According to Dr. Deepak Chopra, we have 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day (see www.DeepakChopra.com). While the actual science behind that statement is sketchy, lets assume for the moment it is mostly true. If we take the average of these two numbers, that means we have nearly 3,000 thoughts per hour and 50 thoughts per minute. About a thought every second, more if we only count our waking hours. How many of those thoughts would you say are consciously positive towards yourself? How many are critical? What you say to yourself becomes a habit, which becomes your mantra, which you eventually believe, which becomes your life. Think of the Little Engine That Could, he repeated, “I think I can, I think I can…” and he did.
Quite often I find myself trash-talking in my head. “Ok, that was stupid…You know, if you were a little smarter things like that wouldn’t happen…Ugh, I’m so terrible at that…I don’t know how to do that, so I can’t…I’m just going to screw it up…” Sometimes I get into a rut. I think of all of the things limiting me instead of how great I could be. That kind of self-talk lowers my vibration and makes me dig deeper and deeper into that rut. You know where that gets me? Stuck.
Getting out of that rut takes conscious effort. First, you have to be aware of the problem. Second, you have to practice. Like a muscle you haven’t used in awhile, positive thoughts take time to build up. Third, put it all together and turn the Golden Rule back around on yourself. Think of how you would treat a friend, then treat yourself the same way. Finally, use this new skill by challenging it with a situation where talking down to yourself might seem reasonable. It will all seem silly at first. Positivity is so rare in our culture that people who possess it are often seen as naive or nutty. Which is ok, because when you can love yourself, you’re not going to care what everyone else thinks!
In order to fix a problem, you have to be aware of the problem. Before you help a homeless person, you have to know he’s there. What if a problem was right in front of you, but you were too involved in your regular day to notice, or you simply didn’t recognize it as a problem? For example: Think about your body image. What do you see when you look in the mirror? Too much flab around the middle? Saggy under arms? Giant thighs? Maybe you go through this evaluation every morning. Running through a list of fault after fault until you feel terrible about yourself. How did you just set up your day? Do you think this will be an amazing day now that you’ve failed your own inspection? Maybe it’s become such a habit that don’t even realize you do it.
Is the source of your self-criticism harder to see? My biggest area needing improvement is confidence. I tend to think I’m not worthy. This bleeds over to other areas so that I’m sure people are laughing at me, I am doing everything wrong, I’m not smart enough, and on and on. This tendency of mine made me think that I couldn’t do social situations if I didn’t have a cocktail, or five. I became defensive when I felt that others were confirming my low opinion of myself. My husband still prefaces comments with, “Don’t get mad, but…” It’s difficult to be a good friend when what you hear most often (from yourself!) is how unworthy you are. Eventually, I really couldn’t stand my judgmental, overly critical self. How I got out of this particular rut is a continuing story, and the subject of this whole series of blogs.
Now that you’re aware of the problem, begin steps to fix it. At your next opportunity, look at yourself in the mirror and complement everything that you usually find unacceptable. Your legs support you all day, show them some gratitude. Maybe you carried a baby in that belly you dislike so much. Show it some love for nurturing your child for nine months. Take your time and find something good about everything. Melissa Ambrosini talks about “dialing up your worthy-o-meter” in her book Mastering Your Inner Mean Girl (find it on Amazon). She suggests to start by writing down twenty things that you are great at. The time it takes to do this is time spent focusing on qualities we posses, and not everything that is wrong. We realize these things exist, and maybe there are even more. Once you’ve done this a few times, you can repeat these qualities to yourself in the mirror every morning rather than focusing on all the negative stuff. Then, see how much brighter and more productive your day gets! This will seem super uncomfortable and silly at first. After some practice, however, it will become second nature. Another way to do this is through meditation .
Treat yourself how you would treat your friend. It is the Golden Rule, turned back on yourself. Most people I know treat others pretty well. Otherwise, why would I want to hang out with them? I appreciate kindness and compassion, as I think most people do. How can you turn that compassion around on yourself? Think of what you would do for a friend. You would be supportive when things go wrong, practice forgiveness, give encouragement when needed, celebrate accomplishments, complement qualities, and always be honest. Now, do these things for yourself. This describes self-compassion.
Self compassion is not self-esteem. If you’re worried about getting a big head with all of this positive self-talk, the difference is important. Dr. Kristen Neff contrasts self-compassion to self-esteem on her website self-compassion.org by stressing: “self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out or are special…This means that attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves…In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they posess some particular set of traits.” Thus, self-esteem allows us to get a gold star for good deeds, but slip into depression when we don’t meet our own high standards. Self-compassion allows us to feel good about ourselves when we are on top of our game, as well as when things aren’t going our way.
What if you did something that you really should feel guilty about? Something inexcusable. It couldn’t possibly be right to like yourself then. Actually, you should. Deal with the issue right away. It’s not a matter of shrugging your shoulders and saying, “Eh, I love myself, so that doesn’t matter.” First of all, admit fault. Then, sit with your feelings without judgement and let them come. Journal your thoughts, feelings, and ideas on how to make amends. Through this process forgive yourself. That doesn’t mean you’ve let yourself off the hook. Forgiveness is an act of compassion. Wallowing in guilt and self-pity does no one any good, in fact it can make the situation worse by exponentially increasing negative feelings. You are human and you made a mistake, but you are atoning for it in a healthy way. All of this takes a lot of work. By it’s nature you aren’t allowed to take the easy road and bury emotions. So you are unlikely to repeat the mistake again.
The Dalai Lama has lived most of his life outside the country he is by all rights the leader of. He has strong cultural, personal, and political ties to Tibet, yet he lives powerless in exile while his people are sent to work camps and tortured. Compassion is a cornerstone of the Tibetan culture. In The Book of Joy (find it on Amazon), the Dalai Lama tells about a friend of his who spent 18 years imprisoned in a Chinese camp where prisoners lived in unspeakably terrible conditions and regularly endured torture. Many people died. During this time, the man feared, not for his life but that “he was in danger of losing…his compassion for the Chinese guards.” Think about that for a second. The Dalai Lama regularly speaks about compassion and forgiveness for the Chinese government which has taken over Tibet and endeavored to literally wipe it off the map. If these people, who have good reason to hate the Chinese, can forgive and find compassion for them, couldn’t we find compassion for ourselves?
We are what we tell ourselves. Take a minute and think about what your inner voice is telling you. Then, how do those thoughts make you feel? Do you feel lifted, tingly all over, light, excited? Or do you feel low, like your inner flame is sputtering and threatening to go out? Does your head lift high and your shoulders move down and back? Or do your shoulders slump and you feel weight in your chest? Choose those thoughts that make you feel light and joyful, and your whole body, relationships, and career will improve as a result.
Mastering Your Inner Mean Girl: The No-BS Guide to Silencing Your Inner Critic and Becoming Wildly Wealthy, Fabulously Healthy, and Bursting With Love by Melissa Ambrosini (find it on Amazon)
self-compassion.org by Dr. Kristen Neff
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams (find it on Amazon)