Let's say you make a mistake or hear disappointing news. It could be a big deal to you (for example, you are rejected for a job you really wanted) or a minor affair (say, you burned the dinner). How do you talk to yourself in these situations?
For many people, negative and punishing self-talk can become a bad habit. You may not even notice how much you berate yourself, a point made in a Daily Mail article by Irish writer Maria Hoey last year. In it, she describes how she stepped on the weighing scales and was disappointed to see she had not lost any weight that week. She had, she explains, hoped to shed a few pounds prior to an upcoming holiday. So did she cheer herself and say, oh well, I'll do better next week? Or maybe congratulate herself for not gaining weight and for sticking to her plan of exercising more?
No. Rather, her thoughts went something like this. 'Of course, you didn’t lose any weight. I don’t know why you even bother going on diets. You never keep to them, you always fail. You’re a failure! Is it any wonder nothing in the wardrobe fits? You have no willpower. You’ve never had any willpower. You’re weak, you’re weak and you’re greedy and now you’ll look disgusting on the beach. In fact, you might as well just go and eat the giant Toblerone you hid at the back of the fridge. Just like you always knew you would".
On this occasion, it truly dawned on her what she was saying to herself and it struck her that if she had spoken that way to anyone else – a friend, for example – it would have been the end of their friendship. 'And rightly so', she writes. 'Because what person with any self-respect would stand for being attacked in that manner?' The words used – weak, greedy, no willpower, failure, disgusting – these are words she would never use towards people she cared about. If it was someone else, she would try and make them feel better about themselves by reminding them of what they had done right and encouraging them to do better. She would, she adds, 'never, ever, speak to another person the way I speak to myself on a regular basis.'
The thing is, many people talk this way to themselves all the time, so much so they barely notice the brutality and cruelty of the words they are using. Hoey describes how she often hears friends or acquaintances talking about themselves this way, using language that is ugly, hurtful, untrue and utterly unhelpful. 'I’m so fat. I’m so lazy. I’m so stupid. I’m such a pig! There’s no way I’d get that job. I know I’m going to make a mess of things. I’ll never find anyone to love me'. As Hoey points out, such sentiments are sometimes said in a jokey manner, other times they are uttered with deadly seriousness. Either way, the person is verbally abusing themelves, chastising themelves in a way they would never do to a friend.
Any therapist will tell you many of our clients talk this way. Similarly, any therapist will tell you that beating the daylights out of yourself is a really bad idea, one that feeds a whole host of psychological problems. There are various CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) strategies regarding how to manage this inner bully, but Maria Hoey offers a simple, powerful suggestion of her own.
'What if', she asks, 'we only ever spoke to ourselves the way we would speak to our best friend? What if that little voice in our heads, that oh-so-harsh inner critic was to change the language and the tone, and instead of criticism and abuse, it was to choose care and encouragement? What if it was to choose love; love for ourselves, love for myself? What if we were all to become our own best friend?'
None of us are perfect. We all have our faults, but becoming your own best friend doesn't mean pretending otherwise. Not being unkind to yourself, trying to be supportive and encouraging when things are tough – surely that isn't too much to ask?
(First published in Southern Star, 28/05/2020).