Dealing with Criticism from the Inside and Out: Hearing Yourself Say Positive Things About Your Self
Last night I was watching the French Open on TV. It was an opening round match between the Brit, Andy Murray and a Frenchman, Eric Prodon. Andy Murray was supposed to win the match very easily, but as he sometimes does, he has patches of really bad play. What is very apparent is that he has big moments of out loud self criticism that only seems to make his play worse. The announcers wanted to call him a head case but were a little too polite.
Since I usually play tennis a couple of time a week, I was wondering why we get into big self criticism bashing of ourselves and expect that it is going to produce some result. Well if you are Andy Murray it is pretty easy to find at least one of the sources. It is difficult to imagine any press in the world more critical than the British press. I am not quite sure what it is about them, but they seem to have huge unrealistic expectations of people to perform at the very top level and then trash them into bits when they don’t meet the expectations. If you are a top level athlete and you are a Brit, you are going to criticized regularly whenever you don’t win the top prize. It makes me wonder if the press believe Andy Murray is playing for their sake. It would appear so. I am pretty certain that if you receive a lot of tongue lashings on a regular basis where people point out all of your faults, that sooner or later it is going to go from them doing the criticism to you doing it to yourself on the inside.
A couple of weeks ago I was playing a tennis match against one of my friends when I found myself doing the “Andy Murray” thing. I was making a lot of the same mistakes I always make with my backhand even after lessons. My racquet face opened and then the ball went flying out of the court. I started berated myself for the mistakes and things only got worse. Somewhere in the midst of the negative mind barrage I decided to change the strategy. Instead of berating myself I just starting telling myself that I have a fantastic backhand. I repeated it over and over. And then my backhand just got better and better and became almost my best shot.
Today I start playing the same way. My backhand was terrible for about three games and I found myself into a battle mental game of self-criticism again. So something inside of me just told me to repeat what I had done the week before. I did. It worked. My tennis partner later told me today how much my backhand had improved.
For years I have been telling people that outer criticism and the self variety do not work. The research proves that it doesn’t, but we all do it anyway. We not only do it to ourselves, we also do it to each other. We must be mules, because we are very stubborn in the face of the obvious evidence.
So I am just wondering why doing the opposite works. If you hear yourself saying that you can do something amazingly and you have the ability already, you just suddenly start performing it better. The key is that your mind hears a positive voice repeatedly inside saying how awesome you are at something. When you hear the negative critical voice, the mind gets the message that you are a stupid idiot or the worst player ever and then it sends that message to the body and that is how you act. When you hear that you do something well like hitting a backhand in tennis, your body just starts hitting better.
When I tell myself I am a stupid idiot I tense up and play worse. When I hear myself saying how great I play, I relax, feel stronger, and hit better. It just works.
The other day I was working with a group of grade two students learning how do transition in a swim-run event from doing the swim part to getting out of the pool and putting on their shoes very quickly. There were close to 80 seven year-olds so you can imagine how that might test a teacher’s nerves to stay positive. At first I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know how it was going to go, but then I just decided to be the positive voice inside of their heads. For about 30 minutes I just yelled out positive encouraging remarks to the students. The result was that they were enthusiastic, polite, and able to start self-correcting so that they could get faster.
I don’t think that the self-encouraging voice is the appropriate tool when you are learning a brand new skill as in learning how to do a backhand correctly, but it works very well in performing at the highest level with the skills that you already have. Learning a new skill seems to need a visual approach where you see your self doing the activity. Most young people can watch someone demonstrating a new skill and then repeat it. Internally they can see themselves out there doing the skill and then they try it. Coaching a new skill requires demonstrating it, telling the students when they are performing it correctly, and then helping them to see how to improve. It is largely visual.
When the skill has been taught and practiced, the performance of it outside of practice in real games is reinforced by a positive internal and external voice. It is an auditory experience. If you are a parent or a spectator and you want your child or your team to perform better, then this has a lot of implications for your behavior. You can simply help the team or the child by being a positive voice inside by pointing out how fantastic someone is even when they are not performing up to someone else’s standard.
Like everything else developing this ability takes looking after your own ego’s issues with it. If you want your child to perform, for instance, so that others will admire them as in, “Look at my son, he goes to Harvard” or “Look at my daughter, she just cut a recording deal”, then you won’t be able to do this process because your child’s performance is not about them. It is about you and your own need for recognition. If you need to please your parents or please your boss to get recognition, you will always have a lot of anxiety and be self-critical. You won’t get this. It works when you have become detached from recognition issues and do things for their own sake rather than for someone else. People always ask me why I run or I see them running for the sake of losing weight. When they ask, I think to myself well if you have to ask, you won’t run long term because you haven’t experienced the inner joy and inner satisfaction of doing something well. If you run to lose weight, you will only run for as long as you get recognition for losing weight. Then you will quit and start gaining weight again.
But when you have a positive internal voice about things you already know how to do, you just seem to do them more often and with more joy. You can stop the habit of self criticism by being aware of it and then just begin saying things like “I am an awesome runner.” It requires recognizing when and how you are self criticizing and then changing it to a positive voice.
This is a great tool. I would like to hear from you if you try it and it works for you.
Here is an interesting little exercise. The next time you are cleaning up a space like the kitchen ask yourself if you are doing it to avoid criticism, get someone else’s recognition, or for the sake of a beautiful and organized environment. If you do it for either of the first two reasons, you will be engaging in mental processes that will end up in both self-criticism and criticism of others as well as some sort of paralysis about getting to the work. If you do it for the sake of beauty, it is a lot easier to do. You can say to yourself that you are very good at creating beautiful and organized spaces.
This process is monumental for me.