Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Changing Self-Talk

Some days, if we overheard someone speaking to another the way we sometimes semi-consciously speak to ourselves, we’d feel compelled to intervene, unable to bear the cruelty and shaming we’d overhear. Lately I’ve had two small revelations about negative self-talk.

At Christmas I received a small monetary gift from a relative and decided to treat myself to some face cream I like that does not fit my current budget. I bought the cream and went to see an afternoon movie. I was half way down the block after the movie before I realized I’d left the bag with the face cream in it in the theatre. And yes, when I ran back, the cream was gone.

Disappointed I started to walk home, and that’s when my inner critic began berating me. “How stupid was that! May as well have just burned the money!”

My impulse was to tell the voice to shut up. But, something- some moment of grace- made me try something different. Instead of telling the critic to be quiet (which I was suddenly aware was just going to drive it into my unconscious where the self-shaming could continue covertly) I listened without taking it personally, with a kind of detached curiosity. What really surprised me was the tone of the voice- the vehemence, the rage. What was that about?

I felt like I was eaves-dropping. And I got that the self-talk I was hearing was not really about the current situation. It had been formed and was being unconsciously fuelled by my childhood terror of the consequences of not doing everything perfectly. Understanding this I wanted to sooth the fear, remind myself that perfection is not a possibility (and feel the relief in that) and that the consequences of most of our mistakes (like forgetting a bag in the theatre) are not dire, are just part of life.

Mostly, what I learned that day was that it is possible to hear the inner critic with compassion and in so doing disarm any destruction this voice could do. When I tuned into and softened to the fear behind the shaming, the voice of inner critic just lost its steam, faltered in its conviction and stopped pretty quickly. We don't have to ward off negative self-talk, we just have to hear the pain and fear behind it so we can bring real tenderness and mercy to even this aspect of ourselves.

Which brings me to my second revelation about negative self-talk: we can change the destructive element of the inner critic with small vocabulary adjustments.

Yesterday, after filling my water pitcher, I poured a glass before all the water had gone through the filter, flooding the counter, floor and my lovely woolly socks with cold water. “Well,” I thought, “that was. . . . .” I could hear my inner voice winding up to say “stupid,” but I paused for just a nanosecond and chose differently, completing the sentence with “silly” instead.

And what a difference a word makes! It made me laugh out loud. It was silly. I was distracted and the consequence was a wet counter, floor and socks. No big deal! But calling ourselves “stupid” can become a “big deal,” can be indicative of a semi-conscious self-shaming that does real harm and robs life of its joy.

Sometimes something we’ve done has more serious consequences than lost face cream or wet socks. Real mistakes- choices that cause suffering for us or others- are inevitable in a human life. But if we can soften our negative self-talk and bring some compassion to the fear that drives it when the consequences are small, perhaps we will be more capable of not putting ourselves or others out of our hearts when the consequences are more serious.

And, seeing lost face cream and wet socks as opportunities to practise softer self-talk, I am grateful for the silly mistakes I sometimes make.

Oriah (c) 2012


  1. This post absolutely comes at exactly the right time. My inner critic has been referred to by my counsellor, and was responsible for reducing me to despair after a teaching observation on Monday. The observation was a success... so I must temper the tone of my inner critic. Thank you xx

  2. How awesome and oh, so true. Thanks Oriah. I notice how often I cut myself off at the knees, when I do something wrong or can't figure how to do something right. I realize I'm playing old tapes and remember vividly my grandpa saying to me many times, "You don't have the sense god gave you." Learning to nurture my hurt, inner little girl feels good.

  3. Sometimes we just need to be heard. Your experience of stopping and listening to your reprimanding self, listening to its origin and thereby hearing what needed hearing thus enabling the hurt to be healed, is what I am experiencing through core process psychotherapy. Here I am given permission to pay attention to the slightest feeling, however fleeting and to really acknowledge that experience as part of me. In being heard, with some part of me (or another) witnessing my pain, then it really helps with the healing.

    Thank you for confirming that not pushing away/burying/hiding that which we are not happy with about ourselves is sometimes the right thing to do.


  4. Brenda- how powerful language is. To hear "You don't have the sense god gave you," - how bewildering and belittling for a child. One of the comments on FB was from a woman who said her mother used to call her "useless" when she did something "wrong." Made tears come to my eyes just to read it. And your description of how you "cut myself off at the knees," - really does accurately reflect the violence we do to ourselves in imitation of the violence that was verbally done to us early in life. Makes my heart ache- and that is a GOOD thing. When our hearts ache at this kind of thing it means we are bringing tenderness and mercy to places where there was once only harshness and judgement- and that's how healing happens.

  5. I love your post and can so relate to this. One of my blog postings explored our inner critical voice. My experience of the depth of how it can berate us internally was enlightening. Here is a link in case you want to read me back :)
    So glad to read that your pain has subsided, Laurel