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When Self-Criticism is True: Turn Self-Criticism into Self-Correction

Deal with this reality without sinking into excessive self-criticism.

In a recent blog on the shame of unemployment I suggested that a lot of people feel a sense of shame about losing their job. One reader commented that sometimes you lose your job because you are not doing your job. I doubt that this accounts for the doubling of unemployment in the last three years, but it's a point worth considering. Sometimes people lose their job for good reasons---and it's really their fault. How can you deal with this reality without sinking into rumination, guilt, and excessive self-criticism?

Fired for Cause

Sometimes people lose their jobs because of mistakes that they have made. One man lost his job because he became passive-aggressive when his boss did not give him priority. He was late getting work done, he complained to other co-workers (who, in reality, can never be trusted with your complaints), and he stopped acting like a team player. He got fired for "cause". It was true that it was his fault. Another employee got fired because she was continually asking for reassurance from her coworkers and her boss and became too "high maintenance". Another man got fired because he got into arguments with his boss. Maybe the "boss" over-reacted, but in the real world you need to play along with the team or you won't play at all.

Four Steps to Overcoming Self-Criticism

There are probably 20 steps to overcome your self-criticism, but let's start with these four.

1. Do a realistic assessment of your mistakes
All of us make mistakes. The people I described above truly did things that led to getting fired. Let's face it, sometimes you can be your own worst enemy. Rather than ruminate (dwell and brood) on your mistakes, make up a list of what you did wrong and keep it handy. You want to learn from your mistakes rather than repeat them. One man listed the following: complaining about your boss or job to other people at work. Not getting work done on time. Expecting and demanding fairness in everything.

2. Examine if your rumination is productive or unproductive
Rumination involves excessive repetitive focus on negative thoughts, such as "Why did this happen to me?", "I can't believe I am in this situation", "I made such stupid mistakes" or "Those people are bastards for firing me". When you ruminate you focus on negatives, don't solve problems, and don't enjoy your life. Learning from mistakes is key, but ruminating about them keeps you locked in your head. Here is the key to freeing yourself: Is this rumination going to lead to any productive action today? If not, it's a waste of time. Set it aside and list some productive actions that you can take-or that you can plan for--such as making a to-do list.

3. Make a to-do list of how to improve your future performance
You may have made some really stupid mistakes-but why dwell on them? Use them for a to-do list for your future job. For example, make a list of objectives so that your mistakes can improve future performance: "Don't complain, don't avoid, get work done on time, don't argue with the boss." Move forward with a plan to make things different in the future.

4. Replace self-criticism with self-correction
Self-criticism involves all of those useless, depressing labels about you: "I screwed up, I'm a failure, I can't do anything right". Even if they are true, getting stuck on the self-criticism keeps you trapped. If you play tennis and your coach tells you that you swung the wrong way, don't sit down and criticize yourself. Swing the right way.

Self-correction is a plan of action that leads you forward, propelled by the learning involved in making mistakes: "In the future I commit to getting the work done and not complaining". Once you have moved the self-criticism into self-correction you have a plan of action. You can let it go, plan for the future, enjoy the present moment.

To learn more about handling these self-critical thoughts, see my new book out now BEAT THE BLUES BEFORE THEY BEAT YOU: HOW TO OVERCOME DEPRESSION.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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