Healthy Self-Talk: Taming the Inner Mean Girl with Self Compassion

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Our inner critic is very chatty and very mean.

We all know that inner critical voice. When something doesn’t go as we’d hoped, that voice says “Look at that, you screwed up again.” When something goes well, the inner critic says “It doesn’t matter, you’ll never repeat it” or “Yeah, but everybody else can do twice as much.” The variations are endless, but they all share one thing. They are mean. We are mean to ourselves in a way we would never be to another person.

Does our inner critic help keep us motivated?

When I bring up the concept of self-compassion to people, without fall, the same question always comes up: “But what if I’m not doing well at (fill in the blank)? Shouldn’t I be hard on myself to do better? My response is always: “Well, how has being hard on yourself motivated you in the past?” For most people, words of criticism leave us feeling ashamed, stuck, and wanting to isolate. These qualities are the opposite of feeling motivated. Yet, somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that our judgmental, self-critical voice plays a positive role in our lives.

When we think about criticism as a way to motivate a friend, child or loved one, we quickly recognize how harsh the words are. Most of the time we would never say the same things to others as we do ourselves. Imagine a young child that falls when learning to ride a bike. Or a friend venting about not meeting a work expectation. Would we say: “That’s it. Give it up. You’ll never get this”? OUCH! Probably not.

More likely, we would say to them: “It’s ok. This happens. You’ll get this. Keep trying.”

If we can figure out a way to use these words of kindness for ourselves, we will have found a way to start to tame the inner mean girl.

Self-kindness can feel foreign.

Most people struggle to show themselves the same gentle kindness that flows from our lips when speaking to those we care about. We are trained from an early age to be of service to others. We are mothers of children, daughters of aging parents, teachers, nurses, therapists, member of our spiritual communities, neighbors. Often our identities are built on how well and how much we give to others. We give our time, our concern, our words and deeds of kindness. But where are we in this situation? Often we lose ourselves in our service to others. The practice of self compassion demands that we take the radical step of re-claiming kind attention for ourselves.

Let me explain what self-compassion is.

Self-compassion is when we extend kindness and compassion to ourselves especially in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure or suffering. Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneering researcher in self-compassion describes being self-compassionate as having 3 parts:

  • Acknowledging the difficult emotions or circumstances without judgment
  • Remembering that suffering is part of the human experience we all share
  • Responding to the suffering with gentle kindness

In being self-compassionate we are trying to shift the harsh critical inner voice to one that is more gentle.

Before you say “Yes, but…” let me explain what self compassion isn’t.

  • It’s not selfish.
    Selfish is when a person lacks consideration for others and is primarily concerned with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.
  • It’s not over-indulgent.
    Over-indulgence is when a person yields to short term gratification without restraint or concern about the long term consequence.
  • It’s not self-pity.
    Self-pity is when a person perceives themselves as victim of adverse situations.

Many people fear that self-compassion is a form of self pity. But, actually, self compassion is an antidote to self-pity. While self-pity says “poor me”, self compassion recognizes that life is hard for everyone. Those who practice self compassion, research shows, are less likely to ruminate on how bad things are. Another fear is that self compassion will make us weak. In fact, self compassion is a source of inner strength that leads to courage and resilience in the face of difficult situations. Lastly, some may worry that self compassion is selfish. In fact, research shows that practicing self compassion for ourselves helps us to be more compassionate and caring towards others.

How do you do it? A 4-step Guide to Practicing Self Compassion

For many of us a critical inner dialogue may be deeply ingrained to the point that we may not even be able to imagine how to go about practicing self-compassion.

So, let’s practice with this brief exercise:

  1. Reflect On a Moment of Regret
    First, think about a recent situation when you may have done or said something you wished you hadn’t. Notice the feeling that’s coming up, maybe it’s regret, guilt, or shame. Notice also any words you may be saying about it. Maybe it’s “I can’t believe I did that.” Or “I’m such a jerk”, etc.
  2. Place your hand over your Heart
    Now place your hand over your heart and say to yourself “This is a moment of suffering.” Or “This hurts.” Notice what is true without judgment.
  3. Remind Yourself of Your Humanity
    Next is the common humanity piece, so say to yourself “Other people feel this way.” Or “I’m not alone.”
  4. Offer Yourself Kindness
    Now end with a statement of kindness. This is the most challenging part for many people. Think about what you might say to a good friend who is going through a difficult time. Use those same words, but say them to yourself.Here are some examples:
    “This will pass; It’s ok”
    “Be patient with yourself.”
    “This is hard, but keep trying.”
    “I’m here for you.”

If it feels awkward, that’s ok. That’s normal. We are not brought up speaking to ourselves in this way. Keep trying. It will get easier and more natural. I promise. Keep practicing.

There are many ways to practice self-compassion.

If you’d like to try more self-compassion exercises to shift that inner mean girl, I recommend these written exercises by Kristen Neff; they will help you build that inner voice of kindness and compassion.

Will it take away the hard stuff?

No. Of course not. Practicing self-compassion won’t make the difficult situations and hard emotions go away. But practicing self-compassion will help us trust that we will survive that hard stuff. When we show up for ourselves emotionally – the way we show up for a friend or loved one – we build courage and resilience in the face of those difficult situations and hard emotions.

Now go forth and be gentle on yourself.

We hope you enjoyed Healthy Weight Week and that it gave you some understanding and practical tools to make this year your year of self-care!


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About the Author

Ruth Goldstein, MS, RD

Ruth Goldstein is a Registered Dietitian whose primary focus is on whole foods nutrition and helping patients set practical goals that reflect their lifestyle and health needs. She believes patients are experts in their own lives and joins with them on their healing journey to provide support, encouragement, and direction. Ruth specializes in gut health, digestive issues & IBS, eating with chronic disease including Lyme and autoimmune disorders, disordered eating, emotional overeating, mindfulness, self-care, stress management and whole foods nutrition.

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