Jan. 15, 2021
Often, we’re our own worst critic. When we feel anxious or frustrated, we talk to ourselves more harshly than we’d find acceptable by anyone else. I blew that presentation. Everyone on my team has such strong technical skills; I can’t follow the conversation. My kiddo is going to be so mad at me for working late again. We wrongly assume that criticism will motivate us to do better. We become even more of a perfectionist than usual. Instead of talking to ourselves with self-compassion, we raise our standards for our behavior as a defense against our feelings of doubt, anxiety, or frustration.
Self-compassion improves people’s participation in groups and is associated with a more adaptive attitude to failure. People who are self-compassionate recover better from psychological knocks, like relationship breakups and career setbacks. One way to show yourself compassion is through self-talk. Here’s what that is and how it works.
What Does Compassionate Self-Talk Look Like?
There are four elements of self-compassion: using a tone of kindness, recognizing that pain is a universal human experience, taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions that neither suppresses or exaggerates them, and expecting yourself to make the best decision you can in the situation you’re in.
Here are three examples of what it looks like in the real world:
Sometimes, compassionate self-talk is a gentle and supportive nudge. For example, I like to ask myself, What do I need right now? This gives me the flexibility to choose what’s most self-compassionate in a given situation. Since I’m prone to worry and micromanage everything, a message like trust the process for a while can help me let go. At other times, greater self-discipline is the kinder thing to do. For example, I might need to knuckle down to do a task I’ve been putting off. If that relieves my dread, it’s self-compassionate. In this scenario, I might say to myself, You don’t want to start because you’re anxious. That’s understandable. You want to do a good job. The best way to do a good job is to chip away at it. You don’t have to work on it all day. Give it 90 minutes and then enjoy the rest of the day.
And sometimes, self-compassionate talk is reframing a trait or tendency, like perfectionism. Use it to prevent psyching yourself out and letting perfect be the enemy of done. Perfectionists are less likely to be self-compassionate. Self-compassion can help you take a more balanced view of yourself and see when not everything is great (say, your performance on a project), but not everything is terrible (your entire career is a flop). A perfectionist might say to themselves, I have to get this exactly right, first try, or I’ll never get another opportunity. That attitude can make starting at all feel too daunting. Someone who is self-compassionate might say to themselves, Everyone has blind spots that result in first attempts being imperfect. I don’t have to get everything right all on my own. I can use others’ perspectives. That’s how great work happens.
How to Get Better at Compassionate Self-Talk
You control the conversation in your head, and you can reframe it positively in a way that feels natural and authentic to you. When you find yourself ruminating (such as rehashing past decisions, doing social comparison, dwelling on your imperfections), it’s time to practice self-compassion.
Understand your sabotaging patterns. Self-compassion often involves knowing what your sabotaging patterns are in the first place. One of mine is that when I get anxious, I overwork. Then I drag other people into it. I apply my anxiety-driven high standards to others, which drives people nuts and causes tension in my working relationships. If you know you have a sabotaging pattern, self-compassion can help you gently acknowledge it and make a better choice when you notice it occurring (I’ve written lots more about this in The Healthy Mind Toolkit). Compassionate self-talk in this scenario might be I want to nitpick because I want to be in control. That soothes me, so it’s understandable I want to do it. I need to be strategic and think about the big picture here. Overall, that’s going to help me feel the best.
Pay attention to what others say that soothes you. Notice when a mentor or friend says something that soothes and calms you. This could be a comment particular to you, or even a proverb like “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” Incorporate what they say into your self-talk. Hearing their words in your head might help you let go of control and perfectionism. Listen to your emotions to understand what phrases and messages help you feel better and make better decisions.
Plan ahead. Come up with a half-dozen common scenarios in which you think compassionate self-talk would help you make better decisions. Here are some examples to spark your thinking: when I’m working with new people, when I sense my perfectionism is driving other people nuts, when other people are better than me at something. For each scenario, write some sample language for what compassionate self-talk would sound like.
Ask for help. Your scenarios will be personal to you. If you’re stuck, ask a therapist (or emotionally skilled mentor or friend) to help you. For example, bring your list of triggering situations to a therapy or coaching session and work together to come up with effective, compassionate responses.
Here are some common traps to avoid and hints to make your self-talk feel more natural:
Self-compassionate talk is cloying or flowery. You might think your self-talk needs to be new-age sounding. It doesn’t. I’ve seen examples that include calling yourself “Dear.” I think, Oh hell, no. Find a tone that’s both kind and appealing to you. You’re more likely to believe yourself if you use language that feels real to you.
Self-compassionate talk alone will do the trick. Talking to yourself with compassion isn’t a stand-alone strategy; it’s one you combine with other skills. For example, combine self-compassion with project management skills for breaking down difficult tasks into achievable chunks.
Self-compassionate talk happens in the moment. When it comes to self-compassion, a common piece of advice is to talk to yourself as you’d talk to your friends or your child. This assumes you’re already good at compassionate talk. If you are, you may be able to borrow elements. If you’re still learning, make specific if-then plans for language to respond to what commonly triggers rumination, self-criticism, and difficult emotions for you.
Self-compassion is positive thinking. It takes more than generic cheerleading like “you can do it!” to practice self-compassion. Often, it’s acknowledging that I’m not doing this as well as I’d like to be. Then, recognizing that those difficult emotions are a universal experience, and coming up with a kind game plan for yourself. For example, if you’re waiting to have a scan for a suspicious lump, acknowledging your fear but deciding to think optimistically until you get more information might be what you need. For example, I’m going to choose not to worry excessively about this until I know whether it’s a problem. I’m scared, but I don’t need to run through every scenario in advance. I can trust myself to make good decisions once I have full information.
Model Self-Compassion to Your Children
The more your kids see you taking on projects outside your comfort zone, the more opportunity you’ll have to demonstrate how you react emotionally to being challenged. Say out loud, “I’ve never done this before. I’m feeling nervous. I’m going to handle it by reading the instructions twice.” Or “I’m feeling stuck with this; let’s take a break till tomorrow and try again.” Let them hear you verbalize your strategies, see you accept the presence of difficult emotions, and move forward in productive ways with those emotions.
With little kids: Model how to handle your thoughts and emotions when what you try doesn’t always work. For example, my four-year-old and I do crafting projects, like building dioramas. We try various materials from around the house and garden. Some of our ideas work, others flop. I use language like “We’re not as good at this as the people in the YouTube videos. They’ve practiced more than us and have more supplies. We can try our best and come up with our own ideas to use what we have at our house.”
With teens: Talk to your teenager about your experiences of only succeeding on your third or fourth try, or of working in groups with people more skilled than you are. Even if it seems as if they are tuning you out, something will get through. Sometimes you might want to revisit experiences to help your children emotionally process events. You might say, “You know last week when you were feeling confused about what your teacher wanted for your project? That happened to me at work today. I thought about you when it happened. I knew I wasn’t giving my coworker exactly what she wanted, but I wasn’t sure what I was missing. It’s a tough feeling to go through. And it took a while to figure it out, but I got there in the end. Just like you did. It didn’t feel great to go through that uncertainty, but it happens to everyone.”
Kids don’t need to think that their parents never experience negative emotions or doubt. They need to feel confident that their parents can handle themselves, will always be accessible to them, and will keep them safe, even when they’re having difficult emotions.
Talking to yourself with self-compassion will help you deal with a raft of challenging situations, including those you experience personally and those you need to help your kids (or students or employees) through. To use it effectively, follow these practices to build specific, personalized habits of self-compassionate talk.
Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.
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