Perhaps you’ve been in this position before: while discussing careers with friends, they choose to share stories of success, and you focus on your faults. One friend mentions a promotion, another shares a detailed story about a new project, and then there’s you.
You believe that you always seem to make mistakes and you simply aren’t good at your job. Everyone assumes their familiar roles—your friends praise your work ethic and ability to do certain things better than anyone else. And it continues—lather, rinse, repeat until you accept the praise. This routine, the one where you repeatedly criticize yourself, feels like the norm. Even when your friends praise you, you respond negatively. If you continue to search for praise at every turn, you may eventually be in need of new friends. “While your friends are probably happy to reassure you occasionally, if you're constantly speaking ill about yourself, they may grow tired of all the emotional labor that goes into trying to bolster your self-esteem and they may begin distancing themselves from you,” says Alyssa Walls, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California.
Others may also want to move away from the negative energy you may have created. Negative thoughts create a domino effect of negative actions that can take over your life and the lives around you, according to Hayden Goldberg, founder/CEO of yoga and wellness company Namaste Anywhere. “Thoughts affect your behavior,” she explains. “Your behavior dictates the energy that radiates off of your being and out into the world.” Admitting your occasional struggles to a friend is still within bounds. Good friends will support you, offer a safe place to discuss problems, and help create a solution. But too much of a focus on your problems may make others feel as though you are constantly fishing for compliments. It can be draining, and it’s a turn-off. “One of the primary rules of behavioral psychology is we are drawn to pleasure and avoid pain,” explains Dr. David Ezell, Clinical Director of Darien Wellness, a counseling and mental wellness group in Darien, Connecticut. “Hearing someone go on about how ‘stupid and lazy’ they are, day after day, is tedious. Pity parties—and these folks host them on a regular basis—[can be] a drag. So people involuntarily, and sometimes voluntarily, head the other way when negative talkers appear.”
So what can you do if you are the one who is constantly seeking affirmation? There are the kinds of methods we may have learned from our parents as young children, like placing a coin in a jar each time you recognize your negativity has gotten the better of you. While that may stop the behavior out of fear of an empty wallet, it may not get to the root of the pattern, and may not help you accept what others see in you.
Gratitude can be different for everyone. In this case, reflect on what your friends see in you. Try to internalize their words, slowly changing your mindset to be grateful of your positive qualities. [Editor’s Note: when I’m feeling low on gratitude, I revisit the Appreciation pack. And my cat.]
“I suggest getting your close group of friends on board, as I do with mine, and start pointing out self-commentaries,” recommends Didi McKay, a Florida-based author and yoga instructor. "Together, you can help each other see your best selves. Agree to make this a habit ... When you hear a friend say ‘I can't do that,’ or ‘I'm not good at this,’ [try offering] them better options to ruminate over. Say things such as ‘I've seen you do it well,’ or ‘you are learning more about it each day.’ Working together may help you become more conscious of your positive qualities, as well as those of your friends.
This may seem deeply uncomfortable for people who tend toward negative self-talk, but this simple act can help you listen clearly and understand how others view you. “If someone gives you a compliment—no matter how much you may disagree—just say ‘thank you,’" Walls advises. “Don't try to talk them out of it or minimize what they said.When you accept a compliment graciously, you give your friend the pleasure of brightening someone's day. Try to really take in what they say, rather than dismissing it immediately as you may have done in the past.” Change isn’t easy. We, as humans, are creatures of habit. It will take time (and, likely, effort) to reframe your thoughts and view yourself as your friends view you. But, as you do, you may become more fulfilled and a better friend, too.