At last month’s self-compassion circle, we focused on the group's challenges with self-criticism at work. I wanted to talk about this topic because I had noticed that a lot of people have intense self-judgment in this area of their life. Whether they work at home or out in the world, are self-employed, in a supervisory role, or not, many seem to struggle with:
self-doubt/believing they’re not enough or not good enough
comparing themselves to others/resentment/envy
people-pleasing/over-working/difficulty setting boundaries and meeting conflict adaptively
As I thought more about self-criticism at work, I wondered about why it’s so prevalent. For many of us, this habit runs so deep, that it can be difficult to discern what’s driving it. While we’re all unique, I think that one reason why most people criticize themselves at work (and in other aspects of their lives) is that they think that they have to be harsh to stay motivated. If they don’t correct themselves constantly and strive to be better, they worry that they will stagnate, be lazy, and fall short of their goals.
At the same time, most of us count on bringing home a paycheck. What if your boss decides that you’re not doing your job very well? Or, if you’re self-employed: What if you disappoint a major client? What if you don’t meet your goals this month? When you believe that your financial survival is at risk, the stakes are incredibly high.
So, many people experience work as a place where they need to criticize themselves to do better, and they feel that their very survival depends on them doing better. No wonder self-criticism can feel so intense!
However, when I looked into this more deeply, I discovered that what I had found with my clients, friends, colleagues and myself has also been validated by research: Self-criticism is not an effective motivator.
In her Huffington Post blog, self-compassion pioneer Kristen Neff wrote, “Research shows that self-critics are much more likely to be anxious and depressed -- not exactly get-up-and-go mindsets. They also have lower self-efficacy beliefs (i.e., self-confidence in their abilities), which undermines their potential for success. The habit of self-criticism engenders fear of failure, meaning that self-critics often don't even try achieving their goals because the possibility of failure is unacceptable.” Instead of motivating you, self-criticism actually seems to handicap you and make it harder for you to make wise, responsive choices.
Research also indicates that self-compassion is a much more effective motivator, according to Neff and a UC Berkeley study that focused on self-compassion and self-improvement motivation.
So, how can you shift the way you relate to this part of your life? How can you bring more awareness, a deeper sense of interconnectedness and greater self-kindness ~ more self-compassion ~ to your work experience?
Try this three-step practice:
First: Bring awareness to your particular struggle with self-judgment at work. This may seem obvious, yet becoming more consciously aware of your challenges in a matter-of-fact way can help significantly. That’s because as soon as you do that, you are no longer 100% in the trance of self-judgment. There’s at least some part of you that’s observing and witnessing what’s happening, rather than being caught up in it. Part of bringing awareness can be naming your experience. Look at the list of struggles above. Maybe some or all of them feel familiar to you. Check in with yourself ~ do you struggle with perfectionism? self-doubt? comparing yourself to others? stress? people-pleasing? Get as specific as you can. Maybe a particular word, image or symbol comes to mind when you think about self-criticism at work. In the way that feels right to you, identify your work challenges.
Next, recognize that you are not alone. Whatever your situation is, you belong; your experience of your situation belongs. Whatever apparent mistakes you believe you are making, there is wisdom in them. Likely it’s a wisdom that you don’t yet know or understand. See if you can allow yourself to consider this possibility: that you’re not alone, and that there’s an inherent wisdom in this habitual response/struggle you’re noticing, and that many other people relate to their lives and themselves in this way, too.
Third, ask yourself: What is the most deeply kind way that I can relate to myself right now? If a friend was feeling this way, what would I tell him/her? If someone who loves me, or someone who I perceive as deeply compassionate, was here, what do I imagine they would say or do? There’s no right answer to this question. Every person is different; and every situation is different. See if you can let yourself experiment with just your best guess about the most deeply kind way to relate to yourself right now. That’s all it has to be: your best guess in this moment.
The most deeply kind response might be taking a break to walk around the block. It could be bringing genuine, compassionate curiosity to your habit of self-criticism. It might be closing your web browser and focusing on a particular task for a set period of time. It may be initiating a potentially difficult conversation with someone you work with; a conversation you’ve been avoiding. Or, it might be a long-overdue reckoning with yourself about your true values and whether you are living them in your actions.
One of self-compassion’s most powerful gifts is that it can put you back in touch with your conscious choices. Rather than allowing your habits of mind to determine how you relate to a situation at work, you can become more skilled at recognizing your patterns, and decide to respond in new ways. By doing that, you can connect with a sense of agency, wisdom and creativity, and come into a more flexible, compassionate and generative relationship with your work life, and with yourself.