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Dealing With Failure

How to Silence Your Irrationally Harsh Inner Critic

Pay attention to your internal monologue. How you address yourself mentally can impact your actions.


Your harshest critic is often yourself. You might not even realize it, especially as you go around administering fair attention and wise advice to others. Yet anyone listening in on your internal monologue, particularly in times of nerves, anxiety, or fear, might hear a verbal rabbit hole of unreasonable negativity and self-berating.

The focus of your internal mumbling turns out to have important consequences, because there’s a particular type of self-talk that actually lifts you out of the irrational darkness. According to research by psychologist Ethan Kross, there’s more to the idea of “your best self” than New Age-y life affirmations spoken to your reflection in a mirror.

In other words, how you talk to yourself can impact your success.

Avoid the first person.

Many of us can recognize in moments of severe self-criticism and fault-finding that we aren’t being helpful or logical, but that realization doesn’t make it any easier to shift our point of view. Surprisingly, it’s actually as easy as saying it.

It’s a matter of switching your pronouns. Avoid the first-person, and instead, use pronouns like “you”, third-person pronouns, or address yourself by your name. You might already do this automatically, uttering reactions like, “Oh, why’d you do that?” or psyching yourself up by saying, “Okay, you can do this!” But this is a powerful deliberate tactic to improve performance and gain control of your feelings and actions.

In one of Kross’s studies, people faced what so many consider their greatest fear: public speaking. They had to give a speech, both in front of an audience and while being videotaped, explaining why they were qualified to attain their dream job—all without getting enough time to prepare or being allowed to take notes.

The participants who used second- or third-person pronouns and called themselves by their own name before giving their speech were calmer and performed better than those who used first-person pronouns!

When you get out of “me,” “myself,” and “I,” you mentally gain distance from yourself and get out of your own head. Much like you can gain perspective on a piece of art by stepping back a few feet, you can gain added insight on your thought process by putting some mental distance between your present mindset and your typical nervous, anxious self. In other words, quieting the harsher inner critic gives you some much-needed space to think, and thus, perspective.

Practice self-distancing

There are many situations that cause anxiety, apprehension, and insecurity, especially related to fear of evaluation. Maybe it’s a situation with your job, a public performance, an important event, applying for a raise or a position, or even personal and social relationships. Use self-distancing self-talk to give yourself advice and support that somewhere in the corners of your smarter, calmer mind, you know you need to hear anyway. 

Inhabit the role of the “Wiser You” and interview yourself to ask why you’re nervous or agitated. Write out a message or even send yourself an email using your name.

Let’s look at an example: Compare two participants from one of Kross’s studies who wrote down their thoughts about an upcoming event that made them anxious. Example one:

I am afraid that I won’t get a job if I mess up during an interview. And I always mess up in some way. I never know what to say, and I am always incredibly nervous. I end up in a feedback loop of nervousness causing bad interviews causing nervousness. Even if I got a job, I think I would still be afraid of interviews.

Versus example two:

You can do this, [participant’s name]! You can arrange this retirement party for [XXX], and get a good turnout even though he is not well liked. 

You can come up with a speech. You can get someone else to speak well of him. You can keep the cost of this party within budget. [Participant’s name], you can do this! You can get people to pay for the meal and drinks, and you can get them to contribute to a gift. You will make this retirement party a good memory for [XXX].

Note the difference? Using “I” feels immutable and can get you stuck in a loop of negativity that resembles a paralyzing fixed mindset. Using “you,” whether it’s to start an internal dialogue rather than monologue or to give yourself advice, is one trick to take on the growth mindset and feel like change, control, and success is possible.

Don’t get stuck at diagnosing your current state, with observations like “You are (worried, anxious),” but follow through with instructions and supportive statements. Here are three to start:

  • You need to _____.
  • You can _____.
  • You will _____.

Check in with the non-first-person you afterwards

Kross and his colleagues also discovered that people who used their own names and non-first-person pronouns not only primed themselves to feel more confident about their performance, they felt less shame and depressions about themselves afterwards.

So check in with yourself after performances and anxious events and continue using non-first-person pronouns and names. This type of self-reflection staves off rumination, which is when you chew and chew over negatives and faults, and has been shown to harm health and motivation. The self-distancing here helps you re-construe rather than merely recount, achieving realizations and insight rather than merely describing an experience. 

It makes sense that you find a lot of self-talk in sports, where it’s common to gain some visual and other types of psychological distance by practicing in front of mirrors and watching videos of yourself, or analyzing plays after events and shows. Think about how athletes encourage themselves with statements like “You got this!” and “Get your head in the game!” or instructive reminders like “Don’t do that weird wrist thing when taking that shot!” The famous Nike motto is the self-reflexive “Just do it,” not “I’ll just do it.”

That one little tweak in language can catalyze motivation, learning, and performance.

How about you?

How do you silent the irrationally harsh self-critic in your head?

Janet Choi

Janet Choi is the Marketing Manager at Customer.io. She writes about motivation, psychology, how people work, and how to communicate like a human being. Lover of ice cream and words. Say hi @lethargarian or on Google+.

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