I’ve been reflecting on the negative and positive power of language. With friends and family, a word delivered in a moment of overwhelm and stress can damage a cherished relationship. In a professional interaction, a snarky comment can undo years of a mutually beneficial association.
Conversely, it’s easy to overlook how the words used when speaking with ourselves helps create our interior landscape. Since we are with us 24/7, our self-talk has more impact on our emotional and mental states than anyone in our lives.
Yet many of us walk around with a running commentary of negative self-talk that is deeply embedded. Simply pointing out that we should talk to ourselves like we would a friend negates the years of shaming that created injury to our self-worth and produced the negative self-talk habit. As Brené Brown says, "Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough." Making change from a place of feeling “small, flawed, and never good enough” can make the divide from knowing we need to alter how we speak to ourselves to implementation quite daunting.
So how do I start breaking the negative self-talk habit? you ask. The first step is to accept that shaming language has never and will never inspire healthy change. It just doesn’t work. If it did, you would have healed your self-talk wounds long ago.
Once you accept that shame is not an option, here are some action steps you can take to replace negative self-talk with loving language that can help you heal and grow:
To begin, it’s important to observe the words you use toward yourself. Pay good attention. Negative self-talk language can be sneaky. Words like “should have” are actually shaming. For example, “I should have worked harder today” is conditioned into us by our “do, be, achieve” culture and attempts to motivate via shame.
Try and catch the negative words you use most often. Write them down or type them into your phone. The simple process of writing them down will help break the thought that will inevitably cause a shame spiral. Some common negative self-talk words and phrases are: stupid, loser, not good enough, I’m bad at this, I’m not attractive, etc.
Commit to exploring where that negative belief originated. For example, if people comment on how much you look like your mother, and you grew up hearing your mother call herself “ugly”, it’s possible you have spent your life under the assumption that you are unattractive.
Another way to integrate positive and inspiring language into how you speak to yourself is by starting to call yourself by a word of endearment. We do this with partners, children, and even animals, but we rarely do it with ourselves. For example, calling yourself sweetheart or cupcake can make a huge difference in how you feel. It will feel strange at first, but after years of hearing or fearing or repeating unkind words to yourself, it will be a sweet nectar to your soul.
Be mindful that you will probably slip back into negative language toward yourself when you’re stressed and overwhelmed, but, over time, gently correcting yourself with an apology to self and an endearing word replacement, will help you along the self-talk healing path.
These action steps may appear simplistic, but the process can be harder than it seems. The harsh and unkind language was often used against us when we were vulnerable, typically in our formative years. At the time, we were unable to resist their impact, but now, like any weapon, we can remove them from our mental and emotional home.
One final additional benefit to learning how to speak to ourselves with caring and compassion is that when we integrate new, healthy self-talk practices, we become attuned to how others speak to us, making it easier to set healthy boundaries around how people communicate with us.
Watch this short The Ego Project video on how shame is never a teaching or learning tool.