Self-talk & Compassion: Part 1

I often ask my clients this question:  “Would you talk to your friends the same way you talk to yourself?”  Needless to say, they typically look back at me with a slightly stunned, even shocked expression, guilt strewn across their face as if I were to catch them stealing a cookie from the cookie jar.  Prior to me asking this question, we would have just discussed negative self-talk and identified some of the critical, mean, nasty and just straight up bully-ish words or phrases they often repeat to themselves under their breath or in their minds– where they exist as a dizzying array of thoughts, images, or even memories.  Emphatically, they would reply back “No!” or “Definitely not.” “Then why,” I gently (also I admit smugly) inquire, “should it ever be okay for you to talk to yourself the same way?”

I once heard that we “internalize the voices we grew up listening to, and they become the voices we hear in our heads” aka our inner dialogue.  It would be as if I had a voice recorder that picked up all the chatter in our brains no matter how loud or how distant it is. If that were possible, what would we hear? Perhaps the loudest things we hear are the running lists of to-dos or should-dos. Maybe we will catch the occasional song on loop, the same verses and beats repeating over and over again. Sometimes we may even catch an inner dialogue of sorts as a person thinks through an important decision or conflict with another person.  I can admit that I will occasionally have imaginary arguments with other people in my head.

I’m also guessing that for many, and we may need to listen a bit closer to hear because it’s a bit softer, we hear the harsh words of our voices admonishing us for the things we didn’t do, or the things that we are not, or the people we will never become.  As quiet as the voices are also feelings of sadness, embarrassment, disgust, shame. We may not feel them lurking in the back as we’re too busy focused on other things, but they’re there and are jabbering away. “You are a failure”, “No one loves you”, “You bring no real value to the world.” We believe these words because they have always been there. They were the voices of cruel parents, mean siblings, school bullies, abusive partners, etc.  The voices morph from those of the past to our own voice that it becomes indistinguishable from each other. It becomes our reality.

Occasionally I’d get a snarky individual say something like “are you telling us that we hear voices?”  No. The voices I speak of in this context have nothing to do with psychosis or hearing disembodied voices that appear to come from another source other than our own minds.  That is a separate issue that you can discuss with a trained professional.

Over the years, I have become fairly skilled at being able to hear the words I tell myself and how I say it.  I have had moments of frustration where I would catch myself bashing myself, saying the most horrid things like “God, you are such a loser” or “You are a disgusting human being’ or “Why did you do that, you are really dumb.”  Through my own therapy and guidance, I have come to ask myself “Why.” Why do I talk to myself in this way? And from an ACT therapy frame the question eventually became, “What is the function of my negative self-talk?” Why do I need to continue doing it?  There may be many ways to answer this depending on each individual, but for me it basically comes down to “I am trying to motivate myself to do better.” I say myself these mean things with the hope that it would push me to try harder at…you name it. Life. Work. Love. The list goes on. And if I didn’t remind myself of these things, then I will become complacent, unmotivated to better myself.

The question then arises, “Well, does it work?” Has constantly punishing, criticizing, beating myself up gotten you to actually do something. Admittedly, there are some times that yes. Yes you have berated yourself to the point of taking action. Pushing yourself one day to get up from the couch and hit the treadmill can be an example of this. “You’re so fat and lazy you won’t even get up to exercise” followed afterwards by “oh do you feel like you need a participation trophy for doing what you’re supposed to do snowflake?” The first one or two times it might work. But over time the fight becomes more difficult. The motivation to try and prove those words wrong becomes weakened. And you’re weighed down by your own disappointment and guilt that it becomes a fiasco to just get out of bed. So now you’re not even working towards your goal of working out, you’re paralyzed and you feel worthless because that critical voice beats on you for not doing, and beats on you for even having done.  You feel hopeless. What’s the point?

Countless of studies have shown that when it comes to teaching children, positive reinforcement leads to more desirable outcomes, longer lasting results, and better mental health in children than does punishment.  Even though many of us reading this are beyond childhood, perhaps we can undo the punishment and shaming-based system from our childhoods that has built up our critical voice. In its place, we aim to develop a COMPASSIONATE voice using positive reinforcement: self-encouragement, self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-praise.  Developing a compassionate voice will be discussed in a future blog post.

Jazzmin Villanueva, Psy.D.