You won’t be surprised to know that I’m my harshest critic. Often, when I return from a high-stakes client meeting a family member or colleague will ask: “How did it go?” Usually, my answer is something like: “The client was blown away by how well it went…I give myself a B.” Then I list all the things I could have done better. Does this sound like you too?
It would be more honest for me to describe myself not as self-critical but as — frequently unkind with myself. In the face of “failure”, I can be unfair, aggressive and unforgiving in the way I talk to myself. Let’s unpack this behavior to see if it resonates for you too.
I can be unfair in holding myself to unrealistically high standards. Too often I expect more of myself than is reasonable or possible. Some might call this perfectionism. Others would say it’s a focus on achievement to the detriment of self-care and perspective.
I can be aggressive in my self-criticism. I’m quick to use scarcity-based judgment, holding on to the lists of ways in which I was not enough – not smart enough, not quick enough, not skilled enough, not courageous enough.
I can be unforgiving of my shortcomings. It takes me a long time to let go of self-blame. I hold onto the things I label as “failure” for way too long, letting them grow within me as internal shame.
What I’ve described above are default patterns that I do battle with every day. On the good days, these patterns show up as whispers that I can quiet. On other days they are bigger-than-life personal demons. I share them with you because I believe I’m not so unique in my experience of being unkind with myself.
As leaders, we expect a lot of ourselves and none of us gets it “right” every day. Some might argue that this is simply the kind of self-directed “tough love” that fuels high performance. While I’d like to believe in this sentiment, it doesn’t match my experience. Rather, I have seen firsthand how a lack of self- kindness breeds fear, exhaustion, and just as damaging, unkindness toward others.
Here are some practices I’ve found helpful in cultivating greater kindness toward myself:
1.Put the “judge” in their place. When your harsh judge shows up, speak respectfully and directly to them — “I know you. You are loud and have a way of convincing me your story is the only story. Please take a seat, settle down, and say what you need to say in a measured and kind way. I’ll listen but I’ll only accept what feels true and reasonable”.
2.Talk to yourself like you talk to a close friend. Extend the same generosity, gentleness, and forgiveness toward yourself that you would a friend. Just before leaving the office each Friday I say to myself: “It is the end of the week. I did my best. And my best was good enough.” That’s me being a good friend to myself.
3.Begin with what went well. As a protective factor, the human brain is wired to focus on negativity. It assumes danger in order to prevent something “bad” from happening. This means you must work to retrain yourself to notice the inherent value in what you do and who you are, especially in moments of disappointment. We can “rewire” our minds to first, look for the good.
4. Shift focus from blame to learning. Critique is wonderful. It’s one of the ways we learn. The trick is to own our shortcomings, embrace the learning, and avoid self-aggression. Self-blame leads to shame and exhaustion. Learning is energizing!
People who lead other people especially need to remember that being “mortal,” by definition, means being flawed and vulnerable. Somehow this feels liberating because it means that in moments when our imperfections and inadequacies show up, we’re in good company – living out the human experience with everyone else!
How do you extend kindness toward yourself when you feel you’ve screwed up?
Image courtesy of: ufo34