We all talk to ourselves.
Some of us talk to ourselves out loud (I do this all the time while shopping!), and some of us speak to ourselves in our head. Talking to yourself is perfectly normal. We all need expert advice from time-to-time, right?
How much attention do you pay to what you’re saying to yourself? As you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing that you pay at least some attention to what you’re telling yourself. I’m also prepared to guess that you’re not overly kind, am I right?
As almost all of my clients will testify, I am on a crusade to stop people from bullying themselves.
Why do we bully ourselves?
Self-criticism starts as an attempt to protect ourselves when we’re young and, if you think about it, it makes sense. If we’re critical of ourselves first, it’s a lot less painful when other people are critical of us. They’re just pointing out what we already know.
The problem is that self-criticism is a significant driver for keeping your self-esteem low and anxiety high.
‘Your brain really does listen to you what you’re saying.’
The self-esteem feedback loop
Self-esteem works on a feedback loop. If we have high self-esteem, we’ll find evidence that we’re good enough. Our friends like us, work colleagues and bosses appreciate us, we’re able to do the things that we want, and life is mostly pretty enjoyable. All of this positive reinforcement keeps our self-esteem high even when life gets hard.
If we have low self-esteem, the same (but opposite) is true. We’ll find evidence that we’re not good enough, that other people are just pretending to like us and that we’re failures. This negative reinforcement only serves one purpose: to keep our self-esteem low.
How we talk to ourselves plays a MAJOR role in maintaining either high or low self-esteem. Your brain really does listen to what you’re saying. If you go through life telling yourself that you’re stupid, you’re going to believe that you’re stupid.
‘The next time that you have a self-critical thought think about what you’d say to someone you care about.’
Changing how you talk to yourself is essential if you want to feel happier and more confident.
Disappointingly, it’s not quite as easy as just not being self-critical. How you talk to yourself is a deeply ingrained habit which you’ve been practising daily (perhaps hourly or minutely) for years.
There are various ways of breaking habits. You could persist in telling yourself to stop being critical (although this often has a critical edge to it, and so defeats the object).
Or you could distract yourself every time that you notice that you’re being self-critical (I’m a fan of the classic rubber band technique. Put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it against your skin every time you notice that you have a self-critical thought. There’s no need to snap it hard enough to cause pain, that’s just not cool, snap it just hard enough to distract yourself.)
But my favourite way of breaking a habit is to replace it with a better one.
So, what habit could you build into your daily routine, which will naturally reduce critical thoughts AND actively boost your self-esteem? Self-compassion!
Self-compassion involves replacing our critical self-talk with kindness.
This can be easier said than done when you’re not used to it, so I’m going to tell you how I learnt to do it.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find it easy to be kind to other people. You don’t even have to think about being kind to others; it just happens. You can use this trait to your advantage.
The next time that you have a self-critical thought think about what you’d say to someone you care about and say that to yourself instead. If you routinely call yourself a stupid idiot because you accidentally knocked over a drink, think instead about what you’d say to your best friend. I bet that you wouldn’t call them a stupid idiot, would you?
I would say something like ‘Don’t worry about it; it’s only an accident.’
Every time that you’re kind to yourself instead of being critical, the positive feedback loop will be activated, and your self-esteem will go up.
Now, after years of bullying yourself, we have to be realistic about this. It’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to cut out all self-critical talk overnight, but that’s okay. It’s a work in progress and nothing to beat yourself up about if you occasionally catch yourself being self-critical. Just keep practising some self-compassion every time that you notice that you have a critical thought and over time how you speak to, and how you feel about, yourself will change.