The criticism is relentless.
What’s wrong with you?
You failed again.
I don’t know why you even try.
You just aren’t good enough.
You’d like to tune it out. Shut it down. Finally leave the naysayers behind.
Except it’s more complicated than that, because the negative voices are coming from inside your own head.
What if there were a way to get those voices in your mind on your side? To make friends with them?
The Day I Discovered Who Was Living Inside Me
I was walking off stress.
The sun was shining. The lilac trees blooming. With each step I felt the heaviness of the day’s worries lift a bit more.
I noticed the grass turned emerald with spring rain. Scanned for earthworms still along the surface of the soil. Watched a migrating goose land on the ridgeline of a roof and honk like a messenger.
But in the quiet of nature’s rhythms, I became aware that something more than nature and exercise was at play.
In the back of my mind, running as if on autopilot, was a conversation.
The stressed, overwhelmed part of myself was venting about the day’s frustrations. And another voice was countering. A voice of reason. Of compassion. Of hope.
I stopped and looked over my shoulder. Then I turned around in a circle, confused.
You see, my husband has always been that voice in my life. But he died of cancer five months ago.
When I recognized Don’s words in my mind, the experience was so distinct that I questioned whether he was somehow speaking to me from the other side.
How else could I explain it?
But as I slowly resumed my walk, now paying attention now to my own internal processing, I realized something.
I didn’t need an otherworldly visit to hear Don’s voice. He was with me because after 28 years together, I had internalized his words.
My best friend was living inside me.
You Can Become Your Own Supportive Friend
I’m one of the lucky ones.
We all have voices that play in the back of our minds. Some of those voices are kind and supportive. Others are destructive. I was fortunate to spend time with someone who helped me to develop a loving internal dialogue.
But you don’t have to wait for someone else to come along to create the same thing for yourself.
The process that psychologists recommend for building positive self-talk is actually a lot like chatting during a spring stroll with a friend. You can use it to become your own supportive friend.
I’d love to walk you through how.
Why it’s Time to Play Attention to How You Treat Yourself
The first step is increasing your awareness.
You might be thinking, Wait, if I weren’t already aware there’s an issue, why would I be reading this?
Of course you’re aware of at least some of your self-talk. But a lot of it also runs automatically, without conscious effort or attention your part.
Paying deliberate attention, at least for a while, will help you get a fuller picture. You’ll start to notice what have become an automatic processes, and you’ll pinpoint where your best opportunities are to change out helpful patterns for those that aren’t as effective.
Have you ever noticed that after you buy a new car, you suddenly see that same make and model on the road with far more frequency?
The actual numbers of cars on the road didn’t change overnight. You changed the settings on your brain’s filter for what’s important. You’re doing the same thing here. Once you let your brain know what you want to consciously notice, it will bring more of whatever that is to your attention.
And once you are aware of it, you can change it.
In the example of my spring walk, I noticed thoughts I hadn’t been paying attention to as I became more mindful. Slowing down and focusing on nature allowed me to create mental space. Sometimes I do the same thing in the gym or in a hot bubble bath. It can also be done curled up with a journal or laptop.
Do whatever works best for you to create mental space. And then use some of that quiet to reflect on the internal dialogue that has happened throughout the day.
- Do you speak to yourself as you would a treasured friend?
- Do you speak with wisdom and kindness?
- Do you hear yourself repeating the words someone else has said to you in the past—for better or worse?
You will gain a better perspective on what areas aren’t serving you. And you will start to notice future opportunities to talk to yourself as a treasured friend.
How Changing Your Language Will Make You Feel Better
The second step is reframing the self-talk that isn’t helpful.
When Don and were young, I had a favorite phrase, “Oh no, everything’s ruined!”
I use the word favorite loosely. I can’t say that I enjoyed that phrase, or the feelings it evoked. But I sure said it a lot.
It was the closest I could come to describing the feeling of panic and overwhelm that came over me when things didn’t go well.
Don thought it was funny. He understood that I was being irrational because of stress, and he made it his mission to help me reframe in a more positive way.
Me, “Oh, no! Everything’s ruined!” (The vacuum broke. We don’t have the money to replace it this month. We have white carpet and two toddlers).
Don, smiling gently, “The vacuum might be ruined. Or it might just need a new belt. I’ll look at it. But either way, It’s not everything. It’s a vacuum.”
With kindness and patience, he helped me reconnect to the rational part of myself.
I don’t remember exactly when I stopped saying “Everything’s ruined.” I just know that as I regularly reframed the words, the underlying panic started to come less and less often.
Eventually Don’s positivity became my new inner voice. By the day of my spring walk, it was so automatic that I had stopped paying conscious attention to it.
You can do the same thing for yourself. Here are three specific thinking traps that might be holding you back.
How to Escape the Trap of Black and White Thinking
Black and white thinking: It’s wonderful or it’s terrible. Perfect or disappointing. The problem with thinking this way is that most of what happens in life isn’t either one. If everything that isn’t perfect gets labeled as disappointing, that means that the majority of your life feels like a failure.
We live in multi-colored world. But when you see through a black and white lens, you’re missing all that variation. And a whole lot of beauty.
Let yourself notice the subtleties. Celebrate the ambiguities that that make up most of our existence.
- Parenting is overwhelming and rewarding.
- A career setback can become a better opportunity.
- Friends who care about you may still let you down occasionally
- Pain can be an opportunity for growth
Challenge yourself to look for shades of gray. Maybe the situation isn’t horrible. Maybe it’s just annoying. Then try the multicolor approach. Where can you find good in the situation, even if it’s one you never would have asked for?
I was using black and white thinking when I decided everything was ruined when the vacuum broke. The shades of gray perspective: we were inconvenienced by the need to repair or replace the vacuum at a difficult time. But that didn’t even come close to defining our everything. And if I approached it calmly, it didn’t have to cause me a lot of emotional drama either.
The multicolor perspective: I could have taken the situation as a challenge to learn how to fix the vacuum, and then savored the sense of accomplishment when I did. Or I could have said to myself, This is great! I’ve finally got an excuse to get new vacuum. Which one should I choose?
Once you’ve decided to see all the colors, you are free to be happy for the rest of the day. Why wouldn’t you be? There’s nothing terrible going on here.
How to Escape the Trap of Catastrophizing
Catastrophizing is dwelling on the worse-case scenario. And it makes an already challenging situation worse.
It increases your anxiety, making it harder to problem solve and find an actual solution. And it can even become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What to do instead:
- Interrupt your escalating emotions. Don helped me to do this with gentle humor. You could also do it with breathing. Quick tip: time your exhale to be twice as long as your inhale. It will activate the calming part of your nervous system. Or read about a more detailed breathing pattern here.
- Change your language: if you have a favorite phrase, like me, give yourself something else to say instead. “Things work out.” “It will be okay.” Don used to quote Daffy Duck, “Patience is a virtue. Patience brings good luck. It’s seldom found in humans, but never in a duck.” It was silly and little annoying. But it worked because it stuck in my head.
- Focus on the truth: Catastrophizing isn’t about truth. It’s escalating your fears and anxiety over a reality that doesn’t even exist. Focus on the truth instead. For me, that could be saying. “Everything’s not ruined. It’s a vacuum.” When you are specific and honest about what the situation is, it’s much easier to problem solve. I’m not capable of fixing everything. But I might be capable of fixing a vacuum.
How to Escape the Trap of Overgeneralizing
Your mind categorizes constantly. All of the information and images that come in through your senses would be completely overwhelming if your brain didn’t have a system set up to sort it. Most of the time you don’t even realize it’s happening.
Imagine yourself walking through a park. Look down. What do you see?
Except that’s a generalization.
There are actually thousands—maybe millions—of individual blades of grass. They are similar, but not identical. If you look closer, there other details you missed as well. Maybe there’s a dandelion. A sprig of clover. An earthworm or a lady bug or an entire city of ants.
Look further. Is there a piece of litter that someone dropped? A penny, reflecting in the sun? Maybe there’s someone’s lost wedding ring, hidden among the blades of grass.
On a busy day, being aware that you are walking on grass might be enough. So your brain gets in the habit of filtering out the rest of the details. But if you are looking for that lost ring, trying to paint a picture, or just seeking to enjoy your walk through the park more fully, generalizing is a handicap.
The same thing is true for your reactions to stress. There are probably times that you would be better served by tuning in to the full picture instead of settling for the shorthand version your brain serves up initially.
In my example, “Everything is ruined” was an overgeneralization. My brain took a shortcut from my feelings of discouragement and frustration and let one inconvenience hijack my perception of my whole life.
When you are feeling discouraged or overwhelmed, look for the details and the exceptions.
It also helps to check your time perspective. How much do you want this situation to influence you a year down the road? Ten years down the road?
Most of the time the answer is not at all, because even though you are frustrated, it’s really not that important.
In the case of those rare but truly life-changing events, this question gives you an opportunity to plan your choices according to where you want to end up.
Imagine Your New Friendship
Good friends are precious. Especially the kind of friends who lift you up when you feel down. Who make even the hardest challenges feel manageable. Who help you recognize the truths your heart already knows.
You can be that kind of friend to yourself.
Notice the times that you don’t speak kindly to yourself. They will point you to where you have developed thought patterns that are making you unhappy.
Reframe those negative thoughts. To replace them with something true. Something inspiring. Something that gives you the traction you need to solve problems and move forward in challenging situations.
It’s the least you can do for a friend.
Read more about how changing your thoughts can make you happier here.