You received glowingly positive comments about your presentation from several colleagues, but when one person said something critical, you obsessed about that comment for days and ignored all of the positive feedback.
Does this sound familiar?
Beware of Cognitive Distortions
In the mid-twentieth century, renowned psychologists Albert Ellis and David Burns popularized the notion of cognitive distortions, or exaggerated thoughts and irrational beliefs that make us feel badly.
One such distortion is the mental filter, in which you pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it, so that your vision of all of reality becomes darkened.
Another related distortion is known as discounting the positive. You reject positive experiences by insisting they don't count. If you do a good job, you may tell yourself that it wasn't good enough or that anyone could have done as well. Discounting the positive makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded.
Both distortions are at work in the person who lets positive feedback go in one ear and promptly out the other.
In the case of cognitive distortions, you are your own worst enemy. Things might be going better than you think, but because you have set yourself up to focus on the negative, your work situation seems hopeless and doomed.
Here are some recommendations for prompting your mind to listen to, actually hear, and properly process positive feedback from colleagues:
Tune into Your Awareness
Over the next week or two, pay attention to the situations and comments that automatically instigate an emotion. Jot down your thoughts about these events. At the end of the monitoring period, look at the tone of what you've written. Have you recorded mostly negative thoughts and feelings, as in: "I was annoyed when John didn't use my statistics in the meeting"?
Note if anything positive happened in addition to the negative, as in: "Though my statistics weren't used, the meeting participants were asking me questions about the project instead of John, so obviously they knew I was the expert."
Record the Positive
Every time you receive a piece of positive feedback, either in person, through e-mail, or secondhand, write it down. For the next two weeks, keep a running list of every detail that reflects well on your performance. Your list might look something like this:
- "Sara had no changes to my communications memo."
- "Ken sent an e-mail thanking me for putting together a great client meeting."
- "Eric told me the team would be lost if it wasn't for me keeping an eye on the details."
- "Bethany overheard the executive director saying that I was in the running to accompany him to the conference."
We tend to brush off compliments in a variety of ways. We might deflect praise to others when we really deserve it ourselves. We also might chalk up the good outcome to luck, or tell the person giving the compliment that we were "just doing our job" or that "it was nothing." In addition to being unfair to ourselves, this reaction makes the other person feel silly because we are refuting their honest opinion.
Instead of allowing compliments to fly immediately into the wind, own them. Accept that you did something worthy of praise and should be recognized for it. Politely and assertively say "thank you" and resist the urge to be embarrassed or utter something that totally negates the thanks. Then, add the compliment to your positive feedback journal, which you should keep in a handy place for quick reference on those dark days when negativity threatens to envelop you.
Thanks to Alexandra Levit / Life Hack / Stepcase Limited