How we talk to ourselves affects everything. It influences everything from how we feel about ourselves to the decisions we make. Negative self-talk can sabotage and undermine our efforts in any part of our lives.
For instance, if you keep telling yourself you’re unworthy or incapable — “I can’t do this! I’m not smart enough!” — you might not pursue a promotion or ask for a raise at work. If you keep telling yourself you’re undeserving of love — “I have too much baggage!” — you might not date or date people who mistreat you. You might stay in toxic relationships, and let others walk all over you.
If you keep telling yourself all you do is make mistakes — “I can’t do anything right!” — you might keep making more of them and have a hard time navigating challenges or learning from your slipups.
Instead, what’s more helpful is speaking kindly to yourself. Still, people think that self-compassion is akin to coddling or placating. “[They] assume that self-compassion will make them less productive and that they won’t take responsibility, hence the harsh punishing voice in order to ‘keep ourselves in line,’” said Karin Lawson, PsyD, a psychologist and clinical director of Embrace, the binge eating recovery program at Oliver-Pyatt Centers.
However, she said, there’s plenty of space for accountability in self-compassion. “[I]n fact, a more loving, caring approach has been shown to have a significant effect on people meeting their goals in life rather than a shaming criticism that zaps our energy and just makes us want to crawl in a hole.”
“Self-talk is such a crucial piece to our inner life, and therefore a piece to our overall life,” Lawson said. “It’s a representation of the way we treat ourselves, and it’s persistently happening, whether we realize it or not.”
And that’s the thing: Often we don’t realize it. Often negative self-talk becomes so automatic that we don’t realize it’s sinking our mood, our days and our relationships.
The first step for revising negative self-talk is to become aware of it, said Casey Radle, LPC, a therapist who specializes in anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Pay attention to the thoughts running through your mind every day. Pay attention to what you say to yourself as you’re getting up in the morning and going to bed. Pay attention to what you say to yourself after making a mistake or receiving a compliment.
The second step in counteracting negative self-talk is to speak kindly to yourself. Focus on statements that are supportive, encouraging and compassionate.
Lawson likes to pair her supportive statements with a slow, deep breath and a hand over her heart. “The symbolic gesture is emotionally soothing to me, plus the gentle touch actually actives the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps me become more calm and open to the words.”
She suggested readers use the below statements “as a starting point, feeling free to tweak them and get creative, in order to discover the ones that fit for you”:
- May you be compassionate toward your own heart.
- (Insert your name), you are trying your best. Allow yourself some gentleness.
- May you be kind to yourself right now.
- Gentle. Gentle.
- Be at peace. You have a loving heart.
- I have the right to decide who I let into my life.
- I have control over what I do next and where I focus my attention.
- I choose who has the right to hear my story.
- We all make mistakes. We’re human. I do not have to be perfect.
- I can make amends if I made a mistake. I do not need to hide in shame.
- I can start over in any moment I choose.
- I may not be able to control my environment, but I have power over what I say and what I do.
Radle, who practices at Eddins Counseling Group, suggested talking to ourselves as we would to our best friends. She suggested these statements:
- I will get through this. I am more resilient than I feel right now.
- This is temporary.
- I can do this. I can handle this.
- I’m allowed to feel this way and will learn from this experience.
- I choose to let in positivity and to reject toxicity in my life.
- I deserve to surround myself with supportive people.
- I will go easy on myself.
- I am worthy of love and respect.
- It’s OK to relax.
- I can let go of anger and fear and let in love and joy.
- I will honor my physical and emotional needs.
- I will make choices that contribute to my overall well-being.
Lawson suggested setting time aside every day to say the supportive statements that ring true for you. For instance, practice statements in bed every morning, before starting the car, or when first sitting at your desk at work. Another option, she said, is to set a timer on your phone to prompt you.
Speaking kindly to yourself may feel “completely foreign and uncomfortable,” Lawson said. But “Do it anyway!” As Radle said, “What do you have to lose?”