If you were to choose a close companion, would you feel more comfortable around someone who is genuinely positive, compassionate, and understanding, or a person who is negative, critical, and judgmental?
Most people would prefer the company of the positive person, and with good reason. Being with people who are supportive, loving, and forgiving is beneficial for the mind, body, and spirit.
Unfortunately, many of us are paired with a constant companion who resembles the other choice and speaks with a voice that is, more often than not, harsh, unforgiving, and full of criticism. Sadly, this voice is our own.
Though you may think that you don’t have an inner voice, or that your inner voice is more positive than negative, you might be making a wrong assumption. In addition, this assumption can cost you in terms of physical, psychological, and spiritual health.
Therefore, it’s important to examine the way in which we “speak” to ourselves, identify negative thought-processes, and utilize tools to achieve self-compassion, a positive internal dialogue, and overall self-love.
Talking to Yourself
Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love. – Brené Brown
This statement by Brené Brown is deceptively simple. Fundamentally, it asserts the premise that we talk to the people we love in a different manner than we talk to ourselves.
On one hand, this makes a great deal of sense. Theoretically, in speaking to a loved one, we would be considerate, respectful, encouraging, and kind the majority of the time. If not, we may alienate even the people closest to us.
On the other hand, for many people, “speaking” to ourselves through our thoughts and inner voice in a considerate, respectful, encouraging, and kind manner may seem anywhere from awkward to ridiculous.
Though it appears counterintuitive that we are served better by self-criticism, humans are psychologically programmed to feel a natural negativity bias. This is our instinct to believe that negative experiences, outcomes, and behaviors are more significant than positive ones.
As a result, we focus far more on our mistakes, shortcomings, and insecurities. This self-criticism, though psychologically instinctual, can be destructive in terms of the health of our minds, bodies, and spirits, and it can deplete our energy for self-compassion.
Self-Criticism vs. Self-Compassion
The human brain is designed to monitor our thoughts and behaviors, including recognizing our mistakes and/or transgressions. Differentiating from what is “good” and “bad” allows us to make healthy and productive choices while avoiding those that are destructive and harmful. In this way, we can also learn from our experiences.
However, if our mind attaches an overwhelmingly negative value to our thoughts and behaviors, it can result in a cycle of self-criticism. In turn, this can lead to destructive consequences and internal beratement, from being caught in a loop of critical self-talk to believing in a negative self-image.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is the practice of treating ourselves with understanding and kindness—even in the face of failure or personal shortcomings. Rather than creating a cycle of self-criticism and degradation, self-compassion allows people to accept their flaws and mistakes in the spirit of gaining clarity, making adjustments, and behaving in a more productive manner in the future.
Self-criticism results in preoccupation with worry, guilt, and judgment. This self-referential state is incompatible with self-compassion, leading to a negative internal dialogue that focuses on shame and regret rather than learning and forgiveness.
Humans have a unique ability to reason and think, often labeled an internal dialogue. We are always thinking, either at a conscious or subconscious level. Often, we don’t pay close attention to our running thoughts, though they have a great impact on our perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world around us.
In fact, it can be startling to realize how harsh our internal dialogue can be. If you were to write down how you talk to yourself throughout the day, you may be shocked by what you are saying—even if it is internally.
The simple but profound question to ask in terms of the content and tone of your internal dialogue is: Would I talk this way to someone I love? If the answer is no, then your internal dialogue needs to change.
Some people may believe that a critical or negative internal dialogue is a way of motivating themselves to do better and/or not repeat mistakes. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. Punishing self-talk can exacerbate anxiety and depression. In addition, it can lead to lowered confidence and self-doubt, which often robs people of taking opportunities and feelings of well-being.
Of course, changing your internal dialogue is not about creating an endless stream of internal self-praise. Instead, the approach should be to internally speak to yourself just as you would to someone you care for, respect, and love.
Here are some strategies for talking to yourself like you would to someone you love:
Be mindful: When we converse and interact with others, we are much more mindful of the present moment, including what we are doing and saying. However, when it comes to our internal dialogue, we don’t necessarily pay as much attention to what we are thinking and feeling. As a result, we may “speak” to ourselves in a critical, judgmental, or even hurtful way. In the same sense that we wouldn’t speak to a loved one in that manner, being mindful of our internal dialogue can interrupt such negative thoughts and provide the opportunity to change the words we think as well as their meaning.
Practice forgiveness: People are frequently much harder on themselves than they would be on someone they love. Though it’s important to take responsibility for our actions, it’s counterproductive to punish ourselves with an internal dialogue that calls attention to mistakes or past negative behaviors. Just as we would forgive and accept a loved one for their human failings and support their learning and growth, it’s important to practice forgiveness and acceptance for ourselves as well.
Practice gratitude: If you find that your inner dialogue is negative and creating self-doubt by focusing on your insecurities or insufficiencies, one way to challenge that and build a more loving approach is to reflect on the ways you feel gratitude for yourself. Of course, everyone faces challenges, hardships, and problems. Yet, there are even more self-attributes for which to feel grateful. Perhaps you are a loyal friend, kind to animals, or a source of love for family members. Any contribution you make to better the world around you is reason to be thankful. In addition, we rarely express gratitude to ourselves for the level of health and well-being that we have—even if it isn’t perfect. Practicing gratitude for yourself as you would for a loved one is an effective way to improve your internal dialogue.
Admittedly, it can be difficult for people to adjust their internal dialogue, especially if they have developed a strong pattern of negative thoughts across time. It can be even more challenging to talk to ourselves just as we would to someone we love if we did not experience that type of support or modeled behavior from childhood to adulthood.
Some people may even find a positive internal dialogue to be false or undeserved. However, these beliefs actually reinforce the harmful effects of critical self-talk. Therefore, it is essential to understand how internal dialogue is related to self-love.
Of course, talking to yourself like you would to someone you love, as Brown suggests, is part of an overall goal of achieving “self-love.” Self-love can be a difficult concept to grasp. It may seem too abstract, uncomfortable, or even unnecessary to some people. In addition, there are several misconceptions about what self-love actually means.
Essentially, self-love is taking continual action to support physical, psychological, and spiritual growth to reach a state of appreciation for oneself. This is an ongoing process in which people expand their acceptance of strengths and shortcomings and develop compassion for oneself and others as humans seeking personal meaning. Self-love enhances the feeling of being centered in life, with purpose and value, which leads to fulfillment through actions and effort.
Unfortunately, for many people, there is a gap between understanding self-love and knowing how to practice it to achieve optimal results. Here are some techniques to treat yourself, in addition to talking to yourself, like you would someone you love:
- Prioritize needs over wants: People often repeat behaviors that keep them away from self-love based on what they “want” in the moment. By focusing on what you need rather than what you want, you can interrupt these behavior patterns and concentrate on feeling centered and strong while moving forward in self-love.
- Self-care: It can be difficult for some people to take good care of their basic needs. Self-love reflects a commitment to overall healthy behaviors, including nutrition, exercise, sleep, and social interactions.
- Boundaries: Setting limits and boundaries to protect yourself from physical, emotional, and spiritual distress or depletion is part of self-love. This may involve saying “no” to added responsibilities or activities that result in stress, and/or distancing yourself from people who are not supportive of your path and endeavors.
- Intentional living: An important aspect of accepting and loving yourself is to apply purpose and design to your life. This doesn’t have to involve anything grand or world-changing for others. Instead, it’s best to define your intention of living a meaningful and healthy life. Once this is clear, you can make decisions and create habits to support this intention. Your accomplishments will be rewarding and enhance your self-love.
It’s essential to understand that self-love is not a static end-state. It is a dynamic process that flows and changes with time and circumstances. What you may prioritize today may not fit into your idea of self-love in the future. In a sense, self-love requires renewal day to day, year to year, and possibly moment to moment; and it would be unrealistic to not expect setbacks, challenges, or periods of adjustment.
However, just as you would have patience and understanding with someone you love, you must apply the same level of generosity to yourself. It’s not only advisable to talk to and treat yourself as you would a friend and loved one; it’s the healthiest approach for your mind, body, and spirit.