Talking Back: Combating Negative Self-Talk With Self-Compassion

Christie Kim, MHC

Most of us have an inner dialogue playing in our heads. A voice, which we often hear as our own, tells us about our worries, hopes, fears, concerns, as we move throughout the day. 

Does that person like me?
I hope my boss is in a good mood today.
Do they think I’m weird?

This self-talk often acts as a narrator, coloring in the stories we tell ourselves, but self-talk can waver between positive and negative. Most of us are all too familiar with negative self-talk, the inner voice that is comparative, self-critical, invalidating, self-blaming. We may feel like our own worst critic, that we get stuck in our heads, or that no one could say something we haven’t already said to ourselves.

I’m not as funny or fun to be with as them.
I’m dumb for feeling this way.
I shouldn’t even try, I know I’ll screw it up anyway.

Sometimes this voice has served a purpose--it has helped us reflect on our words or actions, or help assess where we stand in a social group. However, such negativity can be harmful. Negative self-talk fuels anxiety and depression, and tears down self-esteem and self-confidence. In a world that is already difficult, our internal voice can make it that much harder on ourselves. Often we have become so familiar with that voice that it feels like it’s just who we are, but in fact we are the ones who hear it. In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer discusses the power of distinguishing that voice as something we hear and can therefore choose whether we listen to it.

Of course, tuning out our negative self-talk is far more complicated than turning down the volume. And affirmations and mantras of how we are beautiful and loved only go so deep when we struggle to believe them. Instead, we can learn to talk back to the negative self-talk with self-compassion. Below are some steps to help infuse self-compassion into your inner dialogues.

Notice your negative self-talk

Your negative self-talk might sound like you, or it might be a voice you’re so familiar with that it feels like a part of you. Get to know what it sounds like  It probably uses similar words (e.g., stupid, silly, should, etc.) to put yourself down. Try to notice when that voice is playing and catch yourself when you’ve started listening to it. Simply acknowledge that familiar voice without criticizing yourself for listening to it.

Question and reframe

Once you notice your negative self-talk, challenge it. Is this thought helpful or harmful? Would I say this to my best friend? Is there another way to view the situation? What do I need in this moment?

Try to reframe your self-talk with a more neutral tone. Rather than thinking, I’m stupid for making this mistake at work, trying reframing to something like: This is the first time I’ve been assigned to this task, it’s normal to make mistakes.

Introduce self-compassion

Whenever possible, practice self-compassion. There is always a way to introduce self-compassion into your inner dialogues. Is your self-talk harsh, sarcastic, or critical? Consider what it might look like to be kind, patient, and gentle with yourself. An easy way to find it is to think of how you’d talk to a loved one in the same situation. If your negative self-talk sounds like, I should’ve been able to speak up for myself or I wish I could be better, consider showing compassion to yourself by talking back: Maybe I didn’t speak up because I felt unsafe. It’s okay to take my time. I’m practicing. One step at a time. Try to validate your feelings and experience instead of trying to fix it.