You make a mistake, have a bad day, or catch a bad angle in the mirror. What goes through your mind?
“Ugh, I look terrible!”
“Oh my gosh, I’m such an idiot!”
“Why am I so bad at everything? No wonder everyone hates me.”
This kind of negative self-talk is the norm for many of us. But would we ever say those words to a friend?
We’ve all been there. I’ve found myself looking for ways to love myself and treat myself with a little more ease, too, especially when I’m having a tough day. But when it comes to self-talk, we’re often our own worst critics.
So how can you learn to treat yourself with a little more compassion and caring?
We All Want to Love Ourselves
Self-criticism, comparison, FOMO…we all experience it. We’ve all gone through the feelings that we’re never quite enough, we’re running from one activity to the next, but we never cross off items on our to-do list.
All of this stress can leave us like we’re failing ourselves, and we’re failing those around us. We might not experience the level of success we want; we might make a mistake, cringe at an embarrassing moment, or blow off our achievements as ‘dumb luck.’ Most of us are way more aware of our faults than our accomplishments.
Learning how to love myself is a tall order. So rather than wondering how to love ourselves, let’s explore how to be more kind to ourselves, treat ourselves more affectionately, and with a little more compassion.
Of course, I want a world where we all love ourselves entirely and realize what a gift each person brings to the world. But that’s a big wish. It’s easier to start by learning to be a little sweeter to yourself, a bit more affectionate, kinder, and more compassionate.
Research demonstrates that self-care and self-compassion are surprising antidotes to stress, procrastination, and negative thinking. Self-kindness makes us healthier, helps us create emotional resilience, keeps us motivated, and continuously developing. Best of all, it’s free!
It may seem like a touchy-feely concept or an idea that’s a bit silly, right?
But listen the next time you’re trash-talking yourself. We can be genuinely mean to ourselves—way worse than we would ever be to someone else. If someone spoke that way to a friend, you’d expect them to feel terrible, right?
Why You Are Your Own Worst Critic
So why do we treat ourselves as an enemy? We can blame our tendency to trash talk ourselves on evolution. We each have what’s called a “negativity bias” where negative experiences are given more weight, seeming more significant than they really are.
If we think about this, it makes a lot of sense. Back in the days of our early ancestors, if you learned that a particular plant was poison, or a bear hung out near a specific area, you’d train yourself to avoid those dangers. Today, we don’t need to forage for food or run from bears, but we still remember negative experiences more vividly than positive ones.
As psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Rick Hanson says, our inner critic (nit-picking, scolding, fault-finding) is big and powerful. Our inner nurturer is often small and ineffective. Adding to that is the inferiority complex that Alfred Adler determined we all have. We all hold mistaken beliefs where part of us thinks:
- I’m not good enough
- I’m too much
- I’m not loveable…
…And other withering thoughts. Every lapse, mistake, misstep, or failure, is an example of us not meeting our goals, feeding our mistaken beliefs about ourselves. It’s as if we’re unconsciously seeking evidence in a self-fulfilling prophecy that often leads to ruminating thoughts where we kick ourselves over and over.
Self-compassion is a critical anecdote to these limiting beliefs. When we practice self-compassion, we build empowering beliefs about ourselves:
- I am enough.
- I am loveable.
- I don’t need to be perfect to be loved.
- I am safe.
- I am okay.
Now, I’ve talked to people who think self-compassion sounds hokey or even damaging. Some people buy into the myths about self-compassion—it’s selfish, lazy, and indulgent. We may worry we won’t accomplish as much if we’re kind to ourselves, or we’ll lack motivation. We may fear self-compassion will make us complacent, and we’ll lose our edge. We don’t want to take ourselves off the hook.
But research debunks these myths. Self-compassion doesn’t make us weak or self-indulgent. Self-criticism isn’t a good motivator. In fact, self-compassion creates inner strength and the resilience that contributes to health and wellbeing. Self-compassionate people even tend to make fewer excuses. When we’re kind to ourselves, we feel more motivated toward our goals. We increase our standards and personal sense of responsibility, resulting in even higher performance.
Self-Criticism and Self-Confidence Both Don’t Work–It’s All in the Brain
So what’s the difference between self-compassion and having good self-esteem? We may have heard about improving our self-esteem (boosting our view of ourselves) or our self-confidence.
In study after study, research demonstrates that focusing only on self-esteem isn’t sufficient. Instead, focusing on self-compassion—being kinder to ourselves and others—works. While this may sound strange at first, when you think about it logically, it makes a lot of sense. People who have self-compassion are comfortable discussing their shortcomings and mistakes. They can admit their faults, which ultimately lead to better outcomes, resilience, and risk tolerance.
So if you worry you’re just giving yourself a pass when you love yourself a little more, don’t fret! You won’t become too soft on yourself, lazy, or indulgent. Self-compassion creates inner strength and resilience.
When you criticize yourself, you’re activating the primitive part of your brain—your amygdala or reptilian brain, focused on threats and defense. You’re actually beating yourself up and stirring your fight, flight, or freeze impulse. This habit increases anxiety and stress and takes a negative toll on our bodies.
When we talk kindly to ourselves, on the other hand, we activate the mammalian part of our brain. We’re able to calm and soothe ourselves. Instead of fight, flight, or freeze, we learn, grow, and take appropriate action.
So is it easy to treat ourselves with self-compassion? We’ve spent years focusing on what’s wrong, so it takes some effort to be kinder to ourselves. But the effort pays off way more than focusing on self-esteem or self-confidence. When we treat ourselves with compassion, we’ll achieve more.
You may worry, “if I love myself more, I’ll get too easy on myself. I’ll never get anything done.” But it’s the opposite. There are so many benefits to treating ourselves with a little more compassion and sweetness.
So you say something stupid. It’s not the end of the world. Someone doesn’t like you. It’s okay! You make a mistake—you aren’t the mistake; you just made a mistake. Shifting your mindset is challenging, and it takes practice. I know when I’ve read reviews of my work, I might see ten positive reviews and ONE negative review. Guess which one sticks with me? We replay the negative critiques in our head over and over, ignoring the positive when really we should shift our focus.
Being kinder to yourself is a REALLY big deal. It doesn’t come overnight. It takes steady effort and training. When I start to play the negative tape in my head, I have to step back and go, “Woah, wait a minute.” Sometimes it helps to ask myself, “Is this really true? Am I really the worst person in the world? Am I worthless?” Of course not!
If you beat yourself up, don’t beat yourself up about it, either! This negative mindset is hard to overcome and deeply embedded in our core beliefs. We all have these beliefs and carry them with us. It’s a work in progress!
What are Some Bite-Sized Ways to Love Yourself?
I just had a session with someone who struggles with self-compassion. She told me a story about something that she did last night. She took a risk and messaged a really powerful woman she admired professionally. She asked if she wanted to get coffee sometime.
The woman replied and said yes, she’d be excited to meet. It was a really successful, brave encounter for my client. She had put together a plan to celebrate this achievement and took time after the email to tell herself, “Well done! Good job! Way to go!”
So what are some ways we too, can celebrate our achievements and give ourselves compassion?
- Praise Yourself. While this may feel silly at first, it is effective. Praise yourself when you do something difficult or scary. Use encouraging words like you would for a kid. Tell yourself, “Way to go! I did it!”
- Assess How You Speak to Yourself. Notice how you speak to yourself, too. Before you work your self-compassion muscle, you need to notice the ways you aren’t kind to yourself. Start to identify those times when you undermine yourself with negative dialogue or self-criticism. How often do you think thoughts like, “I’m an idiot. Why did I do that? What’s wrong with me? I can’t do this.” Awareness of these thoughts will help us shift to more effective thinking instead.
- Use Your Name. It’s also effective to use your name as you praise yourself. So I’ll say, “Good job, Judith!” or, “Wow, Judith, you really rocked that presentation.” When we use our name, it activates the social circuits of your brain. Socially we’re much kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Using your name turns keeps the threat system from activating, and helps us speak kindly in our self-talk.
- Forgive Mistakes. When you mess up, don’t beat yourself up. Use a kinder dialogue, “I made a mistake; it’s human. It doesn’t mean I’m a terrible person. I can learn from this and do better next time.” If this approach feels weak to you, it may help to know Navy Seals found this type of self-talk effective in increasing recruits’ success during challenging training sessions!
- Name it. I’m also a big fan of the idea that we name it to tame it. At you work on your social-emotional intelligence, naming your feelings helps you experience them without getting weighed down by them. Let the feeling pass through you without overthinking, beating yourself up, or analyzing it. Simply say, “I’m afraid,” “I’m sad,” “I’m angry,” or “I’m hurt. This technique calms our fight-flight-freeze response, allowing you to simply “be” with your feelings.
- Soothe Yourself. Finally, look for ways to soothe yourself. Think of ways you can help yourself feel better during moments of self-criticism. This could mean calling a friend, getting a hug, hugging yourself, listening to music, snuggling with a pet, rocking in a chair, or swing…the list is endless. Identify and write down some of these tools, so when you have a moment of frustration, you can turn to the tools to help.
Self-compassion is important. If you want to love yourself more, start speaking more kindly and compassionately to yourself. You are indeed a gift to the world. Treat yourself like you would treat a friend—with kindness and understanding!
For more ways you can grow and learn, please visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for our upcoming More Life Training. You’ll connect with others on their transformational journey and learn more about yourself. This is a great way to bring peace, meaning, and happiness to your life and relationships!
Wright Living is a division of the Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential, a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.