Sunday, 28 April 2013

On Self-Criticism and the Drive to Achieve

A theme for many clients is pervasive self-criticism and how this affects one’s perception of what has been achieved. Rather than give ourselves credit for what we have completed, we instead focus on what we have not yet done, or even, having now completed something, how we would like to take this further but still have not done so. Perfectionism rears its head here and exacerbates the situation. But perhaps the thing to do is to ask frequently, “What have I learned?”

In my work with successful executives, I often see ambition and a hyper self-critical tendency in a dissatisfying linkage. It takes various forms. Some of us wonder if life would be easier by being less ambitious. Then we wouldn't feel we fall short of our expectations for ourselves so often. For those of us in this camp, self-criticism and ambition are almost correlated. A particular experience in early life which resulted in authority figures expecting us not to demonstrate our ambition and our unique talents so blatantly can result in checked ambition and the lifelong struggle to prove ourselves to ourselves without ever fully allowing ourselves to enjoy our success.


Self-criticism and Ambition do not need to be linked. They are, in fact, independent variables. It is possible that if we did lower our ambitions we would instead find other things to criticize ourselves on! (Perhaps top of the list might be that we had lowered our ambitions??) So instead, focusing on eliminating that self-criticism tendency is key.

Others among us connect ambition and a hyper self-critical tendency in another way. Through earlier life experiences, we have learned to push ourselves ever further to achieve and to stake claim to our achievements. Whether this was extreme disadvantage as a youth or authority figures who criticized anything short of exemplary performance, we have internalized the ideal of high achievement and the habit of self-criticism when our performance falls short of the impossibly high mark. To a certain extent, this is true of a lot of high flying executives. They are categorically ambitious over-achievers. However, when the inner voice in the back of our heads is often self-critical, satisfaction in our achievements again eludes us, and so we try harder, and by doing so, we do typically do achieve more. Yet we are locked in a never-ending pattern of throwing ourselves in at the deep end and fighting to prove ourselves capable of delivering the impossible.(Schein’s career anchor of Pure Challenge comes to mind here.)   And in Gestalt terms, these people do not gain Closure as they jump from one success to the next without pause for reflection on achievements. They repeatedly create a broken cycle of experience which over years can wear them down to crisis.

Hardly surprising that through this broken chain of events our self-confidence never increases!

And while these subconscious storm waves are cresting, we continue to perform our role. We go to meetings, we deliver projects, set expectations for staff, and strive to lead. But some of the swell of the storm invariably spills through into our interactions with others. For highly self-controlled people it will be subtle, but it will serve to pull us away from genuine and collegial connection.

When we are not feeling in flow, that is, capably and happily in our element and being who we are in our environment, then we project this dissatisfaction to others. For the self-critical, this can take the form of a strong Monitor-Evaluator team type (Belbin) or at the very least over-focus on what goes wrong and overlooking what is right in the team’s performance. When coupled with a high-capacity for detail, this can create a sizeable hurdle for the executive in creating followers.

For those with a strong tendency for self-criticism or low confidence, it may help to ask yourself at the beginning of the next initiative “Who will this initiative benefit?” You may find that when approaching initiatives with others’ benefits in mind, it is easier to assert yourself and influence. Additionally, when approaching an initiative together you are able to leverage more than one person’s network and capacity to influence. Stakeholder Mapping is also a helpful tool to utilize when considering strength of support for your initiatives. It can help you plan your approach to influencing others on the call to action.


Victoria Hall, Executive Coach
Founder of Talent Futures