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The most successful people never use these 5 toxic phrases when talking to themselves, says psychologist at Yale

As a faculty member at Yale, I teach hundreds of people every year. I’ve observed that although all of my students have extraordinary qualities, only some of them go on to live extraordinary lives.

What makes them so special? They have a healthy relationship with themselves. 

Most people, however, have the opposite: a toxic relationship with themselves. They’re highly self-critical — which psychology categorizes as self-loathing. 

If you find yourself saying or thinking these five phrases on a regular basis, your self-criticism could be holding you back. But you can replace these phrases with healthier expressions and actions that will help you reach your greatest potential.

1. ‘I’m not good enough’

This is a viral program running in most people’s heads. 

Our brains focus more on the negative than the positive. The well-known negativity bias explains why, if you get nine compliments and one piece of criticism, you focus on the criticism, dragging your spirits to the ground. 

“I am not good enough” is destructive. It can leave you feeling anxious and depressed, research shows. 

What to try instead

Ask yourself, “What’s good for me right now?” You might need a break, a meal, or a walk outside. Something to help you feel better. You’ll come back to any situation stronger and in better spirits. 

Self-compassion, research shows, makes you feel more energetic, alive and optimistic.

2. ‘I’ll never be able to get this. Why bother?’

This one’s not only demoralizing, it’s scientifically incorrect. The brain is malleable and can continue to change and develop until old age — a phenomenon neuroscientists call neuroplasticity

You can change careers at 50 and you can start playing the piano at 80. You can learn new things at any point and, with practice, you can get better at almost anything. 

What to try instead

“I need more practice.”

Think of something you do regularly with relative ease — whether it’s running team meetings at work, making dinner, or reading a book. Then think back to the first time you tried to do that thing.

See how far you’ve come? The same will be true of the thing you attempted for the first time today — if you keep trying. 

3. ‘I’m such a failure’

4. ‘I can’t believe I did that, I am so stupid’

It’s hurtful when someone calls you stupid — including when that someone is you. It’s draining and demeaning. And it can make you stop trying. 

It’s also not true. (Noticing a pattern here?) The only way anyone learns — whether they’re a genius or a baby — is by letting themselves try and making mistakes. One study found, for example, that mistakes students make while studying can help them learn better.

Toddlers learning to walk fall down every couple of steps. You don’t call them stupid or judge them for it. Instead, you cheer them on until they can take a few steps in a row, and then a few more. 

Plus, research has found that people aren’t judging you as harshly as you think when you make an embarrassing blunder. 

What to try instead

Give yourself the same grace and encouragement you’d give that toddler when you’re ruminating on something that didn’t go perfectly. 

“Nobody’s perfect” and “everyone makes mistakes” are universal truths. By reminding yourself of those facts — and the likelihood that you’re judging yourself more ruthlessly than others are — you can relax, take a breath, and move forward. 

5. ‘I’m not as good as them’

When you compare yourself to others, it’s easy to feel like you don’t measure up. And the truth is, you don’t. Nobody does. Because everyone is different. 

What to try instead

Rather than focusing on the fact that you’re not as beautiful or funny or innovative as someone else, focus on what attributes you do bring to the table. 

Maybe your jokes sometimes fall flat, but you’re warm and people feel comfortable around you. You may not speak five languages, but your Excel spreadsheet skills are unparalleled. 

When I teach executives, we do an exercise called the Reflected Best Self, in which you ask your friends and colleagues what they most appreciate about you. Chances are, they’ll say similar things.  

This exercise boosts your resilience and belief in yourself and your capabilities, research shows. This feedback can help open your eyes to how much you contribute to those around you and how much they appreciate you and your strengths. 

Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., is a Yale lecturer and international keynote speaker. She teaches leadership at the Yale School of Management and is the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. A psychologist and research scientist by training, Seppälä’s expertise is the science of happiness, emotional intelligence, and social connection. She is the author of “The Happiness Track” and “Sovereign.”

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