The Cognitive Key
Purpose-Centered Life
Dr. Eric Maisel

Episode 23 - The Cognitive Key

In this series, adapted from my book Toxic Criticism, we examine the ways that criticism and self-criticism interfere with our ability to find our life purpose and live as strongly, passionately, and effectively as we would like to live. Today’s episode is called “The Cognitive Key.”



Hello, everybody. Today’s is the fifth episode in a series called Handling Toxic Criticism. In this series we look at the terrible toll that criticism takes, how it interferes with your ability to live your life purpose, and what you can do to reduce the effects of criticism in your life. Today’s episode is called “The Cognitive Key.” Let’s begin!

Because you have come to understand your path and what is true for you, a certain large percentage of the criticism directed your way will never actually reach you, stopped in its tracks by the strength of your convictions. Because of your new phlegmatic, philosophical attitude and your ability to decide on the spot whether a given barb rises to the level of significance, virtually nothing infiltrates as criticism. But some comments and situations will rise to the level of significance and will require your attention.

At these times, you want to gain control of how your mind works and you want to master the art of bringing your self-talk into line with your intentions. Even if you deem certain criticism to be fair and telling, even if you are brought up short by a comment and suddenly have your eyes opened to big mistakes you’ve been making or real problems with your personality, you nevertheless want to retain control of your self-talk. It is one thing to feel momentarily foolish, ashamed, despairing, and so on. It is another thing to let control of your mind slip away and turn a problem into a disaster.

The Buddha instructed, “Get a grip on your mind!” Eastern and Western psychologists, whether in the Buddhist tradition or the cognitive/behavioral tradition, have identified “maladaptive self-talk” as the cause of emotional suffering. The things we say to ourselves drive us and cause us to hate ourselves, hate others, give up, give in to our appetites, fail to reach our goals—and stand wide open to criticism. Indeed, the things we say to ourselves most often are criticisms. Virtually no one is as critical of us as we are.

What does it mean to “get a grip on your mind”? It means that you are brave enough to notice what you say to yourself, savvy enough to identify which inner talk is harmful or counter-productive, strong enough to dispute that maladaptive self-talk, and resourceful enough to replace that maladaptive self-talk with useful “thought substitutes.” You hear yourself say, “I’m a real loser,” instantly identify that as counter-productive self-talk, shake your fist at yourself, and replace “I’m a real loser” with “I’m going to give life a try.” That, in a nutshell, is how you get a grip on your mind.

Say that your boss confronts you with the fact that you’ve been late to work four days out of five. You accept that as both a fair criticism and as one important enough not to ignore, as you like this job and want to keep it. Your next task, after deciding that this criticism must be reckoned with, is to get a grip on your mind and frame the matter correctly. To internally say, “I’ve screwed up and I’m going to lose my job” amounts to self-criticism and only serves to tarnish your self-esteem and scare you. To say, “He may be right but he’s such a jerk that I don’t really care,” amounts to defensive self-sabotage. To say, “I’m feeling sick and I have to go home right now” is to allow your anxiety and embarrassment to govern your self-talk. These, and self-statements like them, are the unfortunate ways we respond to situations when we haven’t trained ourselves to get a grip on our mind.

What is right thinking in this situation? It is to bravely hear that you are saying “He may be right but he is such a jerk that I don’t really care” and recognize that defensively attacking your boss and feigning indifference aren’t the thoughts that you want to be thinking. You dispute that response with every fiber of your being and substitute “I need to take a minute, breathe, and think about this” in place of the defensive thoughts your mind first produced.

Even better is to not think the maladaptive thought in the first place. That is your ultimate goal, that instead of continually having to dispute and change unproductive thinking, you think the right thought the first time. When your boss says, “Susan, you know you’ve been late four days this week and that’s not okay,” you want to say to yourself (after you’ve appraised that this is one of those situations that needs your attention and must be addressed), “That’s true. What’s been going on this week? I need to think about this.” You do not attack yourself; you do not defend yourself; you do not flee the scene; you treat it as a moment that requires your authentic consideration and participation.  

If our boss says to us, “The group has fallen behind today,” one individual will take that as personal criticism and another individual will have no idea who or what is being criticized, as our boss hasn’t been explicit yet. The second person has the healthier cognitive style: he isn’t leaping to feeling criticized. This is an example of one of our cognitive tasks, changing our internal self-talk so as to reduce the number of times we actually experience criticism.

Let’s say, however, that our boss is quite explicit and says, “Bill, you’ve fallen behind today.” Another of our tasks is to carefully moderate our self-talk so that we don’t turn this small criticism into a full-blown toxic event. These two tasks and three related ones constitute our work with respect to the cognitive key.

The first task is learning new internal language for thinking about criticism. Until we label something, the thing just is. We make a small mistake as we passionately play a piano concerto: one pianist will criticize himself mercilessly and another pianist will think, “How beautifully I just played, that small flub notwithstanding!” You and you alone get to choose what language you employ in life and you should consider that a blessing! It is a real blessing that you can eliminate an enormous percentage of the criticism in your life simply by training yourself not to call yourself into question so often. Does that amount to deluding yourself or letting yourself off the hook?  Sometimes it may. But on balance it is healthier to give yourself the benefit of the doubt than to demean and chastise your every move.

A useful tactic to use with respect to this first task is to always begin with, “I doubt that I’m being criticized.” Your boss makes a face at you. Train yourself to think, “I doubt that I’m being criticized” rather than “What did I do?”, “Is my job on the line?”, or “The heck with him!”. You receive a form rejection letter from an editor that reads in part, “Your material is not quite right for our publication.” Train yourself to think, “I doubt that I’m being criticized” rather than “She hates my writing,” “I’m an idiot to think I can get published,” or “Who the heck does she think she is?” By training yourself to react to potential criticism by thinking “I doubt that I’m being criticized,” you will build up a reservoir of good feelings about yourself and allow yourself to process information (like your group falling behind or an editor passing on your story) without emotional turmoil.

A second task is learning new internal language for modulating and moderating criticism. When we decide that we should construe something as criticism and further decide that we can’t just slough the criticism off but must think it through, our next job is to modulate and moderate how we talk to ourselves about the criticism in question. We do not want to feel that something catastrophic just happened, that we are ruined, that our life is suddenly bereft of meaning; we avoid these out-sized feelings by carefully choosing the internal language we employ.  Instead of saying, “My boss hates me and is sure to fire me!”, we say, “I fell a little behind today. I wonder what happened?” Instead of saying, “I feel like a complete fool for missing so many notes in today’s performance!”, we say, “That was an excellent performance but I did miss a few notes. Should I be worried?” The language we use creates the feelings we feel. The more modulated our language, the less pain we inflict on ourselves. 

A useful tactic to use with respect to this second task is to say, “This is no big deal.” When you decide that a certain piece of criticism needs to be considered, begin your considerations by defusing the situation and internally saying, “This is no big deal.” For example: “It’s no big deal that I got another rejection on my short story, but I do think I’d better consider what I want to do next. Do I need to polish the story one more time, send it out to different markets, or what?” By defusing the situation, rather than inflaming it, you manufacture less pain and allow yourself to think clearly.

A third task is learning new methods for controlling self-talk. It is an important first step to become aware of your self-talk and notice exactly what you are saying to yourself. Next, you need some methods for controlling your self-talk and moving it in the desired direction, for instance, away from hysterical over-reaction and toward calm modulation. One method is to actively create “thought substitutes” that you use as replacements for your negative or inappropriate self-talk. For instance, if you know that you always react to the arrival of a rejection letter with, “This is such a f*&#ed-up business and I can’t take one more rejection!”, you can plan beforehand what you want to say to yourself (“Oh, a rejection letter—how amusing!”) and then, when you spot the tell-tale envelope in your mailbox, MAKE YOURSELF think the thought substitute rather than the conventional thought you are accustomed to thinking.
A tactic to use with respect to this third task is to create thought substitutes. You can create thought substitutes to replace your negative or inappropriate self-talk. These thought substitutes also serve as simple affirmations and point you in the direction of hope and optimism. With a thought substitute or two at the ready, you instantly replace a thought like “I just made such a big mistake!” with “Let’s see if this is really a problem” or “This doesn’t phase me a bit” or “I’m just fine.” Your particular thought substitutes can be ironic, spiritual, straightforward, or come in any tone or style that suits you. Try creating a few “generic” thought substitutes that will effectively serve you in toxic situations.

A fourth task is learning thought-stopping. When criticism gets under our skin, it can be very hard to silence. A refrain keeps repeating itself: “You are such an idiot, you are such an idiot, you are such an idiot” or “That was so unfair, that was so unfair, that was so unfair” or “You have no chance, you have no chance, you have no chance.” At times like this, it is imperative that we silence that obsessive negative thought. We can only silence it by confronting it and shouting, “I do not want you, thought!” You can’t battle an obsessive thought with a mild-mannered retort. You have to muster your energy, raise yourself up to your full height, and really say “No!” to the thought.

A tactic to use with respect to this fourth task is to really say “No!” to a thought. Think an innocuous negative thought like “What a gloomy day” or “I ate too much ice cream at dinner.” Think the thought and then shout “No!” OUT LOUD. If the thought wants to return, as such thoughts typically do, the instant you hear it shout “No!” again. Feel unembarrassed and adamant. Do not let that thought return without rebuking it and fighting it tooth-and-nail.  

A fifth task is learning not to dwell on criticism. It is a bad habit of an anxious mind to dwell on negative thoughts. Someone criticizes us and we dwell on that criticism for days and weeks, even though we know that we ought to move on. Or we turn a piece of mild criticism into dramatic self-criticism and beat ourselves up non-stop, day and night, until finally we manage to bring on a good-sized depression. A vital cognitive skill to learn is how to not dwell on thoughts that we know ought to be put to rest. But doesn’t trying not to dwell on a thought cause you to think that thought? Indeed it does. That is why you will want to employ powerful thought substitutes to help you let go of the unwanted thoughts that plague you.

A tactic to use to master this task is to say “What’s next?” or “Let’s move on!” When you notice that you have been dwelling on a piece of criticism or self-criticism, internally shout “Move on!”  Or matter-of-factly demand of your mind, “What’s next?” Or try “I have better things to think about!”, “I’m done now!” or “Time to switch gears!” Whatever thought substitute you choose to use, make sure you have one handy and begin to actually employ it when you find yourself dwelling on criticism.

That ends today’s show. I hope that you enjoyed it and I hope that you’ll tune in next week for another episode of Your Purpose-Centered Life. If you subscribe to your Purpose-Centered Life, you won’t miss a single episode!—to subscribe, please visit or look for Your Purpose-Centerd Life in iTunes. You might also want to visit my blog, where many guest correspondents write about issues of interest in the secular-humanist, skeptical, free-thinking, existential and atheist traditions. My blog is available at the website. If you’d like to drop me an email, I’d love to hear from you. My email address is [email protected]. And I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services, including my annual Taos workshops. To visit, please head over to—that’s Thank you for listening!