Learning new things is one of the joys of life. Whether you’re a parent, professional, or hobbyist (oftentimes, all three) there’s a good chance you’re powered by the ABL mantra: Always be learning. So it’s no surprise to see this reflected in our collective brain: the Google search.
Try this little thought exercise. Before scrolling, how do you think the google search “How do I learn to…” auto-completes?
My guesses: Coding, Chinese, and a Fortnite dance. Here’s what the search actually produced for me:
I’ll admit, it didn’t occur to me that learning “to love myself” was a Google-able thing, but once I saw it, I wasn’t surprised. And I bet neither were you.
It’s all in your head
Ambitious people have unlocked the secret of self-motivation. They read incessantly and function on little sleep; all while juggling numerous side projects. Self-talk – or their inner monologues – enable these go-getters to maintain this frenetic pace and keep themselves accountable when faced with the inevitable setback.
But calling it self-talk is a deceptive euphemism. It would be like calling MMA, a contact sport. If you’re Googling “How to learn to love yourself” the voice is probably a bit intense. Some might say harsh. And a more apt name would be the Inner Critic. Or The Drill Sergeant. Or The Executioner.
Say hello to my little friend
Yes, RadReaders actually named their inner critics the Drill Sergeant and Executioner. Here’s one of my experiences with my personal Executioner.
When we lived in New York City, each month I’d buy a monthly unlimited Metrocard. This $120-ish monthly payment allowed me to ride the subway “for free” and the savvy math nerd in me immediately calculated the number of rides required to break-even.
Yet, once a month – right as I’m about to swipe – the card would be missing. In my haste, I’d left it in the prior day’s pant pocket. I had no choice but to buy another swipe, significantly altering the month’s break-even economics.
Enter The Executioner. He’d grab the mic and proceed to lay into me for the ensuing 35 minute subway ride, belittling me for my irresponsibility and incompetence.
But he didn’t stop there, this $2.75 mistake had grave ramifications: Anything I wanted out of life (a roof over my head), anything I aspired to be (a successful entrepreneur), and any joy I sought to find (can’t I just be happy) would now be out of my reach.
Why so nasty?
Duke Psychology and Neuroscience Professor Mark Leary wrote about this all-too-common behavior and the impact it has on our happiness in Aeon Magazine:
We all know people who create a great deal of unhappiness for themselves simply by how they think about and react to the events in their lives. Many people push themselves to meet their own unreasonable expectations, berate themselves for their flubs and failures, and blow their difficulties out of proportion. In an odd sort of way, these people are rather mean to themselves, treating themselves far more harshly than they treat other people.
Why do we do subject ourselves to these internal thrashings? And does it even work?
Keep it in the fam, fam
Is negative self-talk a byproduct of how we were raised? Roshni Venkatesh shared on Twitter that “Parents think if they don’t go tough on [you], you’ll turn out useless” – a mindset that’s difficult to shake. Positive Intelligence author Shirzad Chamine takes this a step further, arguing that we internalize a false construct of “conditional love:”
The most damaging lie is that we are not worthy of [our parents’] love or respect by just being who we are. Instead, it forces us to constantly perform for them; this forms the construct of “conditional love.” Most of us grow up experiencing love that is conditional on being good or performing, and we get into the habit of placing the same conditions on self-love. But conditional love is not real love. It’s more like receiving a carrot for good behavior.
And here’s the scary part. If this indeed begins in our childhood, it may not end until… our death beds. In The Five Invitations end-of-life-care pioneer Frank Ostaseski wrote that that people in their last moments often “tell themselves that they’re not doing a good job of dying” and that it’s common for people to look back with regret, to become obsessed with ‘if only’ conversations and “club [them]selves with self-judgment.”
Bracing for the beatdown
Could it be possible that The Executioner is just protecting us? Anna Stroud shared that when “you expect the world to come at you for making a mistake, you lessen the blow by getting there first.” How thoughtful of you, kind Executioner.
It wouldn’t be the first time that we seek to protect our fragile egos. In the classic book on workplace feedback Difficult Conversations Harvard professors Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen explain how criticism ultimately cuts to the core of our identities:
It’s all about who we are and how we see ourselves. How does what happened affect my self-esteem, my self-image, my sense of who I am in the world? What impact will it have on my future? What self-doubts do I harbor?
Whether it’s in our offices, cocktail parties or bedrooms – we’re constantly surrounded by threats to our identities. We invite our own suffering by doubling down on self-talk when we make mistakes. But maybe that’s the point?
Suffering: The cost of entry
There’s a longstanding debate that divides the RadReads community (and is also one of our biggest recurring marital fights): Economy Plus. This $59 upgrade proves to be a canary in the coal mine of sorts in our quest to understand negative self-talk.
My refusal to splurge on legroom is, in part due to financial vigilance against lifestyle creep. But at it’s core it’s driven by a deeply ingrained belief that you have to suffer for something to be worthwhile. Sumanth Neerumala captured a belief shared by many RadReaders (particularly children of first generation immigrants): “If i don’t feel like I’ve truly suffered for it, then I haven’t earned it.”
I’ve previously written about Western Civilization’s “common creative contract,” which according to author Elizabeth Gilbert “still seems to be one of suffering.” Great acts of creation, whether it’s art or entrepreneurship, require you to sacrifice yourself:
I shall destroy myself and everyone around me in an effort to bring forth my inspiration, and my martyrdom shall be the badge of my creative legitimacy.Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Which takes us to the last motivation: not losing your edge.
Please, please don’t let me get ‘soft’
For so many professionals, negative self-talk is about not getting left behind in a brutally competitive global economy. The Executioner’s verbal abuse is necessary because the stakes are high: promotions, launching businesses, self-actualization. By enforcing vigilance and discipline The Executioner is doing me a favor by ensuring I keep my competitive edge.
Mathias Jakobsen a strategist at SY Partners uses the analogy of walking barefoot to show the flaws in this thinking. If you accidentally hurt your foot on a stone you could punish yourself by cutting your foot open with a knife to cause more pain, ensuring you’d never make that mistake again. Alternatively, you could accept that mistakes are inevitable and instead “continue to walk to where you want to go, and gradually with time learn how to pay attention to sharp stones and relax your feet as you step.”
Punishing yourself with negative-self talk is analogous to wasting precious brain cycles on something that’s already occurred. Inviting curiosity and awareness opens you up to a wonderful asset: creative problem solving. And it makes the journey that much more enjoyable.
And the research backs it up. Kristen Neff, an associate psychology professor at the University of Texas Austin argues that self-compassion is robustly associated with psychological well-being:
People who are higher in self-compassion show greater emotional stability, are more resilient, have a more optimistic perspective, and report greater life satisfaction. They are also less likely to display signs of psychological problems such as depression and chronic anxiety. (…) People who treat themselves with compassion respond more adaptively [to small and large mistakes] than people who don’t.
So the next time your Executioner shows up, extend him your hand. Or even better, a hug.
Support our community, buy a book
These books have been particularly impactful in my quest to tame The Executioner.
- Difficult Conversations, Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen – An incredible “business book” on identity and feedback.
- The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski – This book really digs into our fear of death and how we can release ourself from it’s shackles.
- Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine – A research-backed playbook on how to self-manage yourself without losing your edge.
Want to stop your own self-talk? Try a complimentary coaching session by emailing me at khe [at] radreads.co.
Special thanks to the Twitter fam for teasing out these ideas – @gabebassin @pjrvs @megalomaniac @Annawriter_ @fredrikperdahl @thnkclrly @Bosefina @RoshniVenkatesh @SuMastodon