Streaming Consciousness Blog | Read Malcolm’s Musings on Business, Leadership and Life

The Backwards World of Self-Criticism

As a young aspiring professional athlete and later, a dedicated business builder, I was driven, unsatisfied and self-critical. I’ve observed that condition in many would-be high achievers. 

A recent NY Times article stated, “Self-criticism can take a toll on our minds and bodies,” said Dr. Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also teaches psychology and psychiatry. “It can lead to ruminative thoughts that interfere with our productivity, and it can impact our bodies by stimulating inflammatory mechanisms that lead to chronic illness and accelerate aging…”

In my case, I have been reticent to take my foot off the gas while pushing myself to do more/better, without pausing to acknowledge and feel good about successes along the way. The immediate result of this push is exhaustion, resentment, and never feeling satisfied. A recent conversation led me to question what was behind this pattern. Here’s what I came up with…

  1. I’ve learned about the power of “negativity bias” (the survival instinct that causes humans to overemphasize the bad and disregard the good) as an ever-present influencer. I’ve come to terms with this bias, by accepting that it’s possible (and preferable!) to aspire for more while appreciating what’s been done. It comes down to being accepting of oneself in the process of achieving more!
  1. A second influencer of this pattern is the fear of missing an opportunity to get ahead, or its twin – fear of falling behind because of failure to apply myself 110%. My solution is to take the perspective of accepting having done my best, regardless of how dissatisfied I may be with my results.
  1. Finally, while it’s easier to have compassion for others, recognizing that they are making the best of their strengths and weaknesses; self-compassion is harder to come by. Self-compassion is much more accessible when I remember the undeniable truth that I am no more or less deserving of compassion than anyone else – because, at my essence, I’m the same as everyone else!

After working with hundreds of high performing clients, I’ve come to see the importance of distinguishing between not being satisfied with results versus not being satisfied with oneself. Not being satisfied with results leads to efforts to improve. Not being satisfied with oneself produces self-criticism and impedes improvement.

When I am not so hard on myself, I actually achieve more. What a concept!

A Timely Awakening
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