Beating yourself up is not as helpful as you think

REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo
REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo
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“Neurologists Find Brain Still Shows Signs Of Self-Criticism Minutes After Death,” reads a recent satirical headline from the Onion. When I read it, I thought it was real. Because I had also recently read a book by end-of-life care pioneer Frank Ostaseski, who wrote that people in their last moments often “tell themselves that they’re not doing a good job of dying.”

Even near the end of life, Ostaseski writes, it is common for people to look back with regret, to become obsessed with ‘if only’ conversations and “club [them]selves with self-judgment.”

Though I hope I’m far away from my deathbed, Ostaseski’s prognostication—and the Onion’s—hit close to home. For most of my life, I considered my harsh inner critic to be the cost of entry into the world of professional ambition. Sure, the tone of my internal dialogue was intense and berating. But it kept me motivated, vigilant, and ambitious. Without it, I was sure all I’d want to do is watch Netflix and eat Cheetos. Still, deep inside I also wondered if this voice would ever let up and give me a break. I guess the answer, for many, is a resounding ‘no.’

Why we are so harsh on ourselves, to our own detriment

Shirzad Chamine, an executive coach and lecturer at Stanford, writes in his book Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential that the inner critic is universal because it is “connected to the functions of the brain that are focused on survival.” He believes that from an evolutionary perspective, the inner critic was a survival mechanism to protect ourselves from the “emotional minefield” that could include failing publicly, getting rejected, or betrayed.

But this natural response to threats eventually outlives its usefulness. It creates what Chamine calls an “emotional tax.” The inner critic, he writes, encourages “you to constantly find faults with yourself, others, and your conditions and circumstances, [which generates] much of your anxiety, stress, anger, disappointment, shame, and guilt.” Furthermore, it stymies the ability to be “more discerning, aware, agile, vigilant, creative, decisive, and action-oriented.”

Ostaseski agrees with this assessment, adding that beating ourselves up prevents us from employing a “more objective voice,” one that can “differentiate, discern, and guide us forward.”

How to silence your inner critic

In Positive Intelligence Chamine cites multiple examples of how salespeople, CEOs, and doctors all benefit from reducing the self sabotage that emanates from a harsh internal dialogue. But as with most habits that have been ingrained in us from early childhood, silencing an inner critic can be difficult.

Chamine offers two approaches, both of which I have attempted in my own life. The first is to notice and name it, thus exposing it “to the hot light of awareness by simply observing and labeling” it when it shows up. I took Chamine’s advice and referred to mine as Mr. Saltypoop, which is clearly the byproduct of hanging around a toddler. Saying to myself “You made a mistake. You’re a screw-up who will never amount to anything” gets transformed into “Mr. Saltypoop thinks you’re a screw-up who will never amount to anything.” De-personalizing the criticism (with some potty-humor flair) really numbs its impact.

The second approach consists of shifting the ratio of positive to negative self-talk in your head. For me, my ratio was a resounding 10% positive and 90% negative. Chamine demonstrates that the tipping point is 75% positive, 25% negative citing research from Barbara Fredrickson on individual performance and John Gottman on praise-to-criticism ratios in relationships. I’ve been able to invert the ratio, and it’s provided me with a sense of lightness and clarity. Though I once believed that having a harsh inner critic was vital to my success as an entrepreneur, after shutting mine down, not once have I felt like I’ve lost that professional edge. The only thing I’ve lost is Mr. Saltypoop.