I work with clever, creative and interesting clients. They’re good at what they do (even if they’re not always crazy about their current roles) but many have a habit of harsh self-judgement.
Negative self-talk happens to all of us, but it’s often more common in people who are thoughtful, sensitive and committed to doing things well – the very same people who could do with being more compassionate with themselves.
At the heart of negative self-talk is judgement. We judge ourselves harshly because we believe others will judge us harshly too and we want to be liked and accepted.
Many of us are unaware of just how consistent and ruthless our self-talk is. The voice of the inner critic is sometimes subliminal and often we’re not tuned in to the specific details of what it is saying. The scripts are invariably repeated and habitual and the same ones we’ve been running for many years.
The role of the inner critic is to protect us from making errors of judgement, but when we’re overly self-critical we have an imbalanced and unrealistic view of ourselves, which not only make us unhappy but it also inhibits us from bringing other strengths to life.
Try the following exercises to create a more realistic view in your internal world.
Tune in to your self-talk
This takes a bit of practise so if it’s new for you it often helps to write down your thoughts. Over the next few days, try doing this for fifteen minutes when you first wake up or just before you go to bed. Your thoughts are likely to go something like this: “I can’t believe I said what I did yesterday. I’m such an idiot.”; “Everyone I work with is so confident. I wish I could be as articulate as they are”; “I looked awful today. I wish I hadn’t worn that outfit”; “I’ll never be as good as them”; “I’m not confident enough to try that”; “I wish I was prettier/ taller /thinner /smarter /funnier/ more of an extrovert”.
Make peace with your flaws
Don’t feel that you need to force those negative thoughts away just yet – it’s almost impossible to do that – but rather, adopt an open, curious mindset as you observe the thoughts.
Start to be interested in the validity of different thoughts. Some of your self-criticisms may be accurate and it may be that you simply need to take the judgement out of the statement. For example, it would be true for me to say to myself, “I’m overly sensitive at times”. I know this is part of who I am. But instead of making the statement a harsh judgement, said in a tone of criticism, I can choose to say “I’m a sensitive person” in a kinder way. Then I can start to think about how I want to manage that sensitivity in practical ways.
If we use this technique with any of our flaws, we create an enormous amount of freedom for ourselves. What if it were true that you are not as witty or as confident as others? What if it’s true that your face is ageing and you’re carrying a few extra kilos? All of us are imperfect, but those imperfections won’t stop us from living rich and fulfilling lives.
When you allow negative thoughts to be at the top of your mind for 80% of your day, it’s near impossible to focus on your strengths.
Balance the negative self-talk by actively engaging in positive self-talk
For many people, this is difficult. Because the bias of the brain leans strongly toward the negative, you’ll find yourself drawn back to self-critical thoughts time and again. However, with practise, it gets easier to balance this bias. Spend some time writing a list of positive self-talk statements that feel believable (this is really important so that you’re not going to immediately negate them). If you find it difficult, ask a few friends what they believe are your strengths (or take this strengths test if you’re not comfortable to do that). For example: “I’m a generous friend”; “I have nice eyes”; “I’m an organised person”; “I make an amazing chicken curry”; “When I’m relaxed, I’m fun to be around”.
Practise your positive self-talk statements a few times each day
Set a reminder in your calendar to look at your list. If this sounds contrived, remember you’ve been doing what you’re doing for many years now and it’s going to take this kind of repetitive practise to balance the way you think. Repeat at least three of the positive statements during your day.
Learn to be your own best friend
This is one of the most important aspects of self-compassion. Most of us rely on external feedback to boost our self-esteem and to feel good about ourselves, but we need to learn to do this for ourselves. Next time you find yourself speaking negatively internally, replace self-criticism with kindness and instead say whatever you’d say to a good friend who was struggling: “You did ok, even if it wasn’t perfect”; “You might not be your ideal weight but you still look great in that dress”; “You may not be the wittiest person in the room but you’re a kind friend” and maybe most importantly, “You’re not perfect and that’s ok.”