leadership, Tips&Tricks

Break the Cycle of Self-Criticism

Self-development as the cornerstone of strong, empowering leadership.

You don’t need to lower your bar,
but you do need to broaden your scope of what qualifies as a “win.”

It’s tempting to think that if you’re tough on yourself, you’ll perform better. But self-criticism can ruin your mood, focus, and productivity if you let it.
Try to take a more balanced approach to evaluating your own performance with these strategies.


Expand your definition of success. 

As a sensitive striver, you likely have a tendency to define achievement in a hyper-specific way, that is, complete and total excellence at all times. You don’t need to lower your bar, but you do need to broaden your scope of what qualifies as a “win.” Achieving the desired outcome isn’t always in your control, so broaden your definition of success to include:

  • Overcoming resistance or fear
  • Pushing back and standing up for what you think is right
  • Approaching a situation with a different mindset or attitude
  • Taking a small step toward a goal

Take a few moments at the end of your workday to reflect not only on your professional highlights (praise, recognition, positive reviews, etc.), but also to consider moments where you made yourself proud. Acting in integrity with your values is the true definition of success.

As a sensitive striver, your desire to be the best is an asset when managed correctly. Once you tamp down the tendency to be hard on yourself, you’ll be able to more fully leverage your sensitivity and ambition as the gifts they are.


Name your inner critic.

Create psychological distance from self-criticism by personifying it. For example, choose a silly name or a character from a movie or a book. Mine is called Bozo, but you might name yours “the little monster” or “gremlin.” I once had a client who called his Darth Vader (of Star Wars fame). He purchased a small Darth Vader action figure for his desk, which reminded him to keep the critical voice in check.

Naming your inner critic leverages cognitive defusion — a process by which you separate yourself from your thoughts. Defusion is shown to reduce discomfort, believability, and the stress of negative thoughts. It also promotes psychological flexibility, or the capacity to steady your mind, manage your emotions, and be aware, open, and adaptive to changing demands.


Avoid generalization. 

To combat the spotlight effect, consider your performance on aggregate versus zeroing in on a singular negative event. Think of a bell curve: you’ll likely perform average or higher than average most days.

Some days will be below average, and that’s normal. Keep an eye on the bigger picture.


Flip the “what if” narrative and Think about what could go “right.” 

The human mind is wired to make meaning and answer questions. The sensitive brain, in particular, is adept at making connections and anticipating eventualities. Studies have shown that sensitive people have more active mental circuitry and neurochemicals in areas related to attention, action-planning, decision-making, and having strong internal experiences.

This means that as a sensitive striver you have the power to channel your thinking with greater precision. Make better use of your brain power by posing more constructive questions. Specifically, consider what could go right in equal measure with what could go wrong. For example:

  • What if the senior leadership team loves my presentation?
  • What if this idea isn’t stupid, but is the breakthrough that moves the project forward?
  • What if this proposal revolutionizes how we work as a team?

To avoid focusing on the negative, consider positive “what if” situations.


Timebox your feelings. 

Being hard on yourself can ruin your mood, focus, and productivity if you let it. Luckily, shame and humiliation  –  two emotions that are common with self-criticism — are shown to only last between 30 to 50 minutes. Take advantage of this fact by time-boxing your feelings: set a timer and allow yourself to fully experience and process your emotions during that period. One helpful practice is release writing, in which you free write for three to five minutes to let go of pent up frustrations.

Once the timer goes off, make a conscious choice about how to move forward. Define how you want to feel and what actions gets you closer to that feeling state. Ben decided he wanted to feel peaceful. We determined several steps that could help him achieve peacefulness, including a short meditation and taking a break to walk his dog.


Through Individual coaching you increase awareness and gain insights that help you to grow as a person and as a leader.

Are you interested in personal and/or leadership coaching, view our offer or book a (free) introductory session to align/ finetune our mutual expectations.

Coaching is possible in English and in Dutch


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