You know the saying, “I’m my own worst enemy,”? Sometimes that’s true. Many of us are a lot harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else, and it can lead to some real issues. That voice that you hear in your head that criticizes everything you do is called your inner critic, and the constant negative thoughts about yourself are called negative self-talk. Self-compassion is a way to deal with your inner critic and negative self-talk in a kind way, instead of beating yourself up all the time.
It turns out that the way you talk to yourself matters. Even when you don’t realize you’re doing it, your brain is listening to that never ending stream of thoughts like “I’m not good enough,” or “I can’t do anything right,”. After being exposed to constant negative self-talk, your brain will start to believe it, even if you know rationally that it’s not true. That’s why affirmations are so helpful. When you repeat something, over and over, it can actually help rewire your brain!
Our brains have a lot going on, so they try to take shortcuts when they can. When you have a new thought, different areas of your brain will be activated. When you do something repeatedly, your brain forms what’s called a neural pathway between those activated areas, like a shortcut to send the signal down so it doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Your brain loves patterns! It wants to try to categorize and spot patterns as a way to make life easier for you, but sometimes it actually makes things harder. When your brain is used to a pattern of you talking negatively about yourself, it might feel hard to break out of it.
The first step is to notice when you’re not being nice to yourself. Keep a journal or a note on your phone and keep a tally of every single time you have a not nice thought about yourself. If it’s easier, record a voice memo. (It might also be especially powerful to hear all the mean things you think to yourself out loud.) After a few days, review what you’ve collected. What comes up over and over? Is there anything that surprised you? Where do you think these negative beliefs about yourself come from? You don’t have to have all the answers right away, but take some time to mull it over. This could also be helpful to work through with the support of a therapist.
Now that you’ve started to tune into your negative self-talk, you can work on cultivating self-compassion.
Dr. Kristen Neff, who literally wrote the book on self-compassion, defines self-compassion this way: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.” She argues that there are three elements to self-compassion:
Self-kindness vs. self-judgment
Self-kindness is a foundational aspect of self-compassion. When we’re kind to ourselves, we remember to be understanding and loving even when we suffer, fail, or do something wrong. Lots of us have this idea of being “perfect” in our heads, but perfection is impossible. No one is perfect, and no one knows what they’re doing all the time. (Promise!) Instead of criticizing yourself for every little thing, try treating yourself the way you’d treat a close friend or loved one. You’d probably never dream of saying any of that mean stuff to someone you love! Treat yourself the same way. Self-judgment will always put you on the defensive, and make you feel frustrated and stressed. When you feel the urge to judge yourself, try to redirect it toward kindness instead.
Common humanity vs. isolation
Negative self-talk isn’t just mean, it’s also isolating. It might feel like you’re the only one who is experiencing this distress, but it’s important to remember that distress is part of being human. No one gets through without some distress, and remembering that you’re not alone in your experience of having a human brain can be eye-opening.
Would you expect everyone in your life to be perfect at all times? Of course not. So don’t expect that of yourself, either. You’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to get through it, and and you still deserve kindness and compassion. It happens to everyone.
Mindfulness vs. over-identification
Finally, being compassionate to yourself involves being able to put things into perspective. The practice of mindfulness encourages you to be open and curious about your feelings, even if you don’t approve of them. One of the core aspects of mindfulness is to not judge yourself or your thoughts that come up. Instead of judging, mindfulness asks you to simply notice as your thoughts drift by, like clouds in the sky. It gets easier with practice.
Taking a more mindful approach to things can help you remember that suffering is human. Instead of being overwhelmed by negative feelings, mindfulness lets you take a step back and observe from a less reactive place.