Managing Self-criticism

Managing Self-criticism

I never imagined our responsibility as leaders could become more significant, yet here we are. Maintaining positivity and managing self-criticism (i.e., negative thoughts) is not intended to be a solution to the violence, systemic inequities, and pain in our country. These self-monitoring strategies are simply techniques to “manage” the anxiety and sadness we experience in our lives, including at work. The goal is to quiet the emotional brain and enact the logical, rational brain. This allows you to focus your mind to do important work that needs to be accomplished for a sustainable impact. Emotions begin movements, focused minds allow us to harness that energy and create sustainable change.


It is important to note one of my core philosophies: if we change the way we think, we can change the way we feel. When we are more effective in our thoughts and feelings, we assume a better mindset that enhances our judgment, improves our behaviors, and allows us to do good in our families, our businesses, and the world. (Credit to Dr. David Burns, the author of the NYT best-selling book, “Feeling Good,” for educating me on this).


To change the way we feel, we must first understand what is standing in our way. Sometimes it is legitimate, bad stuff. But most of the time, it is our brain. Specifically, our thoughts. Yes, our minds are amazing and highly efficient. However, to accomplish the plethora of daily functions, the brain must take shortcuts. In decision-making, we often label those shortcuts as “intuition.” Sometimes intuition is correct, most often it is not. The challenge with the intuitive part of our brain is that it is influenced by bias – 188 different types according to one account (


Here is a brief example of intuition at work that you may have seen before (excerpt from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow). Quickly consider the following question:

A bat and ball cost $1.10.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

If you said .10, you used your intuition, and you’re wrong.

Don’t worry, 50% of Harvard students provided the same, incorrect answer. If you answered .05, you are correct. You were able to pause long enough to question your brain’s “shortcut” and determine the right answer.


In my 15 years coaching leaders, I find some biases (i.e., thinking errors) to be more common than others. I have included an attachment, which describes the ones most likely to engage our intuition and ignore our rational brain. You might consider reviewing and highlight the ones with which you identify most (your own or those you see most frequently in others).


Once we name our common thinking errors, we can begin to tame them. Using the Triple Column Technique, taming the negative thoughts can become a brief, daily ritual with significant benefits.


Here is how it works:

  1. Create three columns on a piece of paper, spreadsheet, or another document. Label column one: Negative thought. Column two: Thinking error(s). Column three: Self-defense.
  2. When you have a negative thought, immediately write it down in column one. Writing (versus thinking through it in your head, or ruminating) has several benefits. Primarily, it facilitates encoding, which expedites the information to the hippocampus and, hopefully, your memory. A common entry might read, I don’t know why I delegate this work. It never comes back right. It would be so much easier and quicker if I just did it myself. I should have known better. 
  3. Now, investigate your thought for the thinking error(s) and write those in the second column. In the example I used, there are at least three: all or nothing thinking, overgeneralization, and “shoulding” yourself.
  4. In the final column, write your Self-defense. This is when you think rationally about what you are feeling and rewrite your negative thought in a more productive way. For our example, you might write, Delegating can be challenging; but when it works, it makes life so much easier. If I consider the bigger picture, most of the work I delegate turns out fine. Also, delegating isn’t meant to completely relieve me of my duties as a leader, it is a means to augment my performance. It is more realistic to assume I will have some finishing touches to make than assuming I will have none. Either way, it is important I add my thoughts. And, if it comes back with a lot of rework, I need to be careful blaming myself. If I would have known better at the time, I wouldn’t have delegated in the first place (or at least taken a different approach). Next time, I can probably do a better job ensuring he understands my expectations and I can provide more time for questions (and for any rework I may need to do).


I find simply committing my thoughts to paper creates an immediate release of negative energy and helps managing self-criticism. It allows me to transform things like fear, defensiveness, and anger into reflection, compassion (for self and others), and action (not reaction). And its not just me. I have witnessed clients change their approach to leadership, engender trust among colleagues, reconnect with their values, and re-establish a sense of purpose. Furthermore, there are hundreds of studies that demonstrate the efficacy of this approach.


As you battle with your own self-critic, I hope you consider dedicating some time to this practice. And, if you’re interested in learning more about this technique and others like it, please contact SOLVE today.

Common Thinking Errors