I don’t know if you have noticed, but that little running dialogue inside of our heads can change how we feel in an instant, for better or for worse. If we acknowledge an achievement, or accept something nice that has been said to us, we flood our brains with helpful neurochemicals that boost our mood. On the other hand, if we judge ourselves harshly, fall into self-blame, focus on what we did wrong, or how we aren’t enough, our mood will go downhill in a hurry. These negative thoughts trigger a stress response, causing another not-so-helpful flood of neurochemicals that make us feel awful, both physically and emotionally.
Maybe you have experienced this scenario: you are somewhere having a lovely time, you say something, and you notice someone’s body language shift at the same time that the words left your mouth. Now you are wondering: “Was it something I said?” “How could I be so stupid?” “I’m such an idiot?” “Why do I always do this?” This can go on and on, maybe for a few minutes, a few hours, or even a few days. Maybe you made a mistake on a project and it starts a similar dialogue, except this time it’s: “Why do I bother?” or “Nothing ever goes right!” You get caught in a spiral that leads to irritability, anger, anxiety, guilt, or sadness. Sometimes, we use harsh language as a motivator to achieve goals. This can happen if we have been taught to toughen up and made to believe that using soft or kind language will get us nowhere in life.
Over the course of our lives, we learn how to talk to ourselves. We repeat messages that we have heard from the people that matter to us—adults, teachers, coaches, and peers. While we do remember happy ones, we are unfortunately wired to pay more attention to the messages that hurt us. These messages become part of the script that runs through our heads. While other people may plant the seeds, we later water and fertilize them as we repeat these negative thoughts over and over. We also plant our own seeds when we compare ourselves to the people around us, or to the ideals that are set out by society and social media.
It is important to recognize that what we say to ourselves matters, and that we have the ability to start shifting toward a more empowering dialogue. Positive, balanced and kind dialogue is a key factor to overall well-being, and it begins with self-compassion. When we are gentler with ourselves we can still achieve goals, often more effectively than when using harsh motivators, and we are more able to set healthy boundaries.
When learning how to practice self-compassion, consider talking to yourself as you might talk to a friend. This is easier said than done, and sometimes we need a little outside help to get the ball rolling. There is a guided practice called Affectionate Breathing that can help build this new skill set. This practice can be found, offered for free, on sitforaminute.ca or chrisgermer.com. If that’s not your cup of tea, you may find a podcast helpful. “Feeling Good” by David Burns is an excellent resource for mood therapy.
Shifting our inner dialogue takes time. Even after practicing for a while, the old way of talking to ourselves, the one that we know so well, will show up—especially if we are tired or stressed. As best you can, be patient. If you can meet the negative thought with a reminder to be kind or with a more balanced appraisal of the situation that’s great. If you miss a few, that’s ok too. One of the great things about being human is that with the next breath we can try again!