The Sneaky Way Negative Self-Talk Can Feel Productive
Self-criticism has a sneaky superpower: It can often disguise itself as self-reflection.
When we come up short on something—say, that presentation at work, that friend we keep ghosting, or that promise we didn’t come through on—we can easily start blaming ourselves, replaying our mistake and upping our anxiety with each revisit. The worst part: We often feel like it’s a productive way to learn from the experience. In reality, though, we’re just tangoing with negative self-talk.
So, how do we truly have a moment of self-awareness? We cut the blame. At it’s best, self-awareness is a judgment-free zone. It comes from a place of curiosity, not shame. And it’s a pretty important skill to master if we want to live a fulfilling life.
The Power of Self-Awareness
Studies show that being self-aware comes with big benefits. People who understand themselves and how others view them are happier, make smarter decisions, have better personal and professional relationships, are more creative, and are more confident, according to Tasha Eurich, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and author of the book Insight.
Eurich hails self-awareness as the “meta-skill of the twenty-first century.” And it makes sense: When we’re self-aware, we’re able to use our actions, beliefs, and feelings as a compass to point us in the right direction.
Self-awareness and self-reflection help us learn what makes us happy, what makes us sad, what’s fulfilling, what’s not, and what’s just “meh”. And being curious about how we feel—or how our actions make us or others feel—can help us improve and make the right decisions as we journey onwards. But it’s easier said than done.
When Self-Criticism Sneaks In
Anxiously ruminating on our thoughts and feelings can often feel like a dip in the self-awareness pool—but it’s more a dip in murky waters. Thinking about ourselves doesn’t always mean we’re getting a better understanding of ourselves.
“The act of thinking about ourselves isn’t necessarily correlated with knowing ourselves,” Eurich writes. “And, in a few cases, [researchers] found the opposite: the more time the participants spend in introspection, the less self-knowledge they have.”
The reason: Eurich explains that we often get hooked on “why” questions when we start introspecting, and studies show that type of introspection can have a negative impact.
Asking “why” (“Why am I so upset?” “Why aren’t I happy?” “Why the hell did I do that?) can cause us to fixate on our problems and place blame rather than reviewing our experiences in a productive way.
Ask 'What' Not 'Why'
So, how do we become self-aware without weighing ourselves down in “Why this?” “Why that?” thinking? Eurich suggests we ask ourselves “what” instead of “why.”
Eurich explains in Insight:
“Why questions can draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future.”
When we ask ourselves “what” questions—like “What’s going on?,” “What am I feeling?,” or “What’s another way to see this situation?”—we’re able to gain some distance from our emotions and see our situation from a new perspective. In doing this, we can leave self-blame behind and start to objectively see the takeaways from our experience.
“Asking what could keep us open to discovering new information about ourselves, even if that information is negative or in conflict with our existing beliefs,” Eurich explains.
Head to the Balcony for a Better View
Another tactic to help you better self-reflect: Go up to the balcony. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. Eurich says it’s helpful to analyze the good and the bad from “multiple angles,” and when we mentally “go to the balcony,” we’re able to look at our situation from the perspective of a more objective observer.
It’s a tactic that can work when we reflect on both positive and negative experiences. In negative situations, it can help us cut through worry and fear to get to the learnings from our experience—the things we’ll actually carry with us as we move forward in life.
The next time you’re reviewing a difficult situation, try heading to the balcony and asking yourself one of these questions Eurich shares in Insight:
●︎ What opportunities can I find?
●︎ What about my weaknesses could be strengths?
●︎ When I look back on my life or career, what successes have I had in my most trying situations?
●︎ What is one gift I’ve gotten from my most challenging personal or professional relationship?
Self-awareness isn't easy, but it's a skill worth mastering. If we take a moment to observe our experiences—whether from the balcony or with the help of "what" questions—we can step away from self-blame and step into the power of self-awareness and self-insight. Then, we can move from thinking about ourselves to knowing ourselves—without negative self-talk getting in the way.