Your 4-Step Plan to Transform Negative Self-Talk Into Self-Kindness
"We need to learn that the Golden Rule only works if it’s reversible,” Gloria Steinem once wrote. “We must learn to treat ourselves as well as we wish to treat others.”
True? Absolutely. But it’s easier said than done.
We all know we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves—but how should we be? What’s the alternative? Simple as it sounds, the answer might be self-kindness.
“Most people define self-kindness as providing for yourself the patience, acceptance, caring, and whatever words you used to describe kindness,” writes therapist Beverly Engel. “But it is so much more. Self-kindness involves generating feelings of care and comfort toward oneself. Instead of being self-critical, self-kindness involves being tolerant of our flaws and inadequacies. It also involves learning simple tools for giving ourselves the support we need whenever we suffer, fail or feel inadequate.”
It’s not an automatic shift from negative to positive, but rather a building-up of skills to self-support.
Here’s where to start.
1. Find Your Inner 'Nurturer'
Struggling to change that voice inside your head? Give it a rest.
The next time that voice gets critical, simply add another voice to the conversation. That new voice may sound like your mother, your best friend, a therapist, or even your favorite actor—whoever it sounds like, make sure it's a voice that's rooting for you, not against you.
“Whenever you find you are criticizing yourself or being hard on yourself, consciously switch to this more nurturing voice,” Engel suggests.
Try switching to Tiffany Haddish’s voice, for example. Would she berate you for messing up your boss’s presentation? Nope. She’d point out what you did right and hype you up for your next task.
The more comfortable you get listening to someone else—real or imagined—prop you up, the more you’ll be able to prop yourself up.
2. Develop a New Vocabulary
The next time you find yourself thinking critical thoughts, write them down. Maybe you use phrases like “not as good as it could be,” or “so-and-so did this better.” Perhaps you repeat words like “disappointing,” or “embarrassing.”
Once you’ve identified the negative language you use, come up with a more compassionate alternative.
Instead of “not as good as it could be,” try “I did the best I could in the moment.”
Instead of “disappointing,” try “room for improvement.”
Every time you hear yourself say or think the original word or phrase, pause and repeat yourself using the kinder language.
The goal isn’t to turn all negatives to positives. You’re human—you’re allowed to be frustrated when things don’t turn out the way you’d hoped. But treating yourself kindly means seeing those “failures” as a normal, natural part of the process, and allowing yourself to move on.
By switching from a stuck-in-the-mud vocabulary to a dust-yourself-off-and-move-on version, you’ll cut back on the criticism.
3. Take a Break
The next time you find yourself in the middle of negative self-talk, take a timeout for what leading self-compassion expert and author Dr. Kristin Neff calls a "self-compassion break".
Start by really experiencing the moment: What words or phrases has your inner voice been using? Does your body feel tight or pained? Are you clenching your jaw?
Then, tell yourself (either out loud or silently): “This is a moment of suffering.” By naming the experience, you’re staying mindful and centered in the moment.
Next, tell yourself, “Suffering is a part of life.” This helps normalize the experience, and remind you that what you’re feeling isn’t unique or bad.
Finally, place your hands over your heart, breathe in, and say, “May I be kind to myself.”
Don’t beat yourself up for the negativity, or linger on what you could’ve done better. Just ground yourself, remember that this is a universal experience, and try to slowly move on.
4. Stand Up for Yourself
Your self-talk could be earth-shatteringly kind, but if you’re letting others speak to you with disrespect, you’ve still got work to do.
“Self-kindness means we fiercely protect ourselves,” writes Neff. “We stand up and say, 'NO! You cannot harm me in this way.'” She explains it as a sort of yin and yang.
“In yin self-compassion, we hold ourselves with love—validating, soothing, and comforting our pain so that we can ‘be’ with it without being consumed by it,” she writes. “In yang self-compassion, we act in the world in order to protect ourselves, provide what we need, and motivate change to reach our full potential.”
That could mean removing yourself from situations in which someone else is treating your unkindly, or pushing back against what they’re saying or doing. In the same way you’d tell yourself that certain words are hurtful, you can tell someone else the same.
Just remember—while you have some control over your own thoughts, you can’t make other people act or speak the way you want to. Just like Steinem urges treating yourself the way you want to be treated, another aspect of self-kindness is letting go of those who don’t treat you as you should be treated.
“We need love in our hearts so we don’t perpetuate a cycle of hate, but we need fierceness so that we don’t let things continue on their current harmful path,” Neff explains.
It's a delicate balance, but one you can tackle and start to master, slowly but surely.
Read next: How to Actually Treat Yourself Like a Friend