The negativity jar

The Imposter Syndrome and other forms of negativity can keep people, especially women, from achieving as much as they should.  If you say enough negative things about yourself, eventually other people start to believe them too.

One of the things that we did back in graduate school (during the job market) was have a big jar named the “Negativity Jar.” Anytime we said something negative about ourselves, we would have to put a quarter in the jar (we were poor graduate students– you might want to up that to $1 or $5). That forced us to restructure to say things that were actually true– to get at what was actually bothering us, and not to reinforce the negative lies. It forced what Cognitive Behavioral Therapists call “Cognitive restructuring.”

After about 2 weeks there was no more money put in the jar. At the end of the year we were able to buy a little bit of chocolate, not the hard liquor we’d been planning on.

Have you ever had a problem with negative self-talk?  What have you done to address it?  Did it work?

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18 Responses to “The negativity jar”

  1. Funny about Money Says:

    Nice idea!

    Yes. Negative talk, negative thinking. The most dire effect of that has been the tendency to convince oneself that one’s advanced degrees in the liberal arts are worth practically nothing. Academia reinforces that. Consider:

    When I was working at GDU, my associate editor, who had a master’s in European history, is fluent in several Eastern European languages and Italian, and has formidable project management skills, earned more in three hours of waiting tables at Applebee’s than we paid her for a week’s work that engaged her advanced training and skills.

    My 50% FTE secretary, who had an MFA and a long teaching and publishing record, took home $240 a week.

    After 15 years of teaching at GDU, I was earning $43,000, an amount that several people (not knowing my salary) disparaged as severely underpaid. One of those scammy debt counseling services interviewed me for a job as an “education director,” whose starting pay was $90,000.

    My dean felt we should be able to get contract graphic design services for free, or at most for $12 to $20 an hour. Once she decided we should cook up a way to charge departments and scholarly journals for our services. When I put together a rate sheet showing her how much we would be earning in the business world, she flat didn’t believe me.

    After my associate editor and I were laid off and started an editorial business, we found scholars and wannabe writers assumed we would work for them for graduate-student pay. We also found our advanced degrees could command an august $2400/16-week semester for adjunct work — actually, she was making $1,860 teaching for the University of Phoenix, which exploits people even more mercilessly than public institutions do.

    As a practical matter, Americans express their respect for and value of a person in dollars. The less you are paid, the less you are deemed to be worth. One can’t help but internalize that.

    We were enlightened when a plumbing company agreed to pay us $60/hour to revamp the content of its website. Lately we’ve started asking everyone for that much, and to our amazement existing and potential clients don’t even wince at the figure. In fact, the more you charge, the better they think you are at what you do! More recently, I’ve learned that even $60 an hour, which seems like an astronomical rate to us, is low.

    Negative thinking and talk comes from a source. Most often it’s the institutions and society around you.

  2. graduateliving Says:

    Genius. I have a tendency to hop on this bandwagon near the end of the semester, with final projects and whatnot. Of course, I would have to stick with quarters…

  3. CG Says:

    Okay, but what if the negativity is coming from an external source? I usually do a pretty good job of giving myself pep talks (I’m an okay researcher, I’m an okay teacher, I do my best, these are all minor setbacks, etc.), but when I get a rejection from a journal or (just recently) a pretty bad teaching evaluation from a class that I thought went okay, it’s hard to bounce back from that. Those are institutional signals that you are not great at what you’re trying to do.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Wrong! They are not telling you you’re not great. The students might be telling you that they weren’t ready for what you were doing. Or they’re just ornery. Many top-cited and famous journal articles were rejected multiple times! Harry Potter was rejected from like 5 publishers! These are simply signals about not hitting the target this time, not signals that you suck. They are also part of every academic’s life, even the most successful.

      • Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

        If you never get rejected, you aren’t aiming high enough. The sweet spot I am for in my lab is that about two-thirds of our research manuscript submissions are expected to be rejected by the first journal we send them to.

  4. Barb Says:

    Negative self talk? I try to be aware of it and stop it in its tracks.

  5. chacha1 Says:

    I don’t know that I’ve had a lot of negative self-talk but I’ve certainly had *some.* Some re: body image was directly injected by beloved mother who has a fat phobia. Some re: bad choices was simmered by years of slogging through part-time grad school for a degree I KNEW I wasn’t going to “use.” Some more re: bad choices was fallout from a gigantic financial mistake involving paying the bills for a “creative” boyfriend for far too long.

    Honestly the only antidote (not a cure) that I’ve discovered was achievement in the things that matter to me. Not doing well at what other people thought I should do well at, but what I WANTED to do well at.

    I don’t know that self-criticism ever really heals but there are salves to apply. A big one for me is simply staying away from people who are not kind, or who are so self-involved that they don’t realize they are unkind. I don’t tend to take other peoples’ criticism or complaints personally because their issues are not my problem … but it’s still unpleasant to hear, and why breathe that in?

  6. mom2boy Says:

    My first semester of grad school I had a professor basically tell me about the imposter syndrome when I told him I just wasn’t smart like all the other kids in class. I didn’t believe him and quit. Now I have a JD degree framed and sitting on the office floor and I have convinced myself they print those like monopoly money and it’s not much of an accomplishment at all. On the other hand, I didn’t give law school my all every day, every class. I skated by plenty. So, you know, maybe they do just hand them out. I really can’t tell if I’m being hard on myself or honest with myself.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think you’re being too hard. That’s part of impostor syndrome, to denigrate your accomplishments as being not that impressive. But guess what, you are impressive! If you skated in law school, you obviously have brain power to spare!

    • hedra Says:

      Being able to fine-tune your effort level to skate through is a hugely powerful skill. Regardless of intellect (which is a false thing to value anyway, as it is not something you have power or control over), SKILL like that is amazing, valuable, and important. I really wish I didn’t have to bury myself in my work to succeed, but my skills on fine-tuning where to put the effort are still developing in my new job.

      Nobody gets through grad school or law school on smarts. Skills are what do it. Same for talented artists and actors – craft is what makes them valuable, not talent. Moderately talented but highly skilled actors pull in role after role. If you have both talent and skill, fabo! Maybe you’ll be top in your field. But to ‘just’ be successful, skill is where it’s at. So stop looking for ‘being as smart as’ or ‘smart enough for’ the reward. And even counting hours of effort is not accurate. SKILL means less effort expended for the result regardless of talent/smarts, and that is earned, earned, earned. And those skills are what makes for work success, too.

      Basically, I think you’re using the wrong yardstick.

  7. oilandgarlic Says:

    I don’t do a lot of negative self-talk; however, you made me think of a WSJ article about how inflated self-image can actually help in terms of achievement. There’s a fine line between a good amount of an inflated self-image and delusion but I think in general men are better at thinking highly of themselves. Example: I once read that many women will only apply for a job if she very closely matches the job posting criteria, whereas men will apply if their skills are close enough. This ability probably allows men make that jump between non-managerial and a higher level position. I have seen this in real life too.

  8. MutantSupermodel Says:

    You’ve mentioned this idea to me. I like it a lot.

  9. hedra Says:

    A few things I do:
    1. Timer on ruminating on mistakes. I get one hour free rumination. After that, I have to problem solve instead. I catch myself repeatedly slipping back, but like meditation practice, I just acknowledge and move back to problem-solving.
    2. What-if: A game I played with one of my kids who had an anxiety disorder is to come up with not just one scenario of what would happen if I (some huge potential mistake, likely or not), but dozens including completely improbable ones (aliens, talking animals, whatever). That also taught me not to catastrophize – the logical outcome of my child running into the street is not that he will be hit by a car and die. It is more likely I will be scared half to death that he MIGHT. And for the child who has even once run out and not died, insisting they will doesn’t help. Either they buy it and become paralyzed by fear, or they don’t buy it and put themselves at risk, when what I’m really trying to solve is overall safety and my own fear as mom. What-if helps them see a realistic set of options and outcomes, many of which they can take action to improve.
    3. When I’m a bear stuck in a great tightness, I read a sustaining book. (Pooh reference, courtesy of one of my mom’s sermons :) ) – Sometimes it is hard to unstick yourself from the negative. When stuck, read something sustaining (not something diminishing). Great works, poetry, theology, history, self-help, whatever brings you up. Junk novels probably also qualify, it only requires that you find them sustaining.
    4. Culture tricks like the jar (which encourage people to take the concept away with them into the workplace). Fostering an environment that focuses on problem-solving and skill building rather than talent and political maneuvering is important not just for self but for the whole team. And having a team that knows how to foster positive behavior is amazing. It’s all skills.
    5. Getting up and trying again. I just took on a job that was pretty terrifying, at a level five years ago I thought was beyond even wanting to do, let along skill/capacity for it. I messed up. I messed up several times, and I’m still making mistakes. But I am also learning every time. I don’t make the same mistake again most of the time, and if I do, I know it is an area of skills weakness, so I need to build there. It takes some courage to do that – to walk in to work knowing that I am not only capable of making mistakes, but they are highly likely, and gird myself for handling the fallout and recovering and working out how to not do that again.
    6. And yes, it does help to have a slightly inflated sense of self. :) I consider myself employable. So if I fail at this job, I will just find another. Maybe not one I love as much right off, but I’ll do it eventually. (that optimism is learned as a skill, too. Try the book ‘How remarkable women lead’ – which is about the skills that remarkable women leaders have, and how to develop them in yourself…)

  10. hedra Says:

    Part of my point on skills is that negativity on skills is easy to self-direct in a positive way. ‘I don’t know how to do that’ is easy to end with ‘yet’ or ‘but I’m learning’. ‘I’m no good at’ or ‘not smart enough to’ (talent) can’t be changed as readily. ‘I blew that because I didn’t know how to do it differently’ is skills fail, modifiable with practice. ‘I blew that because I’m stupid’ is talent fail, impossible to modify. Trapped! No way out. Only a downward spiral of self-hate and despair from there… So focusing on the skills is one of the ways to derail the negative self-talk because (in the management speak I can now spew without blinking) it is ‘actionable’. (AaaaaH! buzzword bingo!)

  11. Ask the grumpies: Developing confidence « Grumpy rumblings of the half-tenured Says:

    [...] that I can do Y.  Even if I can’t do X, the world won’t end” on the right.  The negativity jar we talked about earlier is another [...]

  12. Do some people *want* to be miserable?: A deliberately controversial post | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] if you’re going to survive.  My good friend in grad school pointed out that we had “a culture of stress” and that it wasn’t necessarily the most […]


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