Paying Attention to How You Talk to Yourself

When my ten-year-old proudly showed me her most recent math test with a score of 93, guess what I DIDN’T say: “Why didn’t you get those other seven points?”

When my eight-year-old beat her record by getting nine consecutive soccer juggles, guess what I DIDN’T say:

“Well nine is good, but I bet Susie can do more.”

 I’m guessing you other well-intentioned parents, teachers, coaches, and babysitters out there wouldn’t say those things either.  Instead, you’d praise daughter-number-one for her great test score.  Perhaps you’d draw on your pop-psychology knowledge that kids’ self-esteem is most effectively increased by real compliments aimed at a child’s work and effort, rather than at an innate capacity or trait such as being “smart.”  This might lead you to say something like, “You’ve worked really hard on your math skills, and it seems to be showing big-time now.  Great effort! ”  Perhaps to daughter-number-two you might say something like: “Wow! Juggling is really hard, and I know you’ve put a lot of effort into developing your skills.  I know your goal is 20 in a row, and you’re almost halfway there.”

So why is it that we same well-intentioned and at least moderately psychologically-minded people can direct some seriously inane comments towards ourselves when we fall short of a goal, don’t live up to our own lofty expectations, or simply don’t measure up to others around us?  Why is it that we can so easily dismiss our own efforts and accomplishments and so quickly turn on ourselves? 

Whether it’s in the gym, running a race, offering a power-point presentation at work, entertaining guests, or looking in the mirror, why do we often fuel our own self-critical fires and undermine our own efforts?  How can we so easily lose sight and mindfulness of a compassionate, esteem-building approach when it comes to ourselves? 

I see it and hear it all the time:  someone does a workout at one of our gyms and I comment on how well they moved or how hard they worked at a tough skill, and I get the roll of the eyes or the “Yeah, but I hardly used any weight,” or the “Yeah but did you see how much more everyone else was doing?”  Believe me, I know firsthand–I’m great at doing this to myself.  Give me a barbell workout and it’s almost a guarantee that I’ll make some snide comment to myself about how bad I am at weightlifting.  This is especially true during times when I’m training for an event and I actually care about how much I can lift; the higher the stakes, the more fuel for the fire. 

Ever looked in the mirror and focused on that one body part that you just can’t stand?  Maybe it’s your belly that’s too fat, or your hair that’s too thin, or your skin that’s too light, or your knees that point in.  Ever lost sight of the picture of the WHOLE you, the one you might see if you were someone else looking at yourself?  When was the last time you stared derisively for more than two minutes at someone else’s freckles and thought, “Wow, she’d be a cool/smart/accomplished/funny/kind person if only she didn’t have those things?”

Or maybe you’ve finished a hard workout and felt good about your performance, only to realize later that it doesn’t quite stack up how you’d like it to against other people’s performances.  Suddenly you decide that you actually “sucked,” because for you, it’s all about comparing yourself to others.

What’s up with how easy it is for us to default to a harsh, critical self-assessment when we are otherwise reasonably kind and accepting human beings?  For some, that critical inner voice may be a result of an overly critical parent who, for years, always pointed out our weaknesses and never seemed to be able to accept them.  For others, that voice may be an antidote to having been the “star child,” always the successful one being hailed by his/her parents, only to be envied by his/her siblings.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of a hard-driving personality created by a multitude of factors and marked by lofty and unattainable self-expectations—all an attempt at avoiding some inevitable embarrassment or massive public failure.  The possibilities are endless for the analytical inquirer, and the reality is that we may never know for sure the underpinnings of our own self-critical penchants.

But perhaps what we can and should do is recognize when that critical voice sets up shop in our psyches and how we contribute to its expression.  Maybe we can discover that we are most likely to criticize our own work when it might mean somebody else is left behind, thereby acknowledging a kind and empathic part of ourselves.  Or perhaps we take note that we are most likely to find fault with our physical appearance when we are anxious about something far more meaningful and important to us.  Or maybe we tend to harshly criticize our physical performance—whether in CrossFit workouts or competitions, a running race, or a mountain-bike ride–when we have lost ourselves in the preparation for the event, neglecting important people or obligations along the way.  Some people develop an overly self-critical tone for fear of self-indulgence or appearing to others as being conceited.  These people worry that without a harsh self-assessment, they will lose all discipline and motivation. 

While I can probably raise more questions than answers about this topic, I encourage you to pay attention to when and how criticisms of yourself emerge.  Be aware, also, of how you treat others in your life and how you evaluate them.  Compare your two styles and start wondering why they are different, if they are.  After a workout, try reminding yourself of two things you did well.  When you look in the mirror, try staring for a full 60 seconds at two things about your appearance you really love.  When you present a project at work, try writing down three things you did better than the last time you presented, instead of comparing your presentation to that of a coworker.

Taking small steps towards a more empathic view of ourselves just might lead to a self-assessment and self-treatment that is more consistent with who we are in the world, less likely to perpetuate an unconscious pattern, and more apt to lead to progress and positive outcomes, no matter what the endeavor.  Give it a try.  You just might surprise yourself with how awesome you are.