The Dangerous Intersection of External Criticism and Negative Self Talk

Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.
Aristotle

A friend of mine recently gave a presentation at work. She prepared for weeks to deliver a flawless presentation since the audience was made up of executives throughout her organization. It was important to her to make a good first impression. She gave the presentation and moments after, sent me a note saying how poorly she thought she did. By her account, she stuttered and shook throughout her delivery. I must state that the fact that she was even in the room with executives was a big deal, much less the fact that she was delivering a presentation. This was not a trivial event. Afterwards, her VP praised her work but she still doubted her performance. It was a bit hard to gauge her emotions over text but I could tell that she was disappointed and did my best to help her put things in perspective.

Instead of saying the typical statement you would expect from a friend like, “I’m sure you did well,” I asked her to think about her best friend. I then asked her to imagine that the friend called and told her what she told me. What would she say? What words would she speak to her friend to make her feel better and recognize the significance of her accomplishment? That exercise seemed to do the trick.

It got me thinking. Why is it that we are oftentimes nicer to other people than ourselves? I do it quite a bit and I’m sure you have as well at some point.  It took an exercise in projecting her situation to her friend for her to feel compassion towards herself.

About a week ago, I came across a post on LinkedIn. The gist of it was that a teacher entered a classroom and began to write her multiplication tables on the board. She intentionally wrote one equation wrong, triggering the kids to start laughing at her mistake. The lesson in this was not about math at all but that you can do a lot of things right and one thing wrong, and people will notice the wrong thing. That’s really just life unfortunately. It’s human nature to focus on the anomaly; the one thing that stands out.

The unfortunate consequence is what happens when our negative self talk meets the criticism of others. At that intersection lies a very toxic state of mind and a feeling of not being good enough, leading to impostor syndrome and a host of health problems like anxiety.

In these situations, I do a very simple exercise of asking myself if I did my best. I started this exercise years ago and it has helped me through some very stressful times. I ask myself that question after event of substance that I take on. If the answer is yes, I move on with peace of mind and to be brutally honest, no one’s criticism phases me the slightest bit. Not in the least. If I haven’t done my best (and bear in mind this exercise requires self awareness and honesty with oneself) then I figure out why (e.g., I’m over-committed or not interested in the task) and keep it in mind moving forward to guide future decisions.

Either way, I try to take the emotional reaction and put some logic to it. That’s what helps me and you’ll have to find your own way of course, if you haven’t already.  

The takeaway from this is that ultimately you really can’t control what people think about you. What you can control is how you feel about yourself and I strongly believe that using a bit of self compassion goes a long way.

Aji

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