Each day, tens of thousands of thoughts run through our mind, and most of them are repeats from the day before. Imagine, then, if you were to allow even a small portion of these thoughts to be harmful self-criticism. Think of how much you would be setting yourself up for dissatisfaction, unhappiness and an unneeded limitation on your ability to realize your full potential.
Of course, all self-criticism is not harmful. Some is extremely beneficial. For example, the good kind, when not pursued to perfectionism, contributes to building your self-confidence and allows you to learn from your mistakes. On the other hand, the bad kind destroys self-confidence. Your positive or negative thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy — what you expect of yourself can often come true.
Positive and negative self-criticisms are each dealt with in our brain in a process called the default mode network. It’s where we go when we’re not making conscious decisions about how to handle something — in other words, our default position. If your default mode of evaluating your performance or decisions is positive (I call it your “cheerleader” voice), then good for you. You’re probably mentally healthier than most of us. However, if your default mode is negative (your “not-good-enough” voice), you have some work to do.
Which voice do you want to listen to?
The process of differentiating between these two voices requires one of the most basic emotional intelligence skills: self-awareness. Without self-awareness, you lack the capacity to self-evaluate because you can’t even see what the options are for you. It is impossible for you to see that your negative self-criticism is not only subjective but damaging your self-esteem, undermining your accomplishments and even impairing your decision-making ability.
On the other hand, with self-awareness, you can develop your ability to properly and objectively evaluate matters, seeing what in life is serving you. You can achieve a sense of being in control of your life, having the ability to affect your life’s desired outcomes. In order to develop your self-awareness and find out if you are letting too many negative self-criticisms hold you back, let’s do a simple yet important exercise.
Tomorrow morning, start counting and categorizing your self-critical thoughts. Categorize them as mainly positive or mainly negative. For some, just doing this exercise and seeing how self-critical they actually are can bring on a life-changing epiphany. These people just weren’t aware of how hard they were being on themselves. In that case, they would need to opt for more of a cheerleader voice.
If you are listening mainly to your negative self-critic’s voice, be aware that it does not support appropriate goal setting nor allow you to move toward your best personal development. It puts you on a path of procrastination, guided by your not-good-enough limiting belief.
Now that you’re aware that reoccurring, self-critical thoughts are a big problem, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to create a new reality for yourself by changing the way you think, or are you going to stay in “no-change land?” I know that feeling negative about yourself has no doubt become a normal, familiar habit. Thus, unlearning it will not be easy. It will require effort to change it. But, if you don’t face up to your fear and discomfort with change, you stand little likelihood of becoming that self-confident, fearless person you know you want to be.
Here’s how to accomplish that change
1. Firmly root in your mind that you have both a not-good-enough voice and a cheerleader voice.
2. Know that this awareness puts you in a place of choice. You can choose which voice you want to listen to.
3. Try to identify the result of each self-limiting or self-empowering belief connected to each voice. For instance, perhaps your not-good-enough voice manifests itself when comparing yourself to others in a negative fashion. Or, maybe your cheerleader voice comes forward when you tackle a difficult task, knowing you will master it and shine in its execution. Pay attention to which of these results you want to encourage.
4. Be compassionate to yourself. We are all works of progress and can get better. Recognize that you have flaws and that you can minimize or eliminate them.
5. Strive constantly to turn negative thoughts into positive ones. Reshape your thinking, and revisit steps one to four often.
Once you have done all this, take a critical look at your environment. Are you in a situation that allows you to make unfettered use of your cheerleader voice and minimize your not-good-enough voice? If not, think about how you can make a change. And remember, don’t be too hard on yourself.
This article was originally published in Forbes.
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