Having been a manager of others for 30 years, I'm hard pressed to think of anything more debilitating for an employee than when they beat themselves up with incessant negative self-talk. It's an unwanted tendency many of us have; we spiral down with discouraging self-dialogue, often based on an incorrect assumption that we're not good enough based on a nasty habit we have of comparing ourselves to others (guilty as charged).

The comparisons, of course, are irrelevant because the only comparison that matters is to who you were yesterday and whether or not you're a better version of yourself.

But the comparison isn't even the worst of the miscreants who foster a self-imposed bludgeoning of self-confidence. There's a fouler beast afoot known as criticism, or rather, our inability to put criticism we receive in its place. We internalize everyone's criticism indiscriminately and pummel our internal fortitude.  

So I offer you one simple thought, six powerful words that put a much-needed filter on the inflow of self-confidence crushing commentary from the peanut gallery.

Decide who gets to criticize you.

Not all criticism is created equal and not everyone gets a seat at this table. Your boss, your key co-workers, your spouse, sure, they get a say here. But Bob in accounting and your sister-in-law can pound salt.

And I'm not saying that you should make the circle of people that you allow to criticize you so small that you create an artificial bubble around yourself, depriving you of potentially valuable constructive feedback. I'm just saying to be intentional about deciding who gets to criticize you because you don't want to give undue influence to those who shouldn't have it.

And it is indeed undue influence when a survey I conducted among 3,000 managers for my book Find the Fire showed (on a rated scale) that people are four times more likely to remember criticism than they are praise. The survey also revealed that (through numeric coding) out of all criticism we receive, only 15 percent of it can be coded as warranted, worthy, and worthwhile, and yet we take 85 percent of all criticism to heart.

Yikes.

As for that 15 percent warranted, it can sting because the brain uses the same region to register physical pain as it does social rejection, so criticism from people who matter can actually seem to sting.

Here's a tip to help you accept and process the criticism from those 15 percent that matter from famed theater critic Albert Williams, who gave a keynote speech at the annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association in June 2002. In the address, Williams clarified why theater, film, and art critics alike all do what they do.

It's not because they're mean-spirited. Nor is it because they love saving you $12 by keeping you away from a bad movie. Rather, they see their role as making better art.

Do you see those with permission to criticize you as critics with the best intent, all trying to create better art--in the form of a better version of you? 

It's a powerful reframe. As for that 85 percent, you decide who gets to criticize you and the value you assign to their words. I think Eleanor Roosevelt had it exactly right when she said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

And as for the people who populate the 85 percent, the ones who keep peppering you with unhelpful, unsolicited criticism as you're putting yourself out there to the world, to them I share the wisdom of Apple's Tim Cook, "We don't build monuments to trolls."

So seek improvement, not approval. Along the way, set criteria for those who make the cut on being able to give criticism, and mentally dismiss the rest. Take the criticism from those that matter in stride and remember that the goal is not to be able to say on your deathbed, "Whew-- I avoided criticism!" After all, the only way to do so is to do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.

Published on: Sep 1, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.