In Good Company

As a coach for Girls on the Run, one of the lessons I try to instill in the girls who participate in the program is the importance of positive self-image. For girls at this formative age (8-14), it’s absolutely critical that their inner dialogue be constructive. As a very wise woman said to me once in a yoga class: “You only get one body in this lifetime and it’s a good idea to make friends with it, or you’re in for a very rough ride.”

Like your body, your internal dialogue is your constant traveling companion. And that conversation had better be friendly or you’re in for a lifetime of pain. Negative self-talk can be brutal, and nothing robs people of their health and happiness faster. Yet most of us are unaware of the power of that voice, because it happens so subtly. Before I even get out of bed in the morning, I will have a dozen automatic thoughts, none of them helpful. Now that I’ve slept past the alarm, I’ll never make it. I have nothing to offer today. Help, I’m in over my head!

Sound familiar? Most people, if they’re honest, can usually pinpoint one or two specific ongoing debates they are engaged in. Common thematic threads include: I’m lousy at my job, I can’t believe no one has actually noticed yet. I will never accomplish anything worthwhile with my life. I have no discernible skills. Look at me, I’m too old, middle-aged and tired. I am unattractive, nobody will ever want me. Now, imagine for a second, a friend saying that to you. How would you feel? That person would no longer be your pal, right? Yet, we do this to ourselves every single day.

But we don’t have to. Like all bad habits, the tendency to react with harsh, self-directed criticism is one that can be unlearned. The first step is awareness. Like tuning into the signal of an obscure AM radio station, you may have to listen carefully at first to locate the source of this verbal abuser. It’s important to remember that this is not some oracle of truth. It’s just a bunch of noise and tired old jingles you forgot to erase a long time ago. But remember, you own the radio. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, change the channel.

Here are some strategies I use/recommend for creating a more constructive inner dialogue.

The 8-minute Solution
Find a place where you’ll be undisturbed for 8 minutes. During this brief time, I want you to write down examples of occasions when: someone loved or praised you, even though you didn’t perform perfectly; evidence of when your work received recognition; ways that you’ve added value or acted courageously. If you’re deeply mired in self-loathing, this is not easy. Do it anyway—for eight minutes. You’re pushing yourself to make new associations – unthinking the painful and imprisoning thoughts you’re more used to. Next week, do it again. If you talk back to your inner critic, it very quickly begins to lose steam. It doesn’t like the competition. Bait and Switch
By repeating any negative messages to yourself, you can easily create a limiting belief that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The trick is to catch yourself in the act of doing this, interrupt the irrational fears, and then substitute them with more positive, self-supporting statements. E.G. “What if I stumble on my up to the podium? What if they see my hands shaking? I know my voice is quavering.” That is your inner critic, caught mid-act. Now, substitute that with a more supporting, truthful dialogue: “It’s okay, I’ve done this dozens of times before. So what if I appear nervous, isn’t everybody?” Finally, release with a positive affirmation that this is already so: “I am calm and in control” or “It is all happening perfectly.”

Just One Thing
You know the voice that says, “game over” before the game has even begun? It makes you feel hopeless and helpless by telling you things will never improve. And that light at the end of the tunnel? Probably a train. This self-defeating voice says things like, “I feel exhausted today, so what’s the point in doing anything?” Just whittle it down to size. Breaking any proposed task down into its component parts will combat the tendency to overwhelm yourself. A new exercise program you wish to begin? Start with something very simple – a twenty-minute walk, for example. Then build slowly on that. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something. Doing just one thing will combat the tendency to obsess on negative thoughts or debate the futility of action.

Picture a Loved One
If you’re having trouble finding something good to say about yourself, picture someone else doing it. How would your best friend, brother, sister, mentor, grandmother describe you to another? Then allow yourself to trust in that person’s good opinion of you. The key here is learning to be more gentle and compassionate company for ourselves. By constantly criticizing, we reject not only ourselves, but all those people who love and care about us as well. Silencing the inner critic may take some work at first. But with practice and awareness, you can change both the way you think and feel on a regular basis.