Are you worried that your inner critic may be getting out of hand? Perhaps you’ve noticed that when you make a mistake, you react more strongly—or dwell on it longer—than others do. Or maybe someone recently told you to stop being so hard on yourself.
Despite your concerns, you’re reluctant to stop criticizing yourself. As an executive, physician, or other high-stakes professional, it’s your job to ensure things run smoothly. Errors are costly, and any mistakes that happen on your watch are your responsibility. You can’t just let yourself off the hook. Otherwise, how would you learn?
As executive coaches, we have a slightly different perspective. There’s nothing wrong with self-reflection or self-improvement. Yet, many executives take their tendency to self-criticize too far. Rather than admitting their mistakes, learning from them, and moving on, they take them to heart.
Our executive clients’ habit of internalizing mistakes often transforms their guilt into shame. Instead of thinking to themselves, “I did something wrong,” they start to think, “I am something wrong.”
Are you being too critical of yourself? Consider these examples
Are you able to shrug off your mistakes fairly quickly, or do they eat away at you? Do you treat yourself with compassion, or does self-criticism turn you against yourself? The following (fictional) examples illustrate what it might look like to be overly self-critical as a high-stakes professional. Do you recognize yourself in any of them?
- Alessandra is responding to a sensitive email, and she accidentally adds the wrong “Evan” to the email chain, giving him access to information he shouldn’t see. She thinks to herself, “I can’t believe I did that! I am such an idiot! Maybe I’m not cut out for this job.” That night, she lies awake for hours, wondering whether she would be better off in a different position.
- Bodhi stayed late finishing up some work and completely forgot about his son’s soccer game. He knew this game was especially important to his son and had promised to be there. He thinks to himself, “What kind of father does this? I’m a horrible father! I’ll never get this work-life balance thing right.” Bodhi felt so guilty about missing the game that he was in a bad mood the rest of the night, even though his son was celebrating winning his game.
- During a meeting, Chris asks a question that was already answered in the briefing packet. They spend the rest of the morning chastising themself: “I should have spent more time reviewing the materials beforehand, just like everyone else. The lead counsel must think I’m a slacker.” They vow to stay silent in future meetings lest they embarrass themself again.
- Darius delivers a presentation explaining how his department exceeded four out of five of their objectives for the quarter. Afterward, a colleague approaches Don and compliments him on his team’s accomplishment, but Don quickly brushes off the compliment. He is eager to return to his office to run some numbers and determine why his team missed that one objective.
Even if you’re trying to improve your performance, being too critical of yourself can backfire in several ways, as illustrated in the examples above. You start feeling really down on yourself in general, so you contribute less, feel more isolated, and wonder if you’re good enough.
Another problem with self-criticism is that it often triggers perfectionism and anxiety. You’re so afraid of making mistakes that you obsess over minute details and take longer to complete tasks than necessary. Unable to identify the safest course of action, you get stuck in analysis paralysis, causing you to miss out on opportunities for innovation, learning, and growth.
Unbridled self-criticism can also lead to professional burnout because you’ll rarely pause to appreciate your successes. To keep your inner critic at bay, you are driven to achieve more and more, exhausting your internal resources until there’s nothing left.
How to temper self-criticism with self-compassion
Our executive clients sometimes ask us how to stop self-criticism, but it isn’t possible to eliminate it. Nor is it necessary. We evolved to be self-critical since there were many mistakes our ancestors couldn’t afford to make (for example, confusing poisonous berries with edible ones). Our inner critics only want to keep us safe, which is why this trait has survived generations.
While you can’t completely stop self-criticism, you can prevent it from degrading and controlling you. The most powerful tool for accomplishing this is self-compassion. Self-compassion allows us you benefit from self-reflection without getting mired in anxiety and self-doubt. Compared to treating yourself harshly, approaching your shortcomings with compassion can increase your motivation levels and improve your overall wellbeing.[i]
Researcher Dr. Kristin Neff identified three essential elements of self-compassion: mindfulness, self-kindness, and the belief in a shared humanity. If you’re wondering how to stop being so self-critical, you can start by familiarizing yourself with these self-compassion elements:
Neff defines mindfulness as a “non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.”[ii] Through breathing exercises, meditation, and other mindful practices, you can learn to live in the moment, decreasing the emotional impact of past mistakes and future worries.
Mindfulness invites you to view your thoughts and feelings from an objective distance, preventing you from being swept away by them. This is essential since some of the negative things you tell yourself are probably untrue. Mindfulness can also help you face any shame you may be feeling rather than suppressing it, opening the door for self-compassion.
Neff offers a variety of guided practices that combine mindfulness techniques with self-compassionate messages.
There is a common saying that, before we can truly be kind to others, we must first be kind to ourselves. Yet, most people are much more forgiving to other people than they are to themselves.
The next time your inner critic starts beating you up, ask yourself whether you would treat a dear friend or beloved family member the same way. Would you tell them that they are stupid and should have known better? Or would you react with caring and understanding? Alternately, you can flip the script and ask yourself the opposite: what words of comfort would a loved one offer you if they knew what you are going through?
Our high-achieving clients often view self-kindness as an indulgence, but everyone deserves kindness—including you. If you’re worried that self-kindness will demotivate you, consider how much emotional energy you’ve spent on self-flagellation. How much more could you accomplish if you freed up your internal resources for less destructive endeavors?
A word of caution: It’s possible to criticize yourself for being too critical of yourself. Maybe you’re doing it right now! If so, remember to apply the same level of self-kindness and understanding. Remember that your inner critic is only trying to help you—however outdated and misguided it may be.
3. Belief in a Common Humanity
Many of our clients get upset when they cannot meet the impossibly high standards they set for themselves. They forget that flaws and imperfections are part of being human, so they take errors very seriously. When they recognize they’re not the only ones who screw up sometimes, it transforms their self-critique and self-pity into self-compassion.
During tough times, remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can, given the circumstances. Remember that everyone makes mistakes and that you’re not alone in your struggles. This mindset can not only help you to forgive yourself but also forgive others for their blunders.
Decrease Self-Criticism and Increase Self-Compassion
You may recognize the need to increase your self-compassion but are wondering if therapy can help. Working with an executive coach who is also a psychologist gives you the best of both worlds– we can provide you concrete strategies to improve your situation while also addressing underlying issues (like impostor syndrome, anxiety, and depression) that may be making it difficult to actually implement the strategies.