According to Dr. Deepak Chopra, we have 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day. While the actual science behind that statement is sketchy, let’s assume for the moment it is mostly true. If we take the average of these two numbers, that means we have nearly 3,000 thoughts per hour and 50 thoughts per minute. About a thought every second, more if we only count our waking hours. How many of those thoughts would you say are consciously positive? How many are critical?
What you say to yourself becomes a habit, which becomes your mantra, which you eventually believe, which becomes your life. Think of the Little Engine That Could, he repeated, “I think I can, I think I can…” and he did. What if he said, “Oh, I don’t think I have it in me. Maybe I should slow down so I don’t make a fool of myself”?
Quite often I find myself trash-talking in my head. “Ok, that was stupid…You know, if you were a little smarter things like that wouldn’t happen…Ugh, I’m so terrible at that…I don’t know how to do that, so I can’t…I’m just going to screw it up…” Sometimes I get into a negativity rut. I think of all of the things limiting me instead of how great I could be. That kind of self-talk lowers my vibration, which makes me feel low, and makes me dig deeper and deeper into that rut. You know where that gets me? Stuck.
Getting out of that rut takes conscious effort. First, you have to be aware of the problem. Second, you have to practice. Like a muscle you haven’t used in a while, positive thoughts take time to build up. Third, put it all together and turn the Golden Rule back around on yourself. Think of how you would treat a friend, then treat yourself the same way. Finally, use this new skill by challenging it with a situation where talking down to yourself might seem reasonable. It will all seem silly at first. Positivity is so rare in our culture that people who possess it are often seen as naive or nutty. Which is ok, because when you can love yourself, you’re not going to care what everyone else thinks!
Step One: Be aware
In order to fix a problem, you have to be aware of the problem. Before you help a homeless person, you have to know he’s there. What if a problem was right in front of you, but you were too involved in your regular day to notice, or you simply didn’t recognize it as a problem?
Let’s use a negative body image for an example. What do you see when you look in the mirror? Too much flab around the middle? Saggy underarms? Giant thighs? Maybe you go through this evaluation every morning. Running through a list of fault after fault until you feel terrible about yourself. How did you just set up your day? Do you think this will be an amazing day now that you’ve failed your own inspection? Maybe it’s become such a habit that don’t even realize you do it.
Is the source of your self-criticism harder to see? My biggest area needing improvement is confidence. I tend to think I’m not worthy. This bleeds over to other areas so that I’m sure people are talking about me and laughing at me…I am doing everything wrong, I’m not smart enough, and on and on. This tendency of mine made me think that I couldn’t do social situations if I didn’t have a cocktail, or five. I became defensive when I felt that others were confirming my low opinion of myself. My husband still prefaces comments with, “Don’t get mad, but…” It’s difficult to be a good friend when what you hear most often (from yourself!) is how unworthy you are. Eventually, I really couldn’t stand my judgmental, overly critical self. How I got out of this particular rut is a continuing story.
Step Two: Fix it
Now that you’re aware of the problem, you’re going to want to fix it. At your next opportunity, look at yourself in the mirror and complement everything that you usually find unacceptable. Your legs support you all day, show them some gratitude. Maybe you carried a baby in that belly you dislike so much. Show it some love for nurturing your child for nine months. Take your time and find something good about everything.
Melissa Ambrosini talks about “dialing up your worthy-o-meter” in her book Mastering Your Inner Mean Girl (find it on Amazon). She suggests starting by writing down twenty things that you are great at. The time it takes to do this is time spent focusing on qualities we possess, and not everything that is wrong. Time well spent! We begin to understand that these things exist, so maybe there are even more.
To solidify the habit, repeat these qualities to yourself in the mirror every morning rather than focusing on all the negative stuff. Then, see how much brighter and more productive your day gets! This will seem super uncomfortable and silly at first. Our default setting is negativity, so this is going against our programming. After some practice, however, it will become second nature.
Step three: The Reverse Golden Rule
Do unto you as you would have done unto others. This is the Golden Rule reversed. Most people I know treat others pretty well. Otherwise, why would I want to hang out with them? I appreciate kindness and compassion, as I think most people do. Let’s use some of that compassion for ourselves. Think of what you would do for a friend. You would be supportive when things go wrong, practice forgiveness, give encouragement when needed, celebrate accomplishments, complement qualities, and always be honest. Now, do these things for yourself. This describes self-compassion.
Self-compassion is not self-esteem. If you’re worried about getting a big head with all of this positive self-talk, the difference is important. Self-esteem allows us to get a gold star for good deeds, but beat ourselves up when we don’t meet our own high standards. It may cause us to compare ourselves to others or put others down in order to lift ourselves up. Self-compassion, in contrast, encourages us to feel compassion for everyone, ourselves included. It allows us to feel good about ourselves when we are on top of our game, as well as when things aren’t going our way.
Step four: Challenge your new skill
What if you did something that you really should feel guilty about? Something inexcusable. It couldn’t possibly be right to like yourself then, could it? Actually, this is when it is most important to be your own best friend. Forgiveness is key.
First of all, admit fault without holding back or making excuses. Then, sit with your feelings without judgment and let them come. Journal your thoughts, feelings, and ideas on how to make amends. Through this process forgive yourself. That doesn’t mean you’ve let yourself off the hook. It’s not a matter of shrugging your shoulders and saying, “Eh, I love myself, so that doesn’t matter.” Forgiveness is an act of compassion. Wallowing in guilt and self-pity does no one any good. In fact, it can make the situation worse by exponentially increasing negative feelings. You are human and you made a mistake, but you are atoning for it in a healthy way.
All of this takes a lot of work. You aren’t allowed to take the easy road and bury emotions. By taking the road less traveled and meeting the challenge head-on, you are unlikely to repeat the mistake again and more likely to learn from it.
The Dalai Lama has lived most of his life outside the country he is by all rights the leader of. He has strong cultural, personal, and political ties to Tibet, yet he lives powerless in exileheav. Compassion is a cornerstone of the Tibetan culture. In The Book of Joy (find it on Amazon), the Dalai Lama tells about a friend of his who spent 18 years imprisoned in a Chinese camp where prisoners lived in unspeakably terrible conditions and regularly endured torture. Many people died. During this time, the man feared, not for his life but that “he was in danger of losing…his compassion for the Chinese guards.” Think about that for a second. The Dalai Lama regularly speaks about compassion and forgiveness for the Chinese government which has taken over Tibet and endeavored to literally wipe it off the map. If these people, who have good reason to hate the Chinese, can forgive and find compassion for them, couldn’t we find compassion for ourselves?
We are what we tell ourselves. Take a minute and think about what your inner voice is telling you. Then, how do those thoughts make you feel? Do you feel lifted, tingly all over, light, excited? Or do you feel low, like your inner flame is sputtering and threatening to go out? Does your head lift high and your shoulders move down and back? Or do your shoulders slump and you feel heavy in your chest? Choose those thoughts that make you feel light and joyful, and your whole body, relationships, and career will improve as a result.
Originally published in DonWings on April 13, 2017
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References and additional reading
self-compassion.org by Dr. Kristen Neff