Ben (Name changed), a research and development director at a pharmaceutical company, was distraught. “A situation happened at work today that I can’t get out of my head,” he said. It turned out that Ben had spent hours preparing for an all-hands meeting with colleagues across the globe. He reviewed the agenda, drafted his talking points, and logged on to the conference software ready to contribute.
Then, things went askew. Ben struggled to be heard above more dominant colleagues, and when he did get an opportunity to speak, he felt flustered and flubbed his words. Afterwards, Ben was preoccupied by the incident. He couldn’t quit beating himself up. Why hadn’t he spoken up earlier or been more assertive? Why did he over explain and blabber on instead of sticking to his talking points?
Ben is a Sensitive striver — a high-achiever who is also highly sensitive. He is driven and demands excellence from himself at all times. But when he falls short of those impossibly high expectations, his innate sensitivity and thoughtfulness cause him to spiral into self-recrimination. If you can relate to Ben’s reaction, then you also may be too hard on yourself. This can take the form of harsh, punitive judgments, overanalyzing your shortcomings, rumination over minor missteps, worry, and assuming fault.
Perhaps you have thought that self-criticism is what keeps you sharp. Sensitive strivers like Ben often use it as a form of motivation, hoping that if they’re tough enough on themselves, they’ll be compelled to perform. But research shows that self-criticism is a poor strategy. When used excessively, it is consistently associated with less motivation, worse self-control, and greater procrastination. In fact, self-criticism shifts the brain into a state of inhibition, which prevents you from taking action to reach your goals.
Being hard on yourself may be ineffective, but it is also a hard pattern to break. It requires consistent attention and practice. Here are a few strategies that can set on the path to taking a more balanced, emotionally equanimous approach to your performance.
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.
When Ben found out details about the all-hands meeting later, it became clear that no one noticed he was flustered. In fact, the COO later told Ben she thought his comments were the only moment of clarity in the conversation. This shocked Ben since it did not match his impression. It was a clear example of the spotlight effect — a tendency in which you misjudge and overestimate how much attention others pay to your behavior.
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. Ben realised that while the all-hands wasn’t his best showing, he was only paralysing himself further by taking this one unfavourable meeting and generalising it to an ongoing pattern. We avoid using extreme statements like “I always mess up,” “I’ll never get my voice heard,” and “This happens every time.”
Flip the “what if” narrative.
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?
Set a timer and a goal.
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.
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.