The Superpower of Compassionate Self-Talk

Photo by  Tim Mossholder  on  Unsplash

I recently hit an emotional roadblock. It sparked from a conversation with a friend about some barriers at work. A slew of negative thoughts crept in whispering, “You are lazy. You are going to fail at this. You need to be managed like a child”. I noticed these thoughts and immediately voiced them aloud to my friend, who of course, refuted everything. I wanted to believe his encouragement and kindness, but my own words had already become a stronghold. Discouragement and a deep sadness flooded in.

The next morning, I woke to the heaviness of apathy and disappointment. The words continued to be difficult to shake off. I knew my internal dialogue was not only unfair and unkind, but also counterproductive to where I needed to be. Throughout the rest of the day, I was mindful of the pain, and reframed my thoughts to be gentle and compassionate: “You’re feeling pretty disappointed right now about not reaching some of your goals. You wish you had more follow through. It’s okay that you’ve been feeling stuck.” Something shifted the moment I tapped into some self-compassion. By the end of the day, the heaviness was gone and a newfound determination kicked in. 


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Our inner dialogue reflects our deepest vulnerability. It holds so much power over how we view and treat ourselves, and how we are able to engage with the world. In my work as a therapist, it's common for me to hear statements such as “I’m so stupid”, “I’m useless”, “I am the biggest failure in the world”, “I don’t deserve anything good to happen to me”.

These words are deeply painful and defeating. We would never say these statements to anyone we care about, even to strangers, but allow this to be a familiar repertoire of self-talk. What this reveals is that we are often harsher and more cruel to ourselves than we are to anyone else. Some view this negative self-talk as a motivator to improve or change, whereas others become attuned to the vicious internal cycle that deepens symptoms of anxiety and depression.
 

What does it look like to have self-compassion? 
(Hint: It’s actually the same as
having compassion for others)


The Latin meaning of compassion is to “suffer with”. Compassion first requires one to notice that someone is suffering. Next, it involves feeling moved to respond to the pain present. By doing so, we activate the feelings of warmth and care, and a desire to support that person. Lastly, compassion recognizes that suffering, failure, and imperfections are all a shared human experience.

Dr. Kristin Neff is a leading expert on self-compassion and has done extensive research on the subject. She describes self-compassion as “acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself”.

When others make mistakes or fail, we are able to be understanding and kind. We can postpone judgement when we notice their pain, and are moved to respond in some way by offering empathy and encouragement. 

In the same way, self-compassion does not mean we ignore our pain. Rather, it requires us to be mindful of our negative feelings - neither suppressing nor exaggerating them. We pause any judgment or criticism, and in that moment, give comfort and care. When we can accept our imperfections and failures as being human, we are then able to be gentle with ourselves when faced with difficult experiences. Self-compassion does not change the reality of the suffering we are experiencing, instead it comforts and empowers us to bear with the pain.
 

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THE POWER OF SELF-COMPASSION

Research has revealed a number of benefits of self-compassion. Practicing self-compassion has been linked to greater mental well being and self-esteem, better interpersonal relationships, and an increase of motivation and responsibility. It has been observed that lower levels of anxiety and depression are found in individuals with higher self-compassion. This is because they are able to recognize when they are in pain, and to be kind to themselves in that very moment.

“Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.”
- Brené Brown


Self-compassion is essential, because we are human beings worthy of love.


As we are able to keep our hearts open to ourselves, the more we are able to give to others. Cultivating a compassionate self-talk also gives way to deeper connections and relationships with others. When we are able to love ourselves, we are then able to fully love others.

Whenever I encourage clients to talk to themselves as if they were addressing a friend or loved one, the language immediately changes. The tone softens, empathy and validation becomes the driving agenda, and the perspective shifts to one of curiosity and hopefulness. Self-compassion is a life-changing superpower.
 

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I have seen in my own life, as well as in others, how compassionate self-talk is transformative throughout the day-to-day experiences. Here are three ways you can begin to cultivate a compassionate self-talk:
 

1. PAY ATTENTION WHEN PAIN IS PRESENT.  

Tune into what you are feeling when you encounter disappointment, failure, or uncertainties.

Perhaps you are at a social gathering and everyone is engaged in laughter and lively conversation, except for you. No one seems interested in connecting with you, and you get shuffled into the corner of the room.

Are there feelings of shame, anxiety, sadness, or fear coming up? Be mindful of what you are experiencing and don’t numb or judge any feeling.

I’m feeling invisible, unimportant, hurt, and left out.


2. TALK TO YOURSELF LIKE YOU DO TO SOMEONE YOU LOVE. 

Picture yourself speaking to a loved one who is experiencing suffering. What do you say? Treat yourself with kindness as you would a good friend and offer yourself words of encouragement, patience, and empathy.

Using the second or third person point-of-view, frame statements situationally rather than as a character judgement: “You’re feeling disappointment by…” rather than “You are a disappointment”. Changing the pronouns wires our brains to be more receptive to the message.

That event really sucked. You felt so lonely and wished someone had noticed you and offered a friendly word. You went because you wanted to be more connected to people, but that just felt so discouraging. Taylor, you were pretty brave by taking a risk to go in the first place.


3.  ACCEPT YOUR IMPERFECTIONS AND FAILURES AS BEING HUMAN.   

We all encounter heartache, disappointments, and suffering. These are all universal human experiences, and we are not alone in them. Even as we experience painful and uncertain circumstances, know that you are deserving of support and compassion. When we are able to mindfully accept our selves, flaws and all, we posture ourselves for growth and transformation.

You aren’t very social in large groups and shy away from initiating conversations. You aren't the only one to feel invisible and left out. You didn’t enjoy that experience at all. Next time go to a smaller gathering, so you feel more comfortable. You are worthy of connection and love.

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One last note: I’ve found that it’s often super helpful to externalize our thoughts - this could be voicing them aloud or simply jotting them down. There is something powerful about separating our self-talk from our physical being. If you would like to be in a regular practice of compassionate self-talk, I’d recommend using a journal or trying out Moodnotes (a pretty amazing app for tracking thoughts).
 

Treat yourself with compassion and kindness today.