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What I Wish I Would Have Known About Letting Things Go

We spend much of our careers in a cycle of self-criticism and self-judgment. Here are three ways to stop.

What I Wish I Would Have Known About Letting Things Go
[Photo: Flickr user buyalex]

What would it take for you to stop judging yourself?

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When my coach asked me that question, it stopped me in my tracks. More than 15 years later, it remains the most meaningful and impactful coaching question I’ve ever been asked. When she asked the question, I was a Fortune 500 vice president in my thirties and, by a lot of external standards, a success.

I never felt that way though. My modus operandi was a cycle of self-criticism and self-judgment. My coach picked up on that and one day, seemingly out of nowhere, asked me that question: “What would it take for you to stop judging yourself?” Her question hit me so hard and so deep that it almost brought me to tears. It took me years to come up with my answer.

Since then, I’ve become a coach myself and have written a couple of books. The latest book is about how to manage yourself and your life when you get there. I couldn’t have written it if I hadn’t learned to go easier on myself. What I’ve found is that by judging myself less, I actually get more done and the results are usually better than they were when I was trying to be perfect all the time.

There’s a pretty excellent chance that you spend a fair amount of time and energy judging yourself. If that’s you, read on. Based on the work I’ve done with clients and on myself since my coach asked me the question, what follows is three pieces of advice I would give the younger self-critical and self-judging version of me. They would have helped me back then; I hope they’ll help you now.

Just Notice, Don’t Judge

In the course of an average day, there are countless opportunities to judge and evaluate yourself:

  • You need to speak up more.
  • Crap, why did (didn’t) I say that?
  • Damn it, I should have nailed that!
  • What am I even doing here?
  • Do these pants make my butt look big?

Many of us have a little voice in our head that offers up totally non-helpful questions and statements like that. I like to call it the itty-bitty shitty committee. The next time your committee starts ranting, don’t feed it. Just notice it. When you notice it, you can make a choice to do or think about something else that’s more productive than continuing to beat yourself up. Your thoughts control your feelings. Your feelings control your actions. Your actions determine your results. Notice your thoughts and redirect them when necessary.

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Focus On The Effort, Not The Results

In his commentary on the spiritual classic, the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi wrote that for “every action one must know the result that is expected to follow.” He didn’t mean, though, that you should focus or obsess on the results, but instead be “wholly engrossed in the due fulfillment of the task before (you).”

It’s hard to waste time judging yourself when you’re all in on what you’re doing. The Beatles, for example, didn’t start out with the goal of getting on the Ed Sullivan show and taking over the world. They started out as a bunch of young guys who loved making music together so much that they played garden parties and tiny pubs for seven years before they became “overnight sensations.” When you focus on the work, results follow. Progress comes incrementally, sometimes imperceptibly, then seemingly suddenly.

Keep Things In Perspective

One of my favorite yoga instructors is a woman named Alison. She teaches in the Washington DC area, which, as a former resident there, I would suggest has a very high concentration of self-judging, Type A people. Some of them go to yoga. Every so often Alison will stop while everyone is struggling to stay balanced in tree pose and say: “Don’t look so serious, it’s just a freaking yoga pose!” That’s a pretty good mantra for life–it’s just a freaking yoga pose.

As Suzy Welch suggested in her book 10-10-10, it’s vital that we keep things in perspective. The next time you find yourself caught up in self-judgment over something you did or didn’t do, ask yourself, will this matter 10 minutes from now? Ten months from now? Ten years from now? If it’s not going to matter, let it go. If it will, figure out what you need to do about it. That’s much more productive than judging yourself.

So that’s the advice my older self would give my younger self. It’s also the advice my current self gives my current self. I’m not presenting myself as the king of non-judgment. I’m still working at it, too. Letting go of self-judgment and criticism is a journey not a destination. Not that I’m judging myself or anything!