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How to Talk to Yourself

5 tips to improve your inner dialogue.

Key points

  • The way you speak to yourself can impact how you feel.
  • There is a difference between having high standards and being harsh on yourself.
  • Even though it may feel uncomfortable, praising yourself can improve motivation and performance.
Anthony Tori/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tori/Unsplash

As a psychiatrist, I have the privilege of sitting in the front row as people share with me their deepest thoughts, including how they think about themselves.

I may be influenced by the nature of my profession, but I am convinced that the majority of people are not kind to themselves. I struggle not to cringe every time I hear people speaking to themselves in a harsh and condescending manner. They say things such as:

“I am such an idiot. I can’t believe I messed up.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“I am such a failure. I don’t deserve to be happy.”

These phrases are a PG version of what I commonly hear. People would never speak like that to their pets, let alone another human being. But when it comes to themselves, the gloves are off.

The way you speak to yourself affects how you perceive yourself, which ultimately impacts how you feel. You can emotionally beat yourself only so many times before it starts to take a toll on your mental health.

It is essential that you are mindful of how you talk to yourself. Here are five steps to improve your self-talk:

1. Enhance awareness

The first step is to create the necessary space to observe your inner dialogue. We are often intertwined with our thoughts and berate ourselves without even being aware of it.

I often observe people speaking harshly to themselves during our sessions. When this occurs, I will bring the incident to their attention and ask them whether they noticed this. In the majority of cases, they are unaware of the derogatory language or condescending tone they used. This observation is consistent with evidence showing that the unconscious mind controls the majority of our thoughts and verbal language.

Slowing down to observe yourself in a non-judgmental way is the first step to enhance awareness. Practicing mindfulness can help you become more aware of your thoughts and how you relate to yourself.

2. Role play

When you feel the urge to lash out at yourself, press pause and ask yourself the following question: “How would I speak to a loved one going through a similar experience?”

Imagine that a loved one is walking in your shoes. Perhaps they scored poorly on an exam or failed to earn a job promotion. How would you talk to them? Would you berate them at their lowest point or would you provide support and try to uplift them?

How you speak to a loved one can serve as a blueprint for how to speak to yourself. If you are being harder on yourself than others, why the double standard?

3. Know how to criticize

Even though we often shy away from criticism, it can be a useful tool for improving behavior. The key is knowing how to frame criticism.

There is a difference between being harsh versus being hard on yourself. Acknowledging areas for personal improvement and working consistently on them is difficult. Holding yourself to high standards is also hard. However, such difficult measures can propel you towards excellence.

On the other hand, being harsh on yourself is a painful form of self-punishment that ultimately tears you down. As an achievement-oriented individual, you may be familiar, even comfortable, with this scathing approach. However, it is not helping you make progress towards your goals. The truth is you are reaching your goals despite being harsh on yourself.

4. Celebrate the victories

Though it can be constructive, criticism is only one approach to modify behavior. Another approach is to give yourself meaningful praise which can improve motivation and performance.

Giving yourself a pat on the back may feel uncomfortable. However, if you are going to criticize yourself for your shortcomings, make sure to also give yourself a pat for your victories. It’s only fair.

You don’t have to achieve any monumental goal to praise yourself. Showing up and doing your best, especially when you are not feeling your best, is an achievement in itself.

5. Keep a healthy perspective

We are excruciatingly aware of our shortcomings and quick to punish ourselves for them. Yet, we dismiss our strengths. This imbalance makes us more prone to shame rather than grace.

Remember that no human is perfect. Rather, we are a mosaic of strengths and weaknesses.

Life is a series of victories and failures. Your life cannot be complete without experiencing the sting of failure. Though painful, failure is a universal human experience that serves as the ultimate teacher. You are more likely to learn and grow from your failures instead of your achievements.

In summary, take a moment to observe how you talk to yourself. You can constructively criticize yourself without being harsh. Sprinkle in some meaningful praise to maintain a healthy balance.

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