George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Wellness

7 Ways to Identify and Overcome Self-Criticism

How you think about yourself matters to your teaching practice, and these tips can help you persevere through moments of self-doubt.

March 30, 2022
Richard Mia / The iSpot

Teaching is hard. We’ve all seen the funny memes that describe an educator’s many roles—from coach to social worker to stand-in caregiver. Add in multiple curricular initiatives, performance expectations, and now a pandemic and hybrid or remote learning. Suffice it to say that it’s a lot.

Many of us in the field feel as if we’re falling short of the external expectations. We might make it even worse by layering on a substantial amount of self-judgment. Say hello to your inner critic. This shows up in different ways for all of us. It’s often present in the body when our anxiety levels rise: We experience headaches, stomach pain, and clenching in the chest when we feel overwhelmed. You may hear a nasty little voice in your head telling you, “You’re a terrible teacher. You’re not doing enough for these kids. That was a bad lesson.”

What follows are seven ideas for overcoming this inner critic.

1. Understand the Negativity Bias

Our brains are hardwired to be constantly on the lookout for threats. This product of our evolution is how our species has been able to survive for so long. It’s well-meaning but sometimes results in our reactions going a little overboard. Instead of identifying life-threatening issues, we zero in on what’s going wrong in the minutiae.

There are some very real systemic issues in our schools that are leading educators to feel demoralized and burned out. Add in feelings of guilt and internal pressure, and it’s almost unbearable. When we’re better able to identify our inner critic at work, we can begin to deal with that pesky voice in adaptive ways.

2. Monitor Your Inner Voice

For most of us, our inner critic is on a loop. If you listen carefully, you’ll likely notice a series of your “top 10 hits” that you’re judging yourself on. To help identify these thoughts, look for words and phrases like these: “I should...,” “I’m not _____ enough,” “I’m too _____,” “I always...,” or “I never....” Once you’re able to identify these repeated tracks, take a few minutes to choose one, and follow this reflection exercise created by Byron Katie. You’ll answer these four questions: “Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? Who would you be without that thought?”

You’ll soon find that these judging thoughts you’re having aren’t the absolute truth. Most of the time, we believe that our thoughts are fact, but there’s immense power in being able to hold them up to the light, examine them, and choose whether we want to let them guide our actions.

3. Set Realistic Expectations

We set very high expectations for ourselves, and that in itself isn’t a problem. What does become a problem for us is that we often expect ourselves to be experts in all areas of teaching and learning. In reality, we require hours of professional development (PD) or coaching in a specific area in order to improve our own skills and students’ learning. About 50 hours, to be exact. So to be clear, if we want to improve our math instruction practice, it takes 50 hours of coaching and PD dedicated to that skill area. Part of addressing that judgment-filled voice inside you is acknowledging that it’ll take some time to feel strong and grounded in all of the areas that you want to as an educator.

4. Create Realistic Goals

Early in my career, I attended a PD session where the presenter shared the “10 percent rule”—essentially that you can change only 10 percent of your practice each year (fitting that I don’t remember anything else from that PD, isn’t it?). You can still be a good teacher, but can you let go of the idea of fixing everything at once? What might your 10 percent be?

One simple way to set a practical, manageable goal is using the WOOP strategy: Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan. This method is unique because it clearly identifies obstacles that may get in the way at the outset. You can create your own goal, print it off, and reflect often on your progress.

5. Find the Helpers

Your inner critic thrives on attention. Sometimes it can feel so good to plop down on a coworker’s couch and complain. But when sometimes turns into every time, we’re feeding that cycle of judgment. Take a moment to reflect and think about the people in your community who can help lift you up.

Where are your mentors or educators whom you admire that you can sit with at lunchtime and talk about what’s going well and what your goals are? Who are the people that aren’t going to spiral downward with you but will help you problem-solve? Who’s going to call you out when you’re showing belief in negative thoughts?

6. Give Yourself a Break

This job, no matter how much we love it, is hard. A constant barrage of self-judgment only increases the difficulty. One way to keep perspective is to develop a habit of self-compassion. Kristen Neff has developed a wide range of guided meditations and reflection practices that can help us to flex that underused self-compassion muscle, which is the perfect antidote to the inner critic.

The next time you feel sucked into the judgment vortex, take a deep breath and follow these three steps:

  1. Acknowledge how difficult it is. “Wow, this is hard.”
  2. Recognize that hardships are a part of life. “Other people feel this way too.”
  3. Offer yourself some kindness. “I’m doing my best.” or “May I bring kindness to myself.”

7. Look for the Good

Good news: While you’re identifying and rethinking your inner critic, you can simultaneously look for the small joys and positive moments in your life to counteract your negativity bias. They take longer to settle in our brain, but when they do, we can improve our happiness and satisfaction. Try this simple gratitude practice to get started.

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