How do you talk to yourself about your career? Yes, you read that correctly. There’s plenty of advice out there about how to interact with others to boost your career. But the way you communicate with yourself has just as much, if not more, impact on how well you function professionally.
OK, I realize you probably don’t wander around muttering to yourself (and if you do, no judgment here!), but the internal dialogue that’s in your head every day is important. It’s powerful. And if, like many people, you are your own harshest critic, that voice in your head may actually be doing more harm than good.
Over 30 years ago, David Burns, a psychiatrist and professor at Stanford University, published Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, which focuses on 10 “cognitive distortions” that lead to distress, as well as how to overcome these distorted thought patterns. While the book was written primarily to help people struggling with depression and anxiety, it continues to be helpful today in understanding how these distortions can work their way into your professional life, and to replace them with more realistic ways of looking at yourself and the world around you.
By learning more about the first three distortions Burns outlines in his book, you’ll get a sense of what they look like when they show up in your work, what impact they may have on your career, and how you can communicate with yourself rationally.
1. All or Nothing
You’re either good or bad, perfect or a failure, talented or not—there’s no middle ground.
What it Looks Like
You mess up on an assignment and start berating yourself. You tell yourself, “I’m a failure. I can’t do anything right. I’m going to get fired.”
You made a mistake, you screwed up part of an assignment. Maybe you even made a few errors that culminated in this snafu. But even so, that does not make you a failure; obviously not everything you do is wrong. Consider this nugget: The very fact that you are employed means you did something—and probably a lot of somethings—right. It’s likely that you can think of a lot projects you handled competently before this discrepancy arose, and you know yourself well enough to know that you’ll continue to be competent with future tasks. The problem that you’re bemoaning can and will be fixed.
Why it Matters
All-or-nothing thinking sets you up for constant misery because you’ll never be all good or all bad. So how do you deal with the problem at hand without letting it consume you? After you calm down a bit (and you will—with time), own the problem and search for a fix, but don’t forget to own the things you do right, too.
A healthier thought process might look more like this: “Man, I can’t believe I forgot to submit that TPS report last Friday. My boss was really displeased with me, and that sucks! But you know what? It’s probably the best report I’ve done all year, and she’ll realize it once she reviews it. Plus, I finished our month-end reports early. I’ll be sure to mention that if I feel like it’ll help defuse the situation. A late TPS isn’t the end of the world, and I know I contribute to this team in a lot of ways.”
This more realistic the mindset—acknowledging that your mistake is just one among many non-mistakes—the better perspective you’ll have. If you can start to think like this, you’ll bounce back quickly and continue being the productive self you know and love.
You take one crummy event and decide it characterizes your whole life, using words like “always” and “never” to describe your down-and-out luck, leaving no room for things that sometimes or occasionally happen.
What it Looks Like
You get passed over for a promotion, and your first thought is, “I never get noticed! I never get any reward for my hard work.” You lose your work on a file and think, “I suck at technology!”
The only accurate broad generalization you can make is that everyone has both misfortune and good fortune in their professional lives. There are (very!) few times that qualifiers like “always” and “never” are accurate.
Why it Matters
When you decide that you always have bad luck, get looked over, or get mistreated, you avoid looking at the actual reasons something happened or taking any ownership in correcting what led to the disappointment. Yes, sometimes you’re going to have plain, old bad luck or get passed over for unfair reasons. But not always, and that’s the important thing to remember.
When you drop the “always” and “never” qualifiers, you can recognize your situation for what it is. If it really was bad luck, acknowledge it, and move on. If you realize there are ways you can reduce the likelihood of the problem happening again or increase your chances for a better outcome, get busy doing it stat.
3. Mental Filter
You obsess over the negative and overlook both the neutral and positive.
What it Looks Like
Your supervisor provides some constructive feedback during your performance review. Despite an otherwise great evaluation, you can only focus on her suggestions about how you can improve.
Negative events only make up a portion of our lives. Unfortunately, we’re hardwired to hang onto these experiences. Remembering negative feedback kept your ancestors alive. Today, this tendency means we easily forget about the hundreds of neutral-to-pleasant interactions we have on a daily basis because they don’t register on our threat radar.
Why it Matters
Focusing on the negative can lead to hyper-vigilance, resentment toward others, and a sour attitude about your job. When you intentionally pay attention to the positive, it will balance the negative, giving you a more accurate perception of yourself in the workplace. The next time you catch yourself obsessing over a negative detail, back that train up. Remind yourself of the positive or even neutral things that occurred before and around that one unfortunate event.
With that performance evaluation, you might tell yourself, “You know, that one piece of feedback stung a bit—I didn’t see it coming. But my boss still rated me highly, and I’m still going to get a raise, so clearly I’m doing well overall.” It might be worth keeping a “happy file” in your phone’s notes that you can refer to when your negativity bias starts taking over, so you can keep your perspective. You need a healthy outlook to thrive.
You’re going to have some setbacks and bad days in your career; everyone does. That’s not overgeneralization—that’s real life! Some of the world’s most successful people have had spectacular failures along the way. James Altucher made, lost, and remade his fortune several times. Oprah Winfrey was fired early in her career. Stephen King threw the manuscript for Carrie in the trash after repeated rejections.
What matters most is your mindset when you experience tough times. If you let yourself fall into a downward spiral of distorted thinking, there’s little doubt that you’re going to struggle bouncing back. But if you can keep your perspective in check, the world will look rosier and you'll be able to get back on top of your game much more quickly.