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How to Talk — and Listen — to Yourself

Self-improvement can seem like too much work if you don’t feel strong enough or you’re not quite sure you’re worth the investment.

People in Western cultures often find it difficult to be kind to themselves. Sure, we’re pretty skilled at self-indulgence, such as applying ice cream or scotch, going on buying sprees, or just letting ourselves off the hook when we don’t want to be responsible. But letting ourselves be irresponsible doesn’t work. What we need is a loving firmness that simultaneously creates enough safety and enough impetus to move us forward.

Unfortunately, the voices and words we use when we talk to ourselves are often so harsh and judgmental that we actually block the change we’re trying to browbeat ourselves into. For example, it does no good to tell yourself things like: “I’m an idiot!” “I’ll never be able to…” “That could never work for me…” or “I’m no good at…”

When Even Compassion Fails…

We can be so hard on ourselves that even in a structured instructional setting, we aren’t comfortable showing ourselves the kind regard we would show for others, including strangers.

In Stanford University’s Compassion Cultivation Training program, participants were instructed to practice compassion by first offering kindness and compassion to themselves, then to loved ones, then to acquaintances, and finally to strangers as well as difficult people, consistent with the progression for teaching compassion in the Buddhist tradition.

But attendees felt so personally undeserving that self-compassion didn’t seem appropriate or possible — not until the exercise was flipped to extend compassion first to loved ones, then to others, and finally, only after significant practice, to themselves.

Two Heads Are Better Than One

If you’re not enrolled in a formal program, you can experiment with some of these approaches:

Think of how you’d like to be treated by your best mentor or coach, and then imitate that in your treatment of yourself. If no one is working with you, work with yourself. If no one’s setting reasonable stretch goals for you, set them for yourself. If no one is providing analytical, developmental feedback, try to provide it for yourself — but do it the way a compassionate, analytical, developmental third party would, not the way you normally would.

Another effective technique prevents the kind of self-attacking tone and negative mental language that so many of us use with ourselves. Address yourself by name, as if you were another person. This approach might feel odd, but it creates a kind of distancing that lets your brain hear your direction differently.

Get on Your Own Team

When something has already gone wrong, comfort yourself, raise your own spirits, and then get a move on. For example, tell yourself, “It’s okay, Persephone, you were just being human. Let’s think about what we need to do now, or how that could work better next time. What if you tried X?”

In an inverse of the Golden Rule, you need to be willing to treat yourself as well as you would treat others. Don’t get caught up in the idea that you’re being undeservedly nice to yourself. Do your best coaching and cheerleading just as you would for someone else.

And whenever you succeed, be your own best fan. These practices will help you deliver more — and also work better with others.

Onward and upward,


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