Be Your Own Best Friend by Changing Your Negative Self-Talk
Most of us are quite adept at talking to ourselves. We tend to have an internal dialogue going on all the time. Unfortunately, more often than not, that dialogue is dominated by negative self-talk — what’s often called the inner critic.
In our self-talk, we are harder on ourselves than we are on others. This comes from habits developed in childhood, when we might have repeatedly been told that we should always be on top of things; we should always have control of our moods; nothing less than perfect will do. We don’t demand these things of others, so it’s cruel to demand them of ourselves.
This takes me to the current pandemic. For some reason, during this time of sheltering in place, I’ve been tougher on myself than usual. My self-talk has not always been kind (I tend to talk to myself in the second person):
You’re doing too much;
You’re not doing enough;
You should be enjoying having all this time to yourself;
What’s wrong with you? You seem to be the only person [a nice exaggeration] who doesn’t love using Zoom and other video apps to keep up relationships.
I could go on, but I’ll stop here. Thankfully, I realized a few weeks ago that this kind of self-talk was only making a difficult situation worse. So I’ve been making a concerted effort to change how I talk to myself. And, as the title of this piece suggests, it’s changed my “shelter in place” life.
I have two “practices” I want to share that have been tremendously helpful to me, but first I want to address the last item in my indented list: video chats. Out of necessity, we’ve had to replace face-to-face interactions with connecting through a video screen. I was getting down on myself for not seeming to thrive on this new medium. Then I started seeing articles online that made me realize I was not alone in feeling that being with others on video instead of in person can make people feel uneasy and dissatisfied.
Italian professor Gianpiero Petriglieri tweeted about video chats: “Our minds are tricked into the idea of being together when our bodies feel we’re not. [This] dissonance is exhausting. It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence.”
Those particular words “the constant presence of each other’s absence” resonated strongly with me. I realized that I was blaming myself unfairly — that my feeling of being disconnected from others was due to the “medium” not to some fault in my ability to connect with others. (If you’ve found this to be the case for you, I encourage you to read the article in The New York Times: “Why Zoom Is Terrible.” This is not to say that Zoom and other video apps aren’t better than nothing, or that all people struggle with them. But if you do and, like me, thought it was some fault of your own, you’ll feel differently after reading this article.)
Now, here are my two suggestions for turning your self-talk around during this time of sheltering in place.
#1: Substitute Envy (and Its Cousins) with a Feeling Happy for Others
I was struggling with envy and its cousins — resentment, jealousy, even anger. They’d arise when I’d hear people talk about how much they were enjoying the solitude of sheltering in place, and of not having a “To Do” list, and of being able to tackle projects they’d been putting off for years, etc.
Even though I, too, enjoy solitude, I can’t say I’m always enjoying sheltering in place. My daily schedule seems to have gone haywire (I’m not even sure why). I miss being with people in person. I miss having had so many choices taken away from me. And I sometimes worry about family and friends (one of my nephews came down with COVID-19, but, thankfully, appears to have recovered).
As I’d listen to other people (usually on Zoom or FaceTime) describe how well they were doing, envy (and sometimes resentment) would arise. These two are hard enough to bear, but then I’d make myself doubly miserable by blaming myself for feeling that way. Envy or resentment + self-blame = a lot of mental suffering!
In an effort to ease this suffering, I turned to a practice I learned many years ago from the teachings of the Buddha. It’s called mudita (pronounced moo’-dee-tah), and translates as empathetic joy or as joy in the joy of others. After some reflection, I said to myself “Why shouldn’t I feel happy for others even if it’s not a situation that is making me feel particularly happy?” To practice mudita, as soon as I’d begin to feel envy towards another, instead of blaming myself for feeling that way, I’d immediately turn that envy into happiness for the person in question.
This practice…and it does take practice…is the perfect antidote for envy, resentment, and other painful thoughts and emotions that can arise when you encounter a person who is enjoying something you’re not (such as Zoom) or is thriving on an experience more than you are (such as being in solitude).
And, this practice is also the perfect antidote for the negative self-talk that tends to accompany these types of painful thoughts and emotions. In my experience, mudita stops self-blame in its tracks, and that brings with it peace of mind.
To summarize. Take that negative self-talk (for example, “It’s so petty of me to resent her for enjoying being at home all day”) and see what it would feel like to feel happy for that person. Not only will your envy or resentment subside, but so will your negative self-talk.
One more point. In my experience, there’s a certain magic to mudita. Once you commit to practicing it, at some point, you’ll not only feel happy for others but their joy will be your joy, meaning you’ll feel happy yourself.
#2: Cultivate Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is my “go to” practice when I’m not feeling good…and negative self-talk definitely does not feel good. How do I practice self-compassion? I talk to myself as gently and as kindly as I can. That’s all compassion is: being kind and caring.
Here’s how you can do this. Whenever you notice that you’re speaking harshly or unkindly to yourself, first, stop and reflect on how you’d never talk to others that way. Then come up with words to say softly or silently to yourself — words that specifically address in a kind way whatever difficulty you’re currently facing. Here’s just one example related to this pandemic: “It’s hard not to be able to be with friends and family in person. It’s not my fault that I feel so sad right now. It’s completely understandable.”
Be sure to use a calm and gentle voice as you turn your negative self-talk around. And don’t worry if it feels fake at first. Just keep doing it because you’re planting a seed. Gradually, your kind and caring self-talk will become genuine. And, as it becomes genuine, your negative self-talk will fade, eventually losing its grip on you.
I hope you’ll try some of my suggestions. These are hard times for almost everyone. Adding self-blame to the mix only makes things worse. I’m reminded of a lyric from a Jimmy Dean song: “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails.”
This is the challenge facing all of us during these says of sheltering in place — being able to adjust our sails. It would be nice if we could control the direction these next few months will take but, aside from taking careful precautions, there’s little we can do to control the wind. But we can skillfully “adjust our minds” by not blaming ourselves for how we’re feeling. We can also practice “catching the wind” of compassionate thoughts so that they flourish in our minds and bring us peace.
Negative self-talk is a habit. The good news is that we can change our habits and, by doing so, become our own best friends.