Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Self-Care 101: Addressing Self-Talk

One of the most wonderful things about my job is that I get to come into contact with amazing, compassionate, giving people--every day. My clients tend to be people who are very invested in making the world a better place. They care about the impact that they have on others, and are incredibly open to learning better ways to communicate and express that caring.

One of the issues that I regularly struggle with in my job is that these same amazing, compassionate, giving people treat themselves like dirt. They use language when talking about themselves that they would never consider using toward someone else. Here's a very small sample of what I hear on a regular basis:

* "I'm so stupid."
* "I'm disgusting."
* "I fail, no matter how hard I try."
* "I don't deserve people who care about me."
* "I'm an idiot."
* "I am not worthy time (or energy, or attention, or love).

On the one hand, I am floored that people who have so much compassion for others have such vitriol for themselves. On the other hand, I recognize that I have used language like this toward myself too. Somehow, we have gotten into the habit of viewing ourselves as "less than" and deserving of such self-punishing statements.

I believe that this tendency isn't an accident. I think that it is a combination of social factors, messages that we misunderstood, and challenges with shame and genuineness.

Social Factors

We live in a society that bombards us with messages about how we aren't measuring up: our bodies aren't measuring up, our sexual capability isn't measuring up, our parenting isn't measuring up . . . just take a look at the magazines in a checkout line. Criticism is packaged as tough love. Confident women are labeled "conceited" or "bitchy." And there are industries that benefit when we buy into these messages (e.g. diet, cosmetics, fashion, etc.). A huge chunk of our spending is focused on trying to get "good enough." I think that this barrage of messages about our failings takes a toll.

Misunderstood Messages

I think there is a challenging balance when children start to learn about self-language. Many parents and educators work to help children cultivate awareness of others and compassion for their experiences. This is incredibly important. However, in our effort to teach children to think about the experiences of others, we may inadvertently send the message that those experiences are more important than the child's own experience. This can lead to the feeling that your own feelings and needs are secondary to the feelings and needs of others. Over time, that message can lead to a sense that you don't deserve to have your feelings respected or your needs met.

Challenges with Shame and Genuine Self-Expression

This factor may be the most important contributor to the kinds of hurtful self-talk that I have experienced in my own head and that my clients express daily. The language and experience of shame is deeply embedded in our culture. My appreciation for the depth and breadth of our shame experiences was tremendously enhanced by Brene Brown's powerful work on Shame Resilience. She describes that work in her book "I Thought it Was Just Me (but it isn't)", which I will review in a later post. One of the most powerful take-aways that I got from reading her work was the idea that shame regularly interferes with our authentic expression of self. If we aren't expressing our true selves, it is difficult for us to develop confidence in our own value.

Sound Familiar???

If you have been reading this post and nodding your head, or if the short list of self-slamming statements sounded painfully familiar, then it may be time for a change. Our self-talk is the foundation of strong self-care. If we are bombarding ourselves with negative messages about our value, it is tough to commit to carving out time for exercise, meditation, reading, or any of the other activities that fill us up and nurture our bodies and souls.

So, if this post feels like I've been snooping in your head, then it's time to take action. Here are a few initial steps:

1. Assess your self-talk. Use a thought journal, notes on your phone or an old-fashioned "tick-list" to begin to increase your awareness of how frequently you are engaging in negative self-talk.

2. Challenge the negative. If you start to notice a pattern of negative self-talk, choose one of the most frequent negative thoughts and look for exceptions. For example, if your most common self-slam is "I'm so stupid," be active in noticing how you solve problems, display competency at work, provide what your friends or family need. Gather evidence to argue back.

3. Notice your feelings. Negative self-talk tends to spike when we feel shame, fear, or anxiety. It can create a vicious cycle of increased emotion, more negativity, etc. If you are noticing this, try breaking the cycle by naming those feelings without judgment.

4. Practice compassion. As you notice negative self-talk or difficult emotions, try extending yourself some compassion. Imagine that you are caring for a friend or loved one. Don't add to the negativity by blaming yourself for these patterns. We've all struggled with negative self-talk.

5. Add some positive energy. Be an active agent in trying to identify your own successes. Create some momentum around positive self-talk. It make take practice to feel comfortable with this, but our negative self-talk is not a reflection of our full self. Positive self-talk is not disingenuous--it's simply allowing yourself to see the full picture of your own value.

If you try some of these strategies, and you're still feeling stuck, it might be time to reach out for additional support.

What has been your most challenging piece of negative self-talk? What has been most helpful to you in shifting your self-language to the side of compassion and respect?

If this article connected for you, you may want to check out some of the current research on self-compassion, as highlighted in this article from the Wildmind Buddhist Meditation blog.