Life can be the best teacher. When my 13-year-old son, Hadi, confided in me about a recent challenge at school, I listened to him and then asked how he thought he could make things better.
“I need to manage my ‘inner critic’, ” he replied. I smiled back, certain he’d used one of my oft-mentioned phrases, and realised how we can, as parents, educators, and leaders, share our own valuable lessons learned with those closest to us to help them continuously grow, improve and become better versions of themselves.
Our inner critic is the voice continuously engaging us in inner dialog about our feelings and our reactions to events taking place around us. It can be a very powerful learning tool that helps us reflect and grow; but left unchecked, it can turn us into a habitually negative, pessimistic, and overly self-critical complainer.
When managed well, however, it can help us develop the introspective reflection mechanism to formulate an optimistic mindset, a positive life stance, and constructively deal with adversity.
Research shows that people who are optimists handle adversity and change more effectively than those who are pessimists. It can take time and effort, but the payoff is tenfold and with practice, it can become as easy as 1,2, 3 or A, B C. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, employing the ABC Technique which stands for Adversity, Beliefs, and Consequences, can help us become more optimistic. When we first encounter adversity, we form a belief that influences what we do next, so they become consequences.
For example, you might receive negative feedback from a colleague or your teacher about a presentation you gave. This is the activating event or adversity. If you are pessimistic, you might take it personally and conclude that you are no good at what you do. This is a belief. Consequently, you start avoiding giving presentations, get less involved, and pull back completely from giving your input.
The key point to understanding how this works is what happens between A and B. When you encounter adversity, how you explain it to yourself, what Dr. Seligman calls our explanatory style, has a direct impact on your mindset and on your relationships. If the inner voice turns into constant chatter, it can beget all sorts of possible pessimistic outcomes filled with fear and worry.
But you can take steps to develop a more positive mindset by controlling your explanatory style. When you encounter the activating event or adversity, pause; instead of reacting impulsively, pay attention to your inner dialog, write down your thoughts, and give yourself a chance to reflect upon the event. If you can try to respond rationally, it can produce healthier emotions and reduce stress. Next, describe what happened, what are the beliefs you had during and after the adverse experience, and the consequences of this.
After you’ve noted down several situations, look at what you’ve written. Do you see any patterns? Can you identify the consequences of your negative thinking? When this becomes a habit, you can start managing our negative ABC patterns more effectively turning pessimism into optimism.
When you have negative thoughts, you can pinch yourself or wear a rubber band around your wrist that you can snap whenever you’re experiencing a stressful situation, the sting will remind you to step out of the cycle of negative thinking.
Other techniques you can leverage involve creating a distraction to shift your focus away from the stressful event. You can try changing your physical state to change your mental and emotional state: if you are standing, try sitting; if you are sitting, stand instead. When confronted with conflict, try going for a walk and come back to resolve the situation when things have cooled off. You can also intentionally pause and challenge yourself to behave differently than you would normally. When you have negative thoughts, you can pinch yourself or wear a rubber band around your wrist that you can snap whenever you’re experiencing a stressful situation, the sting will remind you to step out of the cycle of negative thinking. Finally, try to journal regularly and reflect on what you’ve written down often to challenge your negative beliefs. Ask yourself, “What did I learn?” and “What can I have done better?” to intentionally look for the positives in your situation.
When you are more intentional and aware, you can change your perspective and effectively manage your inner critic to develop a positive mindset and consequently a better version of yourself every day going forward.