Here's a story I tell in How to Be Sick:
At a retreat in the late 1990s, Buddhist teacher, Mary Orr, told us an eye-opening tale. She was in the middle of a harried day in which she had too much to do and too little time in which to do it. At one point, while in her car, she realized she was talking to herself in a way she would never talk to others. I don't remember her exact words, but I remember their impact. They resonated with me because of their similarity to the way I often talked to myself:
"How stupid of me to take this route; it's always full of traffic."
"I'm so dumb, I forgot to bring my notebook."
"You clumsy idiot, you dropped your drink again."
Mary's story was a wake-up call for me. Would I ever call a friend "dumb" or "stupid" or an "idiot"? No! Inspired by her words, I took up the practice of what Buddhists call metta which means loving-kindness or friendliness. The usual instruction for cultivating metta is to start with yourself. So I did.
When I noticed that I was speaking harshly or unkindly to myself, I stopped and reflected on how I'd never talk to others that way. Then I worked on speaking more gently to myself. After several months of determined practice, that inner critic gave way to a more compassionate voice. I'd become my own friend. "Isn't Buddhism wonderful?" I thought.
Then I got sick and that "new me" unraveled. In 2001, I contracted a viral infection while on a trip to Paris. In fact, because I'm mostly house-bound and often bed-bound, it has cost me dearly in many ways.
The first few years after becoming sick, I blamed myself for not recovering—as if not regaining my health were a failure of will, somehow, or a deficit of character. This is a common reaction for people to have toward their illness. (It's not surprising, given the barrage of advertising claims that suggest we can stay forever young and illness free, but if illness does strike, it's easily fixed with the right prescription drug.)
My inner critic was back with a vengeance, engaging in just the kind of self-talk that Mary Orr had described:
"You look like a fool to your colleagues by not getting better."
"You've ruined your family's life."
It took me years to realize that talking to myself in this way not only added mental suffering to the physical suffering of the illness, but also made my physical symptoms worse. After all, emotions are felt in the body.
And so, with Mary Orr's story still vivid in my mind, I began again. I tried to catch self-critical thoughts as soon as they arose. Then, without judgment (after all, we can't control what thoughts pop into our minds), I used a calm and gentle voice to turn those thoughts around. Initially, this new voice felt fake, but I persisted, following another basic metta instruction: even if it doesn't feel genuine at first, do it, because you're still planting a seed. Surely enough, gradually, that voice did become genuine. And, as it became genuine, the negative self-talk began to fade, eventually losing its grip on me.
"You've ruined your family's life," became "Unexpected things happen in life; we're in bodies and, despite our best efforts, sometimes they get sick."
It's been almost ten years since I got sick. I still hope I'll wake up tomorrow with my health restored. But should that not happen, I feel fortunate that it won't affect my friendship with myself. It's iron-clad now. It's unconditional.
© 2011 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books. The theme of this article is expanded on in all three of them:
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.
See also "How to Talk to Yourself."