful exercise to encourage self-compassion is to take a situation in which you feel caught and try to visualize a friend in the exact same situation. Imagine what you’d say and how you’d respond to them, then direct those same words and responses toward yourself.
If you have trouble with the idea of “self-kindness,” I suggest you use the term “self-coaching.” Learning to coach yourself well requires you to stick with yourself through your suffering, not abandon yourself or turn on yourself when the going gets rough.
3. Ask for help. Many of us think that we need to always appear “professional,” which we equate with being stoic, handling things on our own. Over time, this “I’ve got it” attitude begins to wear thin, though, and we realize we can’t do our jobs alone.
That’s when it might be time to experiment with giving someone else the chance to support you. Ask for help or for perspective from someone you trust; or say “yes” when they offer to help you on their own. It might feel awkward at first to open ourselves up to receiving care from others, but it feels good for them to give to you, as well.
Of course, it’s important to remember that friends and coworkers won’t always be around; or they may start to feel dragged down if your requests become overly repetitive. Alternatively, those you ask for help may offer the wrong kind of support, and you may end up frustrated. But, more often than not, asking for help when you need it is a good way to be compassionate toward yourself. Take a chance and reach out. You might not only feel better, but you could deepen your connection to someone, too.
Self-compassion at work doesn’t blind us to our shortcomings or make us dismissive of the areas we most need to develop. In fact, as research has demonstrated time and again, self-compassion helps us to better reach our goals and cooperate with, learn from, and lead others.
So, whenever you feel yourself wanting to be hard on yourself, take a moment to give yourself a little self-compassion. You and your colleagues will be glad you did.
By Leah Weiss, a scholar and writer specializing in the application of meditation in secular contexts. She teaches courses on compassionate leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and is a Senior Teacher and Trainer for Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Program, founded by HH the Dalai Lama. She also directs Compassion Education and Scholarship at HopeLab, an Omidyar Group research and development nonprofit focused on resilience.