Thoughts are ‘mental events’ that enable us to make sense of ourselves, others and the world around us. They allow us to gain knowledge, make decisions, function in our daily lives and thrive.
The thoughts that we have about ourselves – and how we speak to ourselves – is called our ‘self-talk’. These thoughts tend to be relatively automatic; that is, they pop into our minds unintentionally and outside of our control.
Our self-talk reflects the relationship that we’ve formed with ourselves, as a consequence of the experiences that we’ve had with others – and our perception of these events. It’s shaped by our view of ourselves and events in the present, too.
When we listen to our self-talk, believe it and react to it (which we often do), it’s called fusion. We get drawn into the story that our thoughts are telling us – about us – and it affects us. Sometimes deeply.
Your self-talk might be quite compassionate, generally speaking; it might be very self-critical; it may be largely pessimistic. Tune into your self-talk over the next week and notice how you speak to yourself within the privacy of your own mind.
How often do you chastise or unhelpfully criticise yourself? How do you talk to yourself in challenging times? Do you praise yourself for the things you do well? Do you encourage yourself, and offer compassion when you’re suffering?
Some of us are very aware of our self-talk; others need to pause, reflect and consider this facet of ourselves. If you have recognised that you would like to be a little kinder to yourself, there are options to achieve this. It can be done!
Don’t avoid self-talk
Some of us try to avoid our self-talk, because it can feel threatening. When we believe it, our self-talk can trigger challenging emotions, physical sensations, more thoughts and reactive behaviours that might not help us.
Such avoidance is completely understandable; the urge to avoid discomfort (which is an early indicator of possible pain) is hard-wired into us. Unfortunately, avoidance tends to make things worse.
By avoiding our self-talk, we’re giving ourselves the message that these thoughts are ‘bad’ and to be feared. What’s more, as anyone who has tried this will know, we can’t run away from our self-talk for very long.
We can distract ourselves from it, we try and avoid it but we cannot escape it. It reflects the relationship that we’ve formed with ourselves and how we’ve come to view things – and this has happened for good reason.
So, what can we do when we experience unkind self-talk that doesn’t feel very helpful? The automatic thoughts will come to mind whether or not we like them. They’re outside of our control.
Fortunately, what we can control is how we respond to our automatic self-talk. With time and helpful experiences, our self-talk can change.
What’s more, we can learn a great deal about ourselves and achieve a greater sense of self- awareness – and self-acceptance – when we allow ourselves to really hear our self-talk and try to understand why it is the way that it is.
Noticing your self-talk
The thoughts themselves reflect our fears, past experiences and past pain. First, in response to your self-talk, simply notice it. You can support your mind to do this with phrases such as: ‘My mind is telling me … [insert thoughts].’ ‘I’m having a thought that … [insert thought].’
This will help you to remember that your self-talk consists of thoughts; they may, or may not, be true or helpful. Initially, your aim is to observe your self-talk, with openness, curiosity, compassion and non-judgement.
You’re aware of your mind thinking thoughts, and you’re choosing not to struggle against them. If judgemental thoughts do arise, try to name them for what they are: ‘There’s a judgemental thought’.
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Naming your inner voice
Self-talk that evokes emotional pain and stress can very easily ‘hook us’. We believe it, and we get lost in the story our mind is telling us. For instance, a person who has been bullied for years might criticise themselves a lot and reinforce this story.
Try to notice your self-critical voice, and name it when it occurs: ‘Ah! There’s my self-critical voice again’. By naming the voice, you can step outside of it – or defuse (detach yourself from it) – a little. This can help to lessen its impact because you aren’t caught up in the content of your thoughts – you are describing them with some distance.
After you’ve responded to your self-critical voice in this way, you can return your attention back to the present moment and refocus on what matters to you.
Alternatively, you can take some time to reflect upon the nature of your self-critical voice, what’s contributed to its development, and how you can take care of yourself when it’s present.
We can also refer to this voice that calls you names as ‘the voice of past pain’ – if that’s what it’s linked to. Alternatively, if it reflects your deeply held fears (of being unlovable, unwanted, incapable or unworthy perhaps) then we can refer to it as ‘the voice of fear’.
Once again, calling it what it really is helps us to ‘un-hook’ ourselves from the content of these kinds of thoughts, making it less likely that we’ll be swept away in their story.
Does your self-talk help you?
Tune into your self-talk and notice whether or not it helps you. For instance, a person may be at work and struggling with a task and they notice their mind saying: ‘I’m never going to be able to do this!’
They may begin to feel down, stuck and helpless. Does this self-talk help them? Alternatively, they could take the time to validate how they’re feeling, recognising that they’re struggling, and then ask themselves: ‘What can I do now, to help myself in this situation? … I can take a break for five minutes, get some fresh air and then ask my boss for help.’
Notice how this self-talk opens up the possibility of positive change, and a constructive way through a difficult, emotionally demanding situation.
See if you can introduce more compassion into your internal dialogue in response to unkind self- talk.
Offer yourself encouragement and support when you can. Speak to yourself gently, as you would to a loved one, with phrases such as:
- You’re doing the best that you can.
- You can’t be perfect. You don’t need to be.
- It’s not your fault, or it’s not all your fault.
- You’re human; you will make mistakes sometimes.
- You’re allowed to make mistakes; you can consider what you’ve learned and do things differently next time.
- You have your limitations, and that’s okay.
- You’re allowed to feel … (sad; angry; disappointed; anxious; happy; hopeful; proud of yourself, etc.)
- Your feelings are real, important and understandable.
- Your best is good enough.
It takes time, and beneficial experiences, to strengthen new beliefs. Start small, and make sure that you believe the kind things that you say to yourself. Otherwise, it’s called ‘empty positive thinking’ and it isn’t very helpful.
For example, a person might say to themselves ‘you’re allowed to make a mistake’, but they don’t actually believe, deep down, that it’s okay. Instead, say something like ‘you find it really painful when you make a mistake – it’s understandable’.
You might not yet be in a place where you believe that you’re allowed to make mistakes, but you can compassionately acknowledge your reality at the moment with constructive self-talk like this instead.
The Kindness Coach by Dr Sarah Jane Arnold is out now, in hardback, priced £7.99 (Michael O’Mara).
Photo by Candice Picard, Brooke Cagle, Priscilla Du Preez, Melody Jacob and Remi Yuan on Unsplash.