Your New Self-Care: Talk to Yourself the Way You Talk to a Pet
April 1, 2019
After having a pet for a year now, I’ve realized something major: I am far nicer to my dog than I am to myself.
Like many modern-day epiphanies, the realization was sparked by a tweet.
“New self-care: talk to myself the way I talk to dogs,” the tweet from author Mackenzi Lee started. “Ex: -hi sweet girl -want a treat? -ur so chubby & cute -need a nap? -what a good girl.”
The tweet got me thinking about how I talk to my dog, Lucille.
First thing in the morning: “You woke up, sweet girl!” (Yes, even just greeting the day is an accomplishment.) During her walk: “Look at you go, sweet baby!” And when she actually goes to the bathroom? I shower her with all the “Good girls” and “That’s my little pooper.”
All this praise? It’s just within the first hour of the day. Meanwhile, how I’m talking to myself: “Why’d you press snooze again?!” “You’re already running behind, like a fool!” “Did you even prep for that meeting later today?” “This is what you’re going to wear today?”
I know I’m not alone in having a negative self-talk track playing in my head, like a Spotify playlist I don’t remember selecting but can’t turn off.
We often develop negative patterns of self-talk at an early age, which can become deeply embedded in our day-to-day. Why we do it: We think criticism can help us improve or better ourselves, but what it really does is set up a system where we’re constantly punishing ourselves instead of rewarding ourselves.
No surprise: It’s not the best path forward.
“While punishment can deter certain behaviors in the short-term, rewards are generally better for shaping new and lasting behavior,” Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D., explains in an article for Psychology Today.
Reading this, it made me realize why I punish myself to better myself, yet reward my pet: Before I got Lucille, I read about how positive reinforcement is the best way to train and parent dogs. The gist of positive reinforcement: You focus on what your dog is doing right rather than what they’re doing wrong. Cue the “that’s my good little pooper” talk and treats galore when she sits quietly next to me as I work.
While it might seem silly, we can take a page out of the dog training book to help treat ourselves with kindness instead of criticism.
“Negative self-talk is never in your interest,” Vilhauer writes. “There is always a different, kinder, better way to treat yourself that doesn’t involve negative labels and self-destructive mindsets. In any given situation you can focus on what you did wrong or what you did well and what you can do better next time.”
I thought to myself: If I know how to treat my dog with kindness and reward what she does well, I should be able to do the same for myself, right? So, I challenged myself to intentionally change the script in my head, taking cues from how I treat Lucille.
What I found: Yes, talking to yourself like a pet can seem very over the top and ridiculous, but it feels nice to mentally reward myself instead of punishing myself with negative self-talk.
Here are some of the self-talk swaps I made that I’m definitely keeping moving forward:
'Look at you go!'
I tell Lucille this when she’s strutting down the street confidently, or when she’s doing laps in the dog park with the cheesiest grin on her face.
How I can use it for myself: As a cue to take pride in how I’m powering through my day and responsibilities. Filing my taxes? Look at you go! Responding to a ton of emails? Look at you go! Leading a meeting? Look. at. you. go!
The phrase rewards my effort, and it helps me step back and savor how I’m making progress.
'Aw, it’s OK sweet baby!'
My dog has really long, spindly legs, and sometimes she can get clumsy. There are many attempts to jump up on the couch or dodge someone on the sidewalk that turn into her doing a cute little mini face plant.
Whenever this happens: I always rush to her with love and encouragement. When I get clumsy (which is often)? Cue the “God Karen, you’re so stupid” self-talk.
Greeting my missteps with an “Aw, it’s OK sweet baby!” helps me soothe myself rather than berate myself. Stumbling on the sidewalk? “Aw, it’s OK sweet baby!” Opening a can of soup and having it spill all over the counter? “Aw, it’s OK sweet baby!”
The clumsy moments still happen, but they sting a little less because I’m not adding a layer of criticism on top of it all.
'Awwwww, are you a sleepy little doggo?'
The amount of times I ask Lucille if she’s tired during the day is kind of astounding. Even if she’s just lounging on the couch, I hear myself asking if she’s ready for a nap. (Her response is usually just tapping me with her paw and showing that, no, she’s actually ready for a lot of belly rubs.)
But I rarely check in with myself to see if I’m feeling tired. I pretend I’m an Energizer Bunny who never needs a midday rest, when in fact taking a break might be exactly what I need.
Now, when I find myself losing focus at work, I check in with myself to see if I am, in fact, “a sleepy little doggo.” And if I am? I give myself a quiet moment to recharge.
'How cute are you?!'
Finally, the word I shower Lucille with the most: cute. As in: “Did you get cuter today?” “Who made you so cute?” and “Cutieeeeeeee yasssss!” (sometimes, I just shout it at her). I basically am her personal Jonathan Van Ness, boosting her confidence as much as I can. Meanwhile, I’m my own personal Simon Cowell, swapping that “yasss” for an “ugh.”
To be honest: This self-talk swap felt the most uncomfortable at first. Looking in the mirror before work and saying to myself, “You’re so so cute!” felt like a lie. But the more I said it, the more I started to believe it.
There’s a reason why: Our brains look for evidence that matches up with the stories we tell ourselves.
If it’s a negative story, we’ll find things that prove it right. But if we swap in a positive one? We can retrain ourselves to notice what proves that story right—things like my cute smile or earrings or dance moves. “The critic doesn’t like to be wrong," Vilhauer writes. "The more examples you come up with to support your alternate view, the less (the critic) will come around."
Retraining how you talk to yourself isn’t easy work—just like having a pet isn’t easy (LOL to how I thought owning a dog “wouldn’t be that hard”). But we put in the work with our pets in return for unconditional love, and that’s exactly what we can get back from ourselves when we start treating ourselves with kindness.
My challenge to you: Try adding a little more “Look at you go!” and “It’s OK sweet baby” to your self-talk (and, yes, even “What a good little pooper!” if you want). Talk to yourself—and love yourself—like a fur baby, and watch it change your day.
Today's recommended meditation: