For many people, their biggest critic is themselves. In an attempt to learn from their mistakes, many people fall into the trap of confusing negative self-talk with accountability. They believe that yelling at themselves, and making themselves feel bad about their mistake is the same as holding themselves accountable. While it is true that the way we talk to ourselves (silently or out loud) shapes the meaning we make from our actions and how we will act in the future, negative self-talk rarely creates the accountability we intend. Here are some examples of negative self-talk:
“I can’t believe I hurt her feelings! That is so typical of me, I am such a self-absorbed, careless, thoughtless jerk.”
“I lost my keys again??? What is wrong with me, I am such a colossal, literal LOSER”
“Did I embarrass him? I totally embarrassed him, I’m such a selfish, mean, horrible person.”
When we engage in negative self-talk in these moments, not only are we being mean to ourselves, but we’re making it more difficult to repair the mistake or harm we’ve caused. Instead of allowing us to take accountability for our mistakes, negative self-talk keeps us trapped in a cycle of identifying and bemoaning our mess-up, and keeps us from any meaningful repair. Here’s why:
Negative self-talk masks the root of the problem
Negative-self talk says “I said something hurtful to my wife because I am a jerk.” If you accept this premise - I do bad things because I’m a bad person - where is the room to change? More importantly, where do you even begin to attempt change? How do you stop being a jerk? Leaving negative self-talk behind allows more accuracy and objectivity. We can move from an explanation rooted in identity (i.e “I’m a jerk”) to an explanation rooted in actions and consequences (i.e “I said something hurtful to my wife because I was cranky because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.”) You may feel guilty that you allowed your hunger to get the best of you, but this sentence also provides some concrete ways to create change: you could avoid your wife when you haven’t eaten, you could be extra mindful of what you say when you’re cranky, you could make sure to carry snacks with you so you don’t get cranky, etc.
Negative self-talk makes it harder to try new things
If you respond to your mistakes with shaming and name-calling, it’s much less likely you’ll take risks, because your ability to tolerate mistakes is low. Consider a math classroom where the teacher laughs at and name-calls students who answer questions incorrectly. Over time, students become much more resistant to raising their hands and attempting to answer questions, because they don’t want to risk the teacher’s ire. Compare to a math class where the teacher responds to incorrect answers with curiosity and empathy - asking students to pinpoint where their calculations went astray. Students are willing to raise hands and risk being wrong, because they know the teacher will help them understand and correct their mistakes. Negative self-talk leads to your inner landscape resembling that first classroom. You become less likely to try fixing mistakes or take true accountability, because you don’t want to risk your own ire. Leaving behind negative self-talk makes space for the curiosity and problem-solving necessary for true accountability.
Ok you’ve convinced me, how do I put this into practice?
Take a piece of paper and divide it into four columns. Label the left-most column “mistake.” Think of a recent mistake you made and write it here.
Label the second column “negative self-talk.” Underneath it, write your inner monologue during and after the mistake.
Label the third column “objective cause and effect.” Underneath it, describe how the mistake occurred without using any judging language. Avoid words like: dumb, stupid, careless, idiotic, selfish, lazy, etc.
Label the right-most column “how to move forward.” Underneath it, describe what needs to happen to rectify your mistake, or what could be done differently in the future to change the outcome of the causes listed.
Here are some examples
Objective cause and effect
How to move forward
Left groceries on the kitchen table and went to work, causing a gallon of milk to spoil.
“God I’m such a mess, I can’t believe I forgot to put them away, why am I such a lazy procrastinator, what is wrong with me, that was a lot of milk to go bad that I’ll have to buy all over again!!!”
I forgot to put my groceries away this morning before I left for work because I was in a rush. I was in a rush because I hit snooze on my alarm many times and woke up late.
I’ll buy more milk on my way home from work
Next time if I oversleep, I’ll allow myself to go grocery shopping at a different time in the day, or schedule a grocery delivery.
Got credit for a coworkers idea in a meeting and did not correct my boss. This upset my coworker.
“What is wrong with me, why didn’t I say anything? I’m so self-absorbed, it would have been so easy to stand up for my coworker in the meeting but I was such a coward I couldn’t bring myself to do it, I’m such a chicken.”
I got credit for my coworker’s idea because I presented it during the meeting, and when my boss thanked me I did not acknowledge my coworker. I did not correct my bosses’ mistake because I am anxious about how he perceives me, and nervous about speaking out in meetings generally. Now my coworker is upset with me.
I will apologize to my coworker.
Because I am nervous speaking in meetings, I will plan more carefully for presentations in the future, including giving people credit for their work.
I will send an email to my boss correcting his assumption.
When we allow ourselves to be objective, the way forward out of the mistake/harm caused suddenly becomes much clearer. And when we have empathy for ourselves, we can create solutions that meet us where we are at. Notice that for both examples, we didn’t try to correct over-sleeping or anxiety during meetings. We just tried to plan accordingly.
If you are continuing to have difficulty with negative self-talk, schedule an appointment with a therapist today.