Our brain generates thousands of thoughts each day, including the internal dialogue that runs in our heads. It turns out the tone of our internal dialogue has a significant impact on our mood and well-being.
For example, how many times after we make a simple mistake, do we say, “boy, that was stupid, or “what an idiot.” Just reading these words might have made you cringe. You can feel the judgment and shame seeping through their harsh tone. Yet sadly, this is how many of us talk to ourselves when we make even the smallest of mistakes, making us feel even worse about a situation that is already challenging
If we pull the layers back on this self-critical voice, we can often find it’s rooted in several places. Maybe we grew up in a family where we heard these messages when we made a mistake or did something displeasing to our parents. Maybe we had a critical teacher who used demeaning remarks for classroom discipline. However it happened, this negative thought pattern can easily become a part of our internal dialogue; this “self-critic” makes judgments about ourselves and our lives. We can even believe that being “stern” with ourselves we can prevent ourselves from making further mistakes; somehow if we are mean enough, we won’t do that stupid thing again. What researchers like Dr. Kristen Neff the author of “Self-compassion” have discovered is that rather than help us, this harsh, self-critical voice left unchecked can send us into a spiral of negative feelings that keeps us stuck in an emotional pit.
But here’s the good news; there is another way; self-compassion. Dr. Neff has discovered that by using self-compassion, we can soothe our jagged emotions to help us manage them more effectively. She defines self-compassion as “treating ourselves the way we would a friend who is having a hard time”. So rather than criticizing ourselves when we make a mistake, we say something warm to ourselves like, “What you’re going through is really hard. Life is full of many challenges. May I be kind to myself in this moment”.
It turns out this gentle self-talk increases more positive neural network activity that leads to greater emotional resiliency; the ability to “bounce back” from the difficulties that are a part of life.
So the next time, you find that internal critic speaking harsh words, stop, take a breath and try a different dialogue “You made a mistake, that’s only human- be kind to yourself” You will be doing yourself a giant favor.
Nancy Walters is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist #101213. She is supervised by Dave Shinoda, LMFT #46558.