I don’t know about you, but I haven’t exactly been the kindest to myself this past year. Under duress, my default mode of perfectionism goes into overdrive.
Did I say the wrong thing in that Zoom meeting?
Did I offer the right feedback to that employee?
Was that email too curt or overly casual?
This negative thought loop has been endless. The fact is, I can be ruthless with myself, sometimes.
“Often, we’re our own worst critic,” writes Alice Boyes for Harvard Business Review, “When we feel anxious or frustrated, we talk to ourselves more harshly than we’d find acceptable by anyone else.”
Let me put it like this: If someone else were to talk to us the way we talk to ourselves, we’d tell them to take a hike. Full stop.
But how do we change this unhealthy dynamic when we’re the ones doing the criticizing?
For entrepreneurs, especially, this can be tricky. We’re taught from the get-go, that being hard on ourselves is par for the course. I need to get this project just right or else I’ll blow it with this client.
Yet, as Boyes wisely explains, “We wrongly assume that criticism will motivate us to do better.” When in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“We become even more of a perfectionist than usual,” she writes. “Instead of talking to ourselves with self-compassion, we raise our standards for our behavior as a defense against our feelings of doubt, anxiety, or frustration.”
That nagging voice she speaks of is nothing new to me.
But here’s the thing. I did a lot of soul-searching in 2020, and something I knew I wanted to do differently this year was to get better at compassionate self-talk.
While I’ve come a long way from last spring, I’m still working on changing these patterns in my everyday life. I’d like to share 5 practices that have helped me reframe the negative conversation in my head, and that I hope will help you as well.
Embrace the grey areas
Contrary to what our mind tells us, not everything is black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. This all-or-nothing mindset is what often prevents us from being kinder to ourselves.
What’s more, it damages our sense of self and keeps us stuck.
According to Boyes, we should take a balanced approach to our negative emotions and the way we perceive our experiences. Embracing the grey means allowing ourselves to make the best decision we can in any given situation.
Boyes writes: “Self-compassion can help you take a more balanced view of yourself, and see when not everything is great (say, your performance on a project), but not everything is terrible (your entire career is a flop).”
This speaks to my own experience.
I’ve been CEO of my company JotForm for over 15 years now. But that doesn’t make me a “know all” in every aspect of the industry. If anything, I believe in the philosophy of being a lifelong student. So, I continually challenge myself to learn about new techniques, new skills, and more importantly, new mindsets that foster growth.
All my life, I’ve been prone to this all-or-nothing frame of mind, but I recently spoke with a business coach who told me that adopting an attitude of “moderation” could help me curb some of this tendency.
Since then, I’ve practiced a shift in self-talk over the past few months. Here’s what that looks like for me:
Don’t sweat it. Everyone’s a little awkward during Zoom meetings.
I offered the right feedback in the moment with the information I had.
The email I sent conveyed exactly what I wanted, and I can always follow up if needed.
Realize it’s not just…you
In Writing for the BBC, David Robson describes the practice of self-compassion as the “forgiveness of our mistakes, and a deliberate effort to take care of ourselves throughout times of disappointment or embarrassment.”
The above is particularly relevant for entrepreneurs who struggle with “defeatist” thinking. When that one presentation didn’t go as planned, or we didn’t meet our quota for the month — we tend to dig into our perfectionism even more.
Trying on self-compassion means acknowledging our difficult emotions and understanding that these experiences aren’t limited to us — they’re universal. Take this pandemic, for example — it’s messing up a lot of our previously held plans.
But we’re in this together — all managing the best that we can.
Practice unconditional self-support
What’s important here is that our self-talk feels natural and authentic to us — not forced. “You’re more likely to believe yourself if you use language that feels real to you,” writes Boyes. “Find a tone that’s both kind and appealing.”
I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a “woo woo” sort of person. I’m a techie at heart and rely on what’s sound and logical. So, self-compassion, to me, isn’t something flowery — it’s hearing my best friend’s voice in my mind, telling me to go easy on myself.
It’s being unconditionally supportive, the way they would be.
Know your triggers, then come up with a game plan
“For most people, the habit of self-criticism does not seem to be so deeply ingrained that it is beyond repair,” writes Robson.
Even if we’ve been life-long perfectionists, we can still turn this ship around. But first we need to know our triggers.
Boyes recommends practicing self-compassion especially in those moments when we find ourselves ruminating over past decisions, doing social comparison, or dwelling on our imperfections.
“Come up with a half-dozen common scenarios in which you think compassionate self-talk would help you make better decisions,” she says. Then jot those down in a notebook or notes app where you can easily see them.
Practice by modeling it for others
“It takes more than generic cheerleading like ‘you can do it!’ to practice self-compassion,” Boyes explains.
In many ways, modeling it for others — speaking to our loved ones, clients and colleagues, with compassion — is like a kindling that sparks those flames to grow in us as well.
And the opposite is also true. “By fostering compassion for ourselves,” writes Elle Hunt for The Guardian, “We are more readily able to feel it for other people, meaning our kinder, calmer, more empathic approach can radiate outwards.”
While I still consider myself to be a work in progress when it comes to self-compassion, I know that the only future worth striving for, is one where I am my greatest ally.