Words are powerful.
That’s particularly true at work: the language we use can make someone’s day—or send it spiraling into a downslope.
If we’re giving a colleague feedback, we choose our words with great care, acutely aware of the fine line between constructive feedback and harsh criticism (and how easy it is to step over it without even meaning to).
But what about the feedback we give ourselves? Why are we so eager to call out our own perceived shortcomings? And why do we talk to ourselves in a way we’d never dream of speaking to someone else?
Listening to your inner voice
We all have an inner voice. As you read these words right now, you’re hearing them “spoken” in your “mind’s ear.”
At other times, you talk to yourself inside your head—reacting to what happens, reacting to other people’s words, reminding yourself of your to-dos, or reminiscing about the past.
“She said that. Why did she say that? Must remember to pick up milk. What time can I finish today? I finished at 4:30 pm yesterday. Anyway, what did she mean when she said that?”
This internal monologue runs through your head all day. And precisely because it’s ever-present, you may have stopped noticing it at all.
That’s OK if your inner voice is just giving you a nudge to swing by the store. But when it becomes your harshest critic, it’s time to make a change.
Why self-talk matters
Your self-talk influences your perceptions, which in turn shapes your reality. It’s like having a “mini-you” perched on your shoulder, whispering in your ear all day. Even if you don’t notice the words unfolding in your mind, they can change how you see yourself, your day-to-day work, your company, your colleagues, and the whole story of your working life and career.
If self-talk turns negative, it can undermine your self-esteem and your estimation of others. Over time, that affects your work performance, well-being, team relationships, and influence at work.
Even worse, this negative self-talk easily becomes a self-reinforcing habit: you criticize yourself because you’re feeling down, and you feel down because you’re constantly criticizing yourself.
Ask yourself if any of these statements sound familiar:
- I am easily disappointed with myself.
- There is a part of me that puts me down.
- I can’t accept failures and setbacks without feeling inadequate.
They’re all taken from a self-assessment scale developed for a study of the forms that self-criticism can take. If these resonate, you might want to think about whether negative self-talk is an issue for you. If it is, this post suggests some ways to think about that.
Where self-criticism comes from, and why it doesn’t work
For most of us, work involves at least some pressure to perform. We’re expected to get things right, deliver results, and come through for the team. And while the pressure initially comes from outside, we quickly internalize it and start putting pressure on ourselves.
This might be due to our own character traits, or because of cultural norms that we’ve picked up—like an ethic that emphasizes the value of hard work.
As a result, we start believing that self-criticism is good. It guards against complacency and self-indulgence and makes us work harder. But even if that’s true, it comes at a high cost. Research shows that self-critics are much more likely to be anxious and depressed.
Constructive criticism, and how it helps
As you already know from your working life, there’s a big difference between constructive and unconstructive criticism. And it’s no different when you’re criticizing yourself.
Unconstructive self-criticism is vague, inconsiderate, judgmental, and unbalanced. To be useful for learning and growth, feedback has to provide specific information about what went wrong and what could be done differently. Constructive criticism judges the work, not the person—and it’s always offered in a gentle and respectful way.
Here’s self-compassion pioneer Dr. Kristin Neff:
“Self-criticism undermines self-confidence and leads to fear of failure. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is a very reliable source of inner strength. People with self-compassion still want to achieve the same goals. Not because we’ll think less of ourselves if we don’t, but because we care about ourselves and want to get the most out of ourselves. So the bar is just as high. The only difference is that you don’t run yourself down if you make a mistake, so you’re less afraid to fail.”
In other words, motivating yourself is exactly the same as motivating someone else: you get better results when you’re supportive, positive, and encouraging.
Positive self-talk doesn’t mean being “too soft” on yourself. It’s simply the best way to get the result you want.
Noticing your self-talk
The first step towards solving a problem is to become aware of it. When you become mindful of your inner voice, you can learn to see unhelpful patterns as they arise. Then you can allow harsh, self-critical thoughts to pass through your mind without getting caught up in them.
You can’t always control what the workday brings you. But you can decide how you respond. You can intervene between life events and your habitual reactions, and choose to take a different path.
Becoming aware of thought patterns and then changing them is the foundation of many long-established approaches to self-improvement, from meditation through to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
Remember: your inner voice isn’t necessarily truthful, nor is it all-powerful. You don’t have to believe everything it says, and you can choose to say other, more nurturing things to yourself. As you choose different words, you’ll see different results—harnessing the power of self-talk to work for you, instead of against you.
How positive self-talk can help
So, what can you expect from your new, kinder attitude towards yourself? Well, positive self-talk can lead to:
- Improved performance—especially during stressful, high-stakes moments like big meetings (as this study of self-talk and performance shows.)
- Increased focus—as this study of self-talk in sports indicates.
- Lower anxiety—as indicated in this study of anxiety in young people.
- Improved empathy with your coworkers—helping you build stronger relationships.
Overall, positive self-talk can make you happier, more confident in your abilities, and a better team player at work.
Making this change can take time—so give yourself some space to get used to your new approach. Don’t criticize yourself for criticizing yourself!
Also, remember that some negative feelings are necessary, and have to be felt or listened to before you can process events and move on. So this isn’t about adopting a fake grin, it just means cutting out the negativity that you really don’t need.
Four ways to tune up your self-talk
Here are some techniques you can use to foster positive self-talk:
The triple-column technique
Developed by David Burns, M.D., the triple-column technique can help to identify and defuse negative self-talk.
First, fold a sheet of paper into three, to make three columns.
In the first column, write down the things you notice you’re saying to yourself.
Next, read over your self-talk statements for cognitive distortions like:
- All-or-nothing thinking. “I made a mistake, so I must be incompetent.”
- Overgeneralization. “I always screw up things like that.”
- Mental filters. For example, letting one piece of criticism crowd out a whole load of positive feedback.
- Magnifying negatives. “I’m the worst PA ever. How did I ever get this job?”
- Minimizing positives. “Sure, the project went OK—but I’d done a similar one before.”
- Personalization. “He made so many changes to the report. He obviously hates me.”
- Compare and despair. “He’s so much smarter than me.”
- Fortune-telling. “I’ll never get better at this.”
- Self-labeling. “I’m so stupid / incompetent / lazy / clumsy / etc.”
Now, use the third column to rewrite your self-talk using a rational, neutral view of the situation, without self-criticism. For example, “I screwed up that entire meeting today” would become “Some things could have gone better, but I did a lot right in that meeting today.”
Consciously say the new version to yourself and notice the change in feeling.
Find affirmations that feel real and empowering to you. For example:
- “I’m capable of producing amazing work, and having fun in the process.”
- “I deserve to feel good about myself, and I deserve to feel happy throughout my workdays.”
- “I have the respect of my colleagues, and they have mine. I recognize we’re all doing the best we can.”
If it helps, think about the things you would love your manager to say to you—then say them to yourself. You could even create a pinboard at work where everyone can share their recognition for themselves, and for others too.
“Identify what you most want others to say to you, and say it to yourself. For most people it’s hearing that we’re loved or appreciated. The problem is that we wait for others to deliver the message to us (which sometimes takes a really long time) rather than give it to ourselves.”—Tristan Gutner, Transformation Coach
Savor your next compliment
When others compliment you, it’s easy to brush it off by thinking that they were just being polite, or they didn’t really mean it, or the compliment itself doesn’t really matter.
Successful, confident people don’t play down compliments. They accept them with grace. And you should do the same.
Instead of dismissing the compliment, savor it. Focus your full attention on the positive moment, relive it in your mind, and enjoy it through and through. Instead of arguing with your admirer, agree with them. Believe the good things they’re telling you—because they’re true!
“Don’t negate the compliment, try embracing the compliment with thanks. This helps reinforce a new positive way of being. And if we’re to truly change our negative self-talk into something more enriching and positive, it takes continual practice.”—Kari Romeo, Teach Your Inner Critic A New Story—TedX Talk
This practice can have very real positive effects: researchers have found that savoring positive experiences makes us happier. So why not try savoring all the good things that happen in your life? The sound of birdsong, the smell of a bakery, the colors of the trees—all these things can be gateways to joy, if only we let ourselves go through them.
Check in with yourself
Every so often, take a moment to check your feelings. Calm has check-ins and journaling features that you can use to surface patterns of thought, perception, and feeling.
When you notice uncomfortable emotions arising, don’t just ignore them. Instead, name them. For example, say, “I feel sad about what my boss said to me today,” or “I feel worried about tomorrow’s presentation.”
Research has found that labeling emotions decreases activity in the brain's emotional centers, calming down the fear-based part of the brain. That in turn, allows the frontal lobe (the thinking and reasoning center) to have a say—so you feel more balanced and able to respond. Dr. Dan Siegel calls this process "Name it to Tame it."
If you’re struggling with negative self-talk, try the exercises above and see if they help you derail negative thinking and be a better friend to yourself.
You might also enjoy our posts on How Your Workspace Can Support Your Mental Wellness and A Practical Guide to Having Mental Wellness Conversations With Your Colleagues.
Finally, if you feel negative self-talk has become chronic self-bullying, it might be a good idea to seek professional help. You deserve a supportive inner voice.