Are you trying out new things such as speaking up in class, doing more public speaking, offering ideas meetings, or perhaps asking someone out on a date? Are you feeling good about taking these risks? Or do you wind up feeling discouraged? Sadly, many people end up critiquing their performance in such a way that it makes them feel more anxious and distressed, and less likely to try again. Here are six ways to be kinder to yourself.
1. WATCH YOUR THINKING. Sarah was on the Board of Directors at a local hospital. She rarely spoke during the meetings, and was beginning to feel frustrated. She had ideas to share, but she just couldn’t get her words to come out. One day, she gathered her nerve to offer her opinion about where an upcoming fundraiser might be held. After some discussion, a different place was selected. When she got home, the negative thoughts barraged her. She criticized herself and said her suggestion was probably the wrong one. She felt her voice was too quiet and hesitant. While she could've been justifiably pleased with herself for trying out a new behavior, her unhelpful thinking prevented her from feeling good about herself.
I had Sarah write out her thoughts like this:
Discouraging thought: The place I suggested for the fundraiser wasn't a good one.
Healthy response: What's the evidence for that conclusion? None, really. My opinion is as valid as anyone else's. I suggested a place that I, and others, have enjoyed in the past.
2. DON’T EXPECT TOO MUCH TOO SOON. Sarah was also falling into the trap of expecting too much of herself too soon. Here’s what she wrote out:
Discouraging thought: My voice was so quiet and hesitant. The other people must have thought I sounded nervous.
Healthy response: I'm just beginning to speak up in meetings. Simply getting the words out when I'm anxious is a real accomplishment. Perhaps with more practice I’ll sound louder and more assertive, but for now I feel good for speaking up, even if my voice wasn’t the strongest.
Sarah began to realize that while practice didn’t make perfect (no need to be perfect!), it did help. With time, she found it easier to speak up in meetings and she sounded more confident each time.
3. PUT THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE. Charlie is a young professional who I’d worked with for several months around his social fears—specifically, his fear of asking someone out on a date. He finally took a chance and asked someone he’d met in another department at work (they’d chatted several times in the office cafeteria) out for dinner. I wish I could tell you that she’d said “yes”, but unfortunately, she turned him down. Charlie is human, and he initially felt badly about his experience.
Charlie worked through his feelings by writing down his thoughts.
Discouraging thought: I'll never ask anyone out again. At least that way I don't have to feel like crap when I get turned down. Maybe if I was good-looking or made more money, I could get dates.
Healthy response: It hurts to be turned down, but rejection is part of everyone's dating experience. Even the most handsome, richest guys around have been told no.
Notice how he tells himself something really important: everyone must learn to cope with rejection. We must all accept that not everyone will respond positively to us in every situation. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong; that’s just how life is.
4. GIVE YOURSELF CREDIT. Here's a crucial point. Was Charlie devastated? No. He was very disappointed by the experience, but he was not destroyed. He was able to tell himself that he'll never overcome his fear if he doesn't take risks. “Avoiding is what has left me lonely,” he said. “I know if I persist with asking women out, someone nice will accept. One woman's rejection certainly doesn’t mean that all women will turn me down.” He was able to give himself credit for the big step he’d taken.
5. WATCH FOR COMPARISIONS. I’ll use an example from my own life here. I recently did an interview for a popular podcast. I hadn’t done an interview in years, so despite preparing, I was nervous and rusty. When I listened to myself, I was initially critical of my performance. I realized I was falling into most of the above traps, in addition to another doozey. I was comparing myself to people who had way more experience in these situations—people who did interviews frequently, people who had done TED talks I’d admired…you get the idea. I was able to work through my post-performance “blues” by doing exactly as I’d had my clients do. I wrote out my unhelpful thoughts, and then wrote out helpful, alternative ways of viewing the situation. If you want to read more about how I did this, I’m going to write about it on my self-compassion blog.
6. REALIZE THAT SOME “AFTER SHOCK” IS NORMAL
Best-selling author and researcher Brene´ Brown writes that we live in a culture of shame, and that whenever you take a risk and put yourself out there, you can expect to feel some backlash. You think to yourself, “Oh no. what have I done?” We’re not used to being vulnerable, and it’s normal for it to be scary. Hang tight. The feelings will pass.
I heard Brene´ Brown give an interview and blogged about it here: Owning Our Story. She offers some other poignant comments on this topic.
You might also like my colleague Dr. Alice Boyes' article on Cognitive Restructuring.
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Some of these ideas were adapted from my first book, Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia. named one of the most scientifically valid self-help books in a study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice.
Photo via Flickr, Creative Commons