Overcoming negative self talk is tough, but it shouldn't be. Think about it: From comforting words to bear hugs to encouraging text messages, you’re quick to shower others with support when they feel less than perfect. But cut to painful moments when you feel embarrassed or flawed: You hold back those very same gifts of love and acceptance. What gives?
“Society says women should be self-sacrificing and focused on helping others,” says Kristin Neff, Ph.D., author of Self-Compassion. “We grow up thinking self-kindness will make us selfish, but there’s a whole body of research showing these misgivings are untrue.” Neff cites studies in which parents of kids with autism, people going through a divorce and veterans returning from war had greater self-esteem and resilience when they used self-encouragement rather than judging or isolating themselves. “It seems obvious, yet we still somehow believe we’re better off skipping the support and cutting ourselves down,” says Neff. But doing so not only harms us, it has ripple effects on loved ones: In her research, partners rated self-compassionate mates as more giving, caring and patient than those who skimped on self-care. Why? “If you can recharge your own battery, you have more — not less — to give.”
Luckily, Neff says that once you start overcoming negative self talk and shift to a kinder inner dialogue, positive results follow: “I’ve been surprised at how drastically behavior can change almost immediately after people start being their own ally.” Read on for the strategies for cultivating the self-generosity you deserve.
Feeling “less than”?
After fumbling to connect with the women in your new walking group, you beat yourself up for not being more charming, confident and outgoing. “A lot of people aren’t even conscious of how hard they are on themselves, but being self-critical undermines confidence,” says Neff. “You’re less likely to reach out again because you know any perceived slipup means you’ll slam yourself.”
The Antidote: Ask this question. “What can be really helpful in a difficult moment like this is taking perspective, or asking yourself, What would I say to a friend to help her in this situation?” says Neff. You might empathize with her pain, buoy her self-image by talking up her awesome qualities, urge her not to blow the incident out of proportion or remind her that everyone struggles with feeling judged. “Women are experts at supporting others — you know just what to say and how to say it,” observes Neff. “You just have to remember to take the skills you use in other relationships and direct them inward.”
Made a mistake?
A week into your diet, you had a slipup, so you gave up. Now you’re mad at yourself for not sticking with it. “In a weird way, self-blame distracts you from the scary realization that discipline is only part of the equation,” notes Neff. “It’s easier to believe you’re at fault for being ‘lazy’ or doing something wrong than it is to acknowledge you don’t have total control over all the factors at play.”
The antidote: Take a bird’s-eye view. Create a balanced account of what happened by identifying the mitigating circumstances that led to your setback. Were you juggling extra responsibilities that made it hard to plan meals? Were you traveling? “You’ll not only temper self-criticism, you’ll also get some insight into what you could change to set yourself up for success next time,” says Neff. “People say, ‘This is just letting myself off the hook,’ but research shows when you’re kind to yourself, you’re more willing to take responsibility and do what you can to improve.”
Despite your diligent research on the best investments for your 401(k), off-the-cuff opinions from others make you second-guess everything. “When you say, I don’t trust myself, what you mean is, I don’t know this for sure and that feels dangerous,” says psychotherapist Tim Desmond, author of The Self-Compassion Skills Workbook. “When you’re more fear-based, you’re more likely to make rash decisions.”
The antidote: Go back in time. “Think of situations where you’ve gone into unknown territory and figured it out,” advises Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., author of The Stress-Proof Brain. Maybe you picked the ideal time to launch a side business or negotiated a great rate for a loan. “Our brains don’t like uncertainty, and the alert system comes on to protect us from loss,” she says. As a result, you put enormous pressure on yourself to make a perfect decision. “Bringing memories to mind where you followed your instincts and it worked out helps you see yourself as a person who can cope no matter what.”
Too nice to others?
There she goes again — that “friend” who’s always giving you backhanded compliments. You feel crummy after every run-in, but you keep tolerating her toxicity at your own expense. “There could be a voice inside saying, You don’t deserve respect, or If you lose this relationship, there’s no one else who’ll be nicer to you,” says Desmond. “But you teach people how to treat you by the way you treat yourself.”
The antidote: Find yourself a no-nonsense role model. “Ask yourself, Who are the people in my life that I know get treated the way I’d like to be treated?” suggests Desmond. Perhaps there’s a coworker who never seems to be targeted by the office bully, or a neighbor who always seems to receive letters of permission rather than denial from the homeowners association. “Think about the kind of relationships this person has and recognize that it’s possible for you to be treated that way too,” Desmond asserts. You may notice that your colleague never apologizes when voicing her opinions, and the guy next door might refuse to back down until his needs get met. Using their habits as inspiration, you can hone your assertiveness and reclaim your self-worth.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.