EP06: Many teachers are far too hard on themselves and constantly feel guilty about things they’re not doing. You can make 3 small changes that will create a dramatic shift in how you think and feel about yourself. Learn how to change your mindset and move from self-criticism to self-acceptance.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is essentially a talk radio show that you can listen to online or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog each Monday to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. Learn more about the podcast, view blog posts for all past episodes, or subscribe in iTunes to get new episodes right away.
Being overly critical of yourself is a problem that a lot of teachers struggle with for a number of reasons. For one thing, teaching is an important job. When we make mistakes or fall short, those errors have the potential to impact children’s lives in a negative way. That’s a huge burden to carry.
On top of that, many teachers are by nature perfectionists. We want things done right, we have high standards for ourselves, and we tend to get mad at ourselves when we don’t meet those standards.
And so we get trapped in this cycle of falling short of our expectations (or other people’s expectations) and beating ourselves up about it. In order to understand how to break free from that cycle, it’s important to understand a little bit about what I call “self-talk”.
Every single one of us has an ongoing internal monologue or conversation playing in our minds. This self-talk typically involves a running commentary on what’s happening around us. Most of us identify with our self-talk and assume we’re repeating truth to ourselves. However, this commentary is totally biased and rarely accurate because self-talk is colored by our mindset.
Self-talk includes lots of automatic thoughts that we’ve reinforced over the years by paying attention to them and attaching importance. The automatic thoughts pop up without us consciously thinking or even noticing them. When faced with a challenge, your automatic self-talk might be, “I can’t do this” or “There’s no way I’ll be able to get this done”. When someone provides constructive feedback, your self-talk might include the thoughts, “S/he doesn’t like me”, “S/he thinks I did a horrible job”, “I’m so bad at this!” Thoughts like these might enter your mind on such a regular basis that you have no idea they’re occurring.
Your automatic self-talk is a fundamental part of how you think and feel. In part, that’s because we grant more credence to our own thoughts than to those of others. If someone shares a crazy opinion, it’s usually not hard to disagree with them. We’ve trained ourselves to think critically about other people’s ideas. But if that opinion comes from our own automatic thoughts, most of us tend not to question it. It’s difficult to critique and analyze our own thoughts because our reality is shaped by the way we think. So instead of being objective, we simply accept whatever we think as truth.
It’s not hard to imagine what would happen to your self-esteem if someone was following you around 24 hours a day, pointing out everything you’ve done wrong and why your life is never going to get any better. Yet that’s exactly what happens to some of us—we become our own worst critics.
This issue is compounded by the fact that most of the feedback we hear about our performance on any given day comes from our own thoughts. We tell ourselves, “ That was dumb”, “Why’d you do it that way?”, “ You should do it like this next time.” Many of us say things to ourselves that we would NEVER say to another person: “I’m such an idiot”, “ I’m fat”, “I have no self-control”, “I’m so stupid sometimes”, “I’m a bad teacher.”
If you repeat that type of self-talk, it quickly becomes ingrained in your thinking patterns. Self-doubting thoughts become a part of your belief system. So if you want to stop being overly critical of yourself, you have to learn to address negative thought patterns in your mind.
Here’s a small change you can make in the way you think and talk about yourself, and this small change can make a big difference. Replace extreme language with more accurate terms. Words like never, always, horrible, awful, worst, impossible, hate , unbearable, and unbelievable are usually exaggerations that cause you to view yourself in a worse light than necessary.
Instead, choose words that aren’t so dramatic and final, such as rarely, usually, challenging, difficult, tough, dislike, and surprising. An internal monologue that says, “I hate when I mismanage my time—I can’t believe I wasted the whole afternoon again and got nothing done!” is more likely to create feelings of stress than, “I’m disappointed that I didn’t use my time as well as I would have liked, but I did get some things done online that I’d planned to do. The day wasn’t a total waste and I’ll get a fresh start tomorrow.”
If you pay close attention to your word choice, you’ll notice how influential it is on how you feel and what you think later on. Rephrasing your thoughts in a way that’s more rational will keep you from getting so worked up and prevent your thoughts and emotions from spiraling out of control. It will also give you a sense of control and empower you to change the situation. If you think something you did is really awful, you’ll probably waste a lot of time thinking about how awful it is rather than expending your energy on problem solving. Repeatedly thinking about how bad things are can cause you to become convinced that you’re a hopeless case. So choosing less extreme language reminds you that the situation is not impossible and you can get better.
Another technique is to turn negative statements about yourself into a question and call to action. Instead of stating dysfunctional thoughts as facts (I always do this wrong—I can never get it right), try asking yourself questions that lead to improvement (What can I do to help myself improve in this area? Is there another approach I can try?)
Use pervasive negative thoughts as inspiration for change: Wow, I just keep thinking about how hard it is for me to get the kids to pay attention during instruction. Instead of telling myself how bad I am at classroom management, what can I do to become better? Is there something I can read or someone I can talk with to learn new strategies?
A third and final way to stop being so critical of yourself is to practice not undermining yourself in front of others. This is especially important in a professional setting because broadcasting your flaws can damage credibility. Most of your colleagues have never actually gone into your classroom and seen you teach; the main way they determine whether you’re effective or not is based on appearances—your class’ behavior in the hallway, the bulletin boards outside your door, and the way you present yourself.
There’s no reason to announce loudly at a staff meeting, “I can’t control these kids; they just don’t listen to me,” or “I’m so disorganized—I can’t find the paperwork I was supposed to turn in.” Speaking negatively about your faults causes others to see those flaws more clearly and predisposes people to view you in a negative light.
More importantly, you should avoid talking bad about yourself because it poisons your own mind with negativity. Anytime you hear criticism—from others or from yourself—it has the potential to be extremely disheartening and lead to more negative thoughts and feelings. You can’t control whether someone else talks badly about you, but you can certainly avoid speaking disapprovingly about yourself.
Ultimately, the goal is to accept yourself without stipulation, simply because you’re you. Don’t make yourself earn self-acceptance. Don’t base your opinion of yourself on how you act or what you accomplish. Your confidence can’t be derived from your character or what you’ve done —that’s a recipe for frustration, because you won’t always behave and achieve the way you want. You cannot be the person (or teacher) you’d like to be 100% of the time, and if your self-image is based on your actions, those times when you fall short will cause you to feel badly about who you are. Instead, you can retrain your mind to love and accept yourself unconditionally, no matter how you act. Joyce Meyer calls this “learning to separate your WHO from your DO.”
I’d like to leave you with a motivational quote for the week ahead that I call the Takeaway Truth, but if you’d like to learn more about choosing your thoughts and letting go of self-criticism, I have a wonderful resource available for you. It’s a book I wrote called Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching and in it, I delve much deeper into this topic and share all kinds of practical strategies for developing a resilient, positive mindset for teaching.
The Takeaway Truth I want you to remember this week is from my book Awakened, and it’s this: “Each setback is a chance to develop character and improve your teaching practice. Growth is not just achieved through quiet reflection: unexpected challenges, inconveniences, and failure are often the best way to learn.”
So, don’t beat yourself up about your shortcomings; view them as an opportunity to learn and grow and practice healthy mental habits. Have a great week–you can do this! And remember, it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.
Next week: How to find and embrace your unique classroom management style
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