“A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the pants, but it is miles ahead in results.”—Ella Wheeler Wilcox
If you’re one of the many American workers who judge themselves for their mistakes and shortcomings, you probably have a deep belief that this treatment can help you do better. Or you might worry that giving yourself too much leeway might turn you into a total slacker. Neither are true. After a setback, one of the worst forms of career sabotage is self-judgment. Studies show that it adds insult to injury. When you’re hard on yourself after a letdown, it’s more difficult to bounce back. Plus, you’re more prone to anxiety and depression—all of which create more obstacles to success.
Think about it this way. After a smack down at work, the real problem is your self-judgment, not the setback. When you remove the second layer of self-judgment, you can see the original problem more clearly and have more ease in dealing with it. Chances are, you wouldn’t dream of treating a loved one the way you treat yourself—calling yourself names, pelting yourself for the smallest human mistakes, disbelieving in yourself enough to give up on your career goals. When you’re feeling sad, in pain or grieving a career loss, harsh words such as, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” or “It’s all your fault,” or “You should of known better” can actually exacerbate your stress. I call this double jeopardy—the disadvantages incurred from two simultaneous oppressive sources—the upsetting event, plus your harsh reprimands.
Self-judgment can also throw you into a cycle of setbacks. I ate a piece of carrot cake turns into, I’ve already blown my diet, so I might as well eat a second piece which quickly spirals into, I’m such a loser; I’ll never get this weight off. It’s the negative self-talk that makes you feel bad, not eating the cake. The bad feeling caused by the self-judgment throws you into a cycle of seeking comfort in the very bad habit you’re trying to break. In addition to weight loss, you can apply self-judgment’s toxicity to any type of goal setting: abstaining from alcohol, saving money, starting an exercise regimen, organizing your work space. The list is endless.
One night I got caught in a blinding blizzard in a remote area of the North Carolina mountains without snow tires or four-wheel drive. I couldn’t stop or pull off the road, and my car was skidding on ice. Clutching the steering wheel, I had to drive another thirty miles straight up steep treacherous mountain curves. At first, I could hear the reprimands in my head, What is your problem? Boy, you’ve screwed yourself now. Before the harshness escalated, I caught myself, took a deep breath and coached myself with kindness off the proverbial ledge: Okay Bryan, easy does it. You’re doing great. You’ve got this in your pocket. You’ve handled a lot of challenging situations. And you’ve come out on top. You’re going to be just fine. That’s it, no rush. Just breathe and take your time. That’s right, Bryan, just keep it on the road. Awesome job!
I’m still here to tell the harrowing story, so obviously I made it home safely. I believe I survived because of the compassionate way I spoke to myself kept me calm and centered. But what if my self-talk had continued to speak harshly to me? If it had taken over full throttle with something like, You loser! Why didn’t you check the weather forecast before you left? Well then, I’m not so sure the double jeopardy would’ve let me off the hook or that I’d still be here writing this article.
It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s just as easy to build yourself up as it is to tear yourself down. The solution is to be for you—not against you. Studies show when you substitute self-compassion for self-criticism, you rebound from the setback quicker and foster positive change in just about anything you do. Self-soothing is especially beneficial in the aftermath of such stressors as job loss, conflict with a coworker or missing a promotion. An arm around your shoulder is good medicine. I don’t mean someone else’s arm. I mean your own supportive arm raises motivation in the middle of a high-pressured situation such as job interviews, performing in front of your peers or competing for a job promotion.
So whether you’re dealing with a big crisis or small hassles, self-compassion is like a best friend that talks you off the proverbial ledge, bounces you back when you feel disheartened, propelling you closer to your goals. When you self-soothe through letdowns—instead of attacking yourself—you feel better and cultivate the confidence and courage to face just about any career challenge.
The more self-compassion you have, the greater your emotional arsenal. A series of studies from the University of Wisconsin show that meditation cultivates compassion and kindness, affecting brain regions that make you more empathetic to other people. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers discovered that positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be developed in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport. The imaging revealed that brain circuits used to detect emotions were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive practice in compassion meditation.
When you cultivate the habit of speaking with loving-kindness, you change the way your brain fires in the moment. Studies show when thoughts attack you, they reduce your chances of rebounding and ultimately succeeding. When you use a compassionate voice amid upset, your prefrontal cortex (”thinking mind”) comes back online and offers an impartial, objective perspective on the judgmental thoughts. In other words, compassion throws the switch in your prefrontal cortex and puts everything into perspective. Once you get in the habit of letting the judgment part of you come and go without fighting, personalizing or ignoring it, you develop more self-kindness to calm its voice.
The science of self-talk also has shown time and again that how we use our inner voice makes a big difference in the degree to which we thrive. Positive self-talk also mitigates dysfunctional mental states and cultivates healthier mindsets. University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross conducted research into the value of first-name self-talk as a way to disable social anxiety before and after a stressful event when people often ruminate about their performance. Kross gave 89 participants five minutes to prepare a speech. Half were told to use only pronouns to refer to themselves while the other half were told to use their names. The pronoun group had greater anxiety with such comments as, “How can I possibly prepare a speech in five minutes,” while the name group had less anxiety and expressed confidence using self-talk such as, “Bryan, you can do this.” The name group was also rated higher in performance by independent evaluators and were less likely to ruminate after the speech.
Other studies also show that first-name self-talk is more likely to empower you and increase the likelihood that, compared to someone using first-person pronoun self-talk, you see a challenge instead of a threat. Another study at the University of Michigan found that brain scans of people using third-person self-talk (versus first person self-talk) while watching disturbing images were better at regulating their emotional distress. And dieters, compared to non-dieters, benefited most with distanced self-talk, and non-dieters made healthier food choices using the same self-control strategy.
Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley conducted a series of studies showing that positive affirmations function as “cognitive expanders,” bringing a wider perspective that diffuse the tunnel vision of self-condemnation. Self-affirmations helped research participants see themselves more fully in a broader self-view, bolstering their self-worth. Replacing mandatory statements such as “I should” (known as should thinking) or “I must” with empowering words puts you in charge instead of at the mercy of situations, and it enhances your well-being. Every time you feel driven by what psychologist Albert Ellis coined as “musterbation,” you have agency to choose more supportive, empowering words such as “I can,” “I want to,” or “I choose to.”
Studies show that forgiving yourself for previous missteps and failures such as procrastination offsets further procrastination. A survey of 119 Carleton University students who forgave themselves after procrastinating on the first midterm exam were less likely to delay studying for the second one. When you talk yourself off the ledge, as I did in the snowstorm, using compassion, pep talks, and positive affirmations, you perform better at tasks and recover more quickly from setbacks.
So after a career letdown or when you forget, slip up, or fail—instead of using judgment to bludgeon yourself—forgive and nurture yourself with the same loving-kindness you give to loved ones and friends. Underscore your triumphs and capitalize your shortcomings into “tallcomings.” Make it a habit to throw modesty out the window and name as many of your accomplishments as you can—what you’re good at, the skills and talents you possess and what you’ve achieved that self-judgment overshadows.