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Talking to yourself more kindly

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Robbie Pearman  |  Counselling Psychologist

September 01 2021

Ever catch yourself saying something to yourself and thinking, “that was harsh”. Many thoughts we have towards ourselves are steeped in cruelty and negativity, and often set against standards that seem impossibly high. If you make a mistake during a task and you say something like “you are useless” or “that was terrible” or “what is wrong with you” to yourself, then you likely have used this kind of self-talk in the past, or even as your default self-talk.

If we had someone else say those things to us, many of us would not take it lying down and defend ourselves, at least to some extent. So why do we change the rules when applying them to ourselves? If we were watching someone else making the same failed attempts at the same task (like maybe learning a new sport), what comment would we make to them? Would we look to build them up or tear them down? Most people tend to provide positive input in these circumstances, because I suspect, they view them as more helpful.

If they are more helpful, why not try using them on yourself?

Why not indeed. So here are some thoughts on how to shift this tendency and rather start to become our biggest fan.

1) A great rule of thumb is to externalise the self-talk. Ask yourself – ‘would I say this to anyone else in a similar situation’? Alternatively, ‘if someone said this to my face would I find that acceptable’? If the answer is no, then you have just achieved an important first step, becoming aware of the negative kind of self-talk going on in your head, as it is happening.

2) Sometimes making a mess of something does set us back to some extent – and being positive throughout is not realistic nor achievable for most people. However, instead of the self-critical inner voice that berates and destroys our self-belief, commenting on the situation rather than our own flaws of character can be a useful middle ground. So instead of “you are so useless at this”, comments such as “that was a disappointing outcome, you know you can do better”, keep us accountable, but help us stay upbeat and motivated to persevere and improve. It is useful also to say these things in the third person, so instead of ‘I’ statements (e.g., ‘I must do better’), we should use ‘you’ statements (e.g. ‘you can do this’).

3) Remember that ultimately what we are trying to cultivate is the habit of compassion in the way we talk to others and ourselves. Practicing kind thoughts towards others will help generate the kind of habit that makes it easier to progress from kind thoughts to kind words or deeds towards others. Similarly, as we start to shift our inclinations from negative to positive filters through which we think about people, soon enough that filter will prove itself easier to use when thinking about ourselves too. This is a process and building this habit up will take time, so it requires patience. Do not despair when it doesn’t seem to be working at first, reprogramming our self-talk is a big (but doable) exercise.

4) Don’t be to hard on yourself when you get these steps wrong, it’s bound to happen. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can and that your level of awareness is probably increasing all the time. More importantly, try to focus on the times you get things right. When you find yourself rephrasing your self-talk in a way that pleases you, take note of it. Assess how talking to yourself in this way made a difference for you in the period of time that followed. Did it allow you to stay more positive, focused or energetic as a result? Did you find yourself speaking to people you encountered subsequently in a way that pleased you? Did they notice or comment? Or maybe it was the way you were treated reciprocally? Also, notice times when people have said something to you that you found to be soothing or encouraging. Could the kind of language and sentiment they used be what should be incorporated into your own self talk?

4) Don’t be to hard on yourself when you get these steps wrong, it’s bound to happen. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can and that your level of awareness is probably increasing all the time. More importantly, try to focus on the times you get things right. When you find yourself rephrasing your self-talk in a way that pleases you, take note of it. Assess how talking to yourself in this way made a difference for you in the period of time that followed. Did it allow you to stay more positive, focused or energetic as a result? Did you find yourself speaking to people you encountered subsequently in a way that pleased you? Did they notice or comment? Or maybe it was the way you were treated reciprocally? Also, notice times when people have said something to you that you found to be soothing or encouraging. Could the kind of language and sentiment they used be what should be incorporated into your own self talk?

We are just trying to talk kindly to ourselves and others at the end of the day. Developing self-talk habits that aid our lives and protect our desired attitudes is a hugely powerful tool to have in our arsenal. It will take some discipline and awareness to make it a part of our daily mental processes, but done right will lead to increased positive energy, heightened sense of wellbeing and improved relationships in your life.

I’m a Counselling Psychologist situated in Blairgowrie, near the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, such as Rosebank and Sandton.

I work with individuals, couples, families, and small groups to address current challenges with a solution-focused approach. These challenges may include some more common complaints such as depression, and anxiety, or those trying to come to terms with trauma or bereavement.

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