Many women in New York City strive to achieve ambitious goals in their personal and professional lives. When a woman works towards her goals in a balanced fashion, such striving for achievement can add great meaning and fulfillment to her life. However, when a woman’s self-worth is overly dependent on whether she achieves the goals she sets for herself, she becomes uniquely vulnerable to the trap of self-criticism.
Here at CTWPS, we recognize how self-criticism reinforces the cycle of perfectionism by weakening a woman’s self-esteem and, in turn, driving her to “prove herself” by setting incrementally higher standards for her performance. In therapy, we teach our clients how to catch their “inner critic” and how to respond to the events in their lives – successes and failures – with greater flexibility and self-compassion. Has your own inner critic has been “acting up” lately? If so, the following tips may help you begin to broaden how you evaluate your worth so that it is informed by, but less dependent upon, your achievements:
1. Get to Know your Inner Critic
Given that you may be quite loyal to your “inner critic,” it can initially be difficult to notice when it starts “acting up.” In fact, many clients even express a reluctance to challenge their inner critic, due to the (fallacious) belief that it motivates them to work hard and meet their goals. Without their inner critic, these women fear that they will be less successful, less important, or unneeded in their relationships or roles. At CTWPS, we support our clients in challenging the fallacy that they must be self-critical in order to meet their goals, and we teach women how to successfully identify and catch their inner critic using various tracking exercises. For example, we may ask a client to keep a log of situations wherein her inner critic makes personal judgments (“I’m a total failure”) or critical accusations (“I’m a loser for responding that way”). Together, we would evaluate the consequences of such self-talk on her subsequent thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
2. Identify the Costs of Self-Criticism
We also help our clients to identify the consequences of remaining loyal to their inner critic. For example, we may ask a client to look at a list of critical words her “inner critic” calls her for several minutes (Think: ugly, incompetent, unlikable…). If she were to rate her mood before and after the exercise, how to you imagine her mood would change? Most likely, her mood would worsen! Or, we may ask her to imagine that someone who she respects and holds in high esteem were to be followed around by a self-critical bully for a week, constantly criticizing her and ignoring all of her accomplishments. What do you think would happen to this woman? Most likely, her mood and confidence would begin to plummet. Bottom line: Self-criticism makes you feel bad!
3. Distinguish Between Self-Criticism and Constructive Self-Feedback
As you begin getting to know your self-critical tendencies, you may begin to recognize that you have been conflating self-criticism with constructive self-talk. For example, imagine a woman who recently gave a big presentation at work. In a debriefing meeting, her boss provided her with several points of positive feedback, as well as a few recommendations regarding how to continue refining her presentation moving forward.
If in response to receiving her boss’ feedback this woman were to be blindly loyal to her inner critic, she would likely berate herself for falling short of her own standards as a “strategy” to motivate herself to perform better next time. For example, her inner critic may say: “My boss clearly thought I could have done better. I totally bombed that presentation. I’m incapable.” The problem with this statement, however, is that it completely ignores and disregards the many strengths in this woman’s presentation!
4. Develop a Self-Compassionate and Respectful Response
Ultimately, our focus at CTWPS is to support women in cultivating skills to treat themselves kindly and flexibly, and to tolerate setbacks and perceived inadequacies. Thus, in treatment, we would support the client described above in learning how to construct a new self-statement that honors her boss’ constructive feedback in a way that is more growth sustaining and balanced. For example, she may practice telling herself: “There were many strengths to my presentation, it was a great start. Next time, I will also focus on putting less text on my PowerPoint slides and speaking more slowly, as my boss recommended. This will make me an even stronger public speaker in the future.” The practice of constructing a new self-statement would help this woman to take responsibility and incorporate her boss’ constructive feedback into her narrative without becoming unduly self-critical.
We may also invite this client to consider what she would say to support a close friend who had received such feedback from her boss. Would she confirm her friend’s belief and say, “You’re right, I think you’re incapable, too, and you will probably never get that promotion you’ve been working so hard for”? Probably not! In fact, she would likely help her friend take stock of all the strengths in her presentation, and would normalize the process of receiving constructive feedback as one rises in her career.
Additionally, we may encourage this woman to gather “evidence” that directly challenges her self-critical belief, such as positive performance reviews, a recent promotion, or a specific point of praise from her manager. Together, we would cultivate an alternative perspective that integrates the kernel of truth in her experience with a more compassionate view of herself, such as: “I am generally well-respected in my role at work and tend to receive positive feedback from my managers. I may also continue to receive specific points of constructive feedback as I take on new responsibilities. This feedback will help me become stronger in my role.”
On the path toward self-growth, even the most talented and brilliant women experience setbacks and moments of self-doubt. Our ultimate goal is to support our clients in normalizing such moments as a healthy part of their experience, and to cultivate flexible and compassionate responses, both internally and as reflected in their behaviors.
This post is Part II in a series on cognitive-behavioral approaches for perfectionism. Check back for more posts in this series coming soon.