Has this ever happened to you? You're late for an appointment and looking for parking. You end up driving right by a prime spot in front of your destination because there's a car on your tail and you feel bad about abruptly stopping, so you decide to drive around the block and go back for the spot but when you get there someone else has already grabbed it. This happened to me last week and my first reaction was to say to myself (using the unkind voice that lives in my mind), "Lisa, you idiot! You should have taken the spot when you first saw it." But lately I've been training myself to notice that unkind voice and what it's saying so I caught the thought pretty quickly. I consciously switched my inner dialogue and told myself "Lisa, it's OK. You are not an idiot. I love you." I immediately started to feel better. And of course I eventually found another spot!
This new practice of mine was inspired by writer and self-compassion guru, Kristin Neff. Her book "Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself" examines how self-compassion can be a game changer and it makes the important distinction between self-compassion and self-esteem. She says, "Self-compassion doesn't demand that we evaluate ourselves positively or that we see ourselves as better than others. Rather, the positive emotions of self-compassion kick in exactly when self-esteem falls down; when we don't meet our expectations or fail in some way."
I know I'm hardly alone in beating up on myself and calling myself things like "stupid" or "an idiot." We all have some version of a negative script that we default to when we believe we've f*cked up in some way. As Neff says, “self-compassion includes the recognition that the human condition is imperfect. It's also the understanding that all people are imperfect, and all people have imperfect lives.
I've noticed that inner bullying seems to happen frequently for women around diet and food. One of my clients recently said to me, "I can't believe I ate all that. I'm so disgusting." I've said things like that to myself countless times, partly out of habit and partly in the mistaken belief that somehow being hard on myself would increase my willpower and encourage me to make a different choice in the future. So it was great to be able to tell my client that using self-compassion instead of self-flagellation is actually much more likely to help her achieve her goals.
Contrary to our cultural belief that self-compassion is self-indulgent, self-compassion is actually more motivating than self-criticism.
When it comes to overindulging in things that give us a dopamine hit (like sugar, Facebook, online shopping, etc…) it's especially important to use self-compassion. We have trained our brains to believe if they keep clamoring for more dopamine we will give it to them, so the more we repeat the behavior, the stronger those brain habits (aka neural pathways) become until they morph into a form of addiction.
Giving in to overindulgence doesn't mean that you're weak, that you suck, that you're a loser or have no will power.
It means that you're human.
And here's some more good news: we can learn not to listen to the bully that lives in our minds by paying attention and being aware of her when she starts talking smack.
Yes, the simple act of awareness can start to weaken those neural pathways (aka old habits like that mean voice) and start building new ones. Begin by creating some space between yourself and the negative thought. Notice the difference between "I suck!" and "I'm having the thought that I suck"? That simple tweak can itself bring some relief. Then add some self-compassion into the mix. At first it may feel clunky or uncomfortable because we're not used to talking to ourselves that way but as a rule of thumb, say to yourself exactly what you might say to a good friend or someone you love. If your BFF called herself an idiot, chances are you would reassure her, remind her that we all make mistakes, maybe crack a joke and give her a hug.
Learning to give yourself the same empathy and kindness might feel foreign at first but with practice it will eventually become much more natural.
The more you get used to comforting yourself when you make a mistake the easier it gets when you do mess up and the less scary it is to make mistakes overall.
We already feel stressed and "under attack" every day. There's a constant bombardment of things competing for our attention at any given moment. Instead of adding to that negative load, start your own self-compassion challenge and see what a difference it can make.
With love and compassion,