How We Talk To Ourselves
Most of us have a lot of chatter in our heads.
It's normal... But there's a special kind of chatter in the way we talk to ourselves--ways that are not always helpful, not always true, and often not kind.
The words we say to ourselves...
Have a powerful effect on how we see ourselves.
Have a powerful effect on how we see the people around us.
And have a powerful effect on how we see the world.
Reflecting and learning from our experiences is key to building wisdom. It can be really helpful to think about mistakes.
We want to process, understand valuable lessons, and then move forward.
Here are three ideas to improve how we talk to ourselves:
Negative Self-Talk Does Not Make Us Stronger or More Accountable
Idea 1: Being hard on yourself isn't helpful
If you think beating yourself up is helpful... It's not.
Try it for yourself:
1. Imagine you're doing something that requires focus and attention. Say, playing an instrument or shooting a basket.
2. Now imagine you made a mistake--played the wrong note or missed the shot.
3. Which of these is more helpful to you?
(a) Mumbling "Argh, get it together."
(b) Taking a breath, pausing, and telling yourself "Okay, friend, let's get back on track. Focus on the strings (or shot).
Option (a) is beating yourself up. It's got shame and anger built into it. It doesn't include anything helpful. And it distracts you from actually doing the thing you want to be doing.
Option (b) is constructive and helps you physically and mentally focus on the task at hand.
Tip 2: Negative self-talk fosters a negative self-identity
Here's another one to try for yourself:
1. Imagine that you're trying to lose weight
2. Which of these is more helpful to you?
(a) "I'm so fat. I have no self-control."
(b) "I have fat on my body. And I'm becoming a healthier eater and moving my body every day."
Option (a) is mean. It makes broad statements about who you are. It's got shame and sadness and judgement built into it.
Option (b) helps frame your identity in practical, constructive ways.
Let's try one more common area of negative self-talk:
Which is more helpful?
(a) That person is so much more successful/richer/happy. I'm so unsuccessful (or a loser, or inferior in some way).
(b) That person seems to be doing well. I'm happy for them. And, I'm grateful for all the good in my life, too.
Option (a) compares you to someone else. Comparing yourself to other people is guaranteed to put you on the roller coaster of better-than and worse-than.
Option (b) is positive and kind--to yourself and to others.
This one might feel like a stretch, but spend a minute giving the idea a chance.
Going from (a) to (b) isn't common. But know this: Finding a way to stop comparing yourself is one of the most liberating and joy-promoting things you can do. It lets you put your energy and attention into the things that bring you the most joy and fulfillment.
Letting go of comparison takes time and practice, but man is it freeing.
Tip 3: The traps of "always", "never", and unintentional stretching of the truth
There's three popular versions of stretching the truth in our self-talk:
I always <bad thing>
I never <good thing>
I'm so <taking a couple of mistakes and stretching them to apply to a bunch of other stuff>... for example: I'm so unsuccessful. Unsuccessful at what? At career? Love? Friendships? Wealth? Hygiene?
We live in a culture and time of things being THE BEST EVER or OMG THAT WAS THE WORST.
Most things aren't at those extremes.
Don't fall for these traps, friend. A few mistakes don't translate to always or never, and they don't usually jump the fence to other areas.
Tip 4: The Drip-Drip-Drip of the Same Thoughts, Over and Over
And finally, these negative self-thoughts move into auto-pilot.
And for many of us, the negative self-talk, the ways it makes us feel, and the things it makes us believe, leak into other areas of our lives.
We repeat these themes over and over and they drip into everything: How we feel about ourselves. How we feel about others. How we feel about the world.
Try it for yourself. Close your eyes and think about one of the themes that drips into your mind, again and again. As you're thinking about it, check in with your body. What do you feel? Any tension? Nausea? Clenched jaws or hands or eyebrows?
For many of us, these thoughts make us want to escape into something else: Our screens or food or drink.
If any of this is true for you, you can practice finding a more effective, bucket-filling, and compassionate set of themes.
A few ideas to...
Talk To Yourself Like a Loved One. And make your words true, helpful, and kind.
Tip 1: Stop and ask yourself what you'd say to someone you love
Catch some of your negative self-talk. Would you say those words, with that tone to someone you care for?
So, if your closest friend said any of these things:
I'm less unsuccessful, or I'm a loser
I'm ugly or I'll never be loved
I don't deserve good things
What would you think?
What would you say to your friend?
How would you say it?
Try This Exercise:
Carve out 15 minutes for a writing exercise. Find a time and place where you won't be interrupted.
Spend a few minutes thinking about a recent time that you helped a friend who was beating them self up. How did you respond to your friend? Write what you did and said.
Think about a recent time that you felt badly about yourself. How did you respond to yourself? Write what you did and said to yourself.
Take a look at what you wrote. Is there a difference? Spend a bit of time thinking about why they are different.
Now, write what you would have said if your friend were in your shoes.
Next time you catch yourself in negative self-talk, review what you wrote.
1. If you're telling yourself something you wouldn't say to a loved one and your negative self-talk is persistent, can you talk with someone you trust and value? Be careful--this is not everyone's skillset. Who do you know to be trustworthy, and can talk with you in a way that is helpful and kind?
2. Do you have a trusted friend who can write you a letter about the area in which you're struggling? Again, be careful to look for someone trustworthy and able to be helpful and kind.
Tip 2: Use the True-Helpful-Kind Checklist
When you hear what you're saying, either to yourself or to others, use the true-helpful-kind checklist.
Step 1: Is what I'm saying true?
Don't go with your first answer on this. Things that seem true often aren't.
You'll probably find some true part of the thought--makes sense--the thought came from somewhere, right? But, now, you need to ask "what makes this not true?" You have to figure out what is a fact and what is a wrong conclusion. Be on high alert for treating opinions as facts.
Look for the always/never/fence-jump exaggerations
And finally, we make a lot of assumptions, especially when it comes to what other people think. We don't know what other people think. We do a lot of damage by assuming we know.
So, when you figure out what story you're telling yourself, ask yourself two question: What makes this true? What makes this not true?
Not true: I can't say anything right.
True: The thing I just said was wrong. I can practice pausing before I speak.
Step 2: Is what I'm saying helpful?
What is the purpose of the words you're saying to yourself?
If your words are meant to shame you into doing something differently, shame usually doesn't work.
Self-reflection can help you learn and grow wiser. But it needs to be helpful and constructive.
Not helpful: I suck.
Helpful: I didn't do a good job on that assignment. Next time, I will make a plan for the work.
Step 3: Is what I'm saying kind?
Words can be true and helpful, and they can still be unkind.
If your words are true and helpful, how can you reframe them to be kind instead of unkind?
Not kind: Leave the house earlier, numbnut.
Kind: I'll leave the house earlier next time so I can get to work with time to settle in.
Identify when you form a judgement. Then practice releasing it.
Tip 1: It takes practice to let untrue/unhelpful/unkind thoughts go.
Even when we know these thoughts aren't helpful, they don't naturally disappear. There's a good chance that they'll still show up.
The good news? You can rewire your brain to think differently. You can literally change your brain patterns to think more compassionately, more constructively, and more accurately.
Sources and Citations
List of virtues: