To Self, With Love

Taking control of inner dialogue requires self-awareness and compassion.
Choose kind thoughts, and enjoy a positive boost.  Photography: Morgan Maassen

By Rachel Dash-Dougherty

Take a minute to think about the last mistake you made, or the most recent workout you skipped. What did you say to yourself?

You can’t do it.
You aren’t worthy.
You didn’t earn it.

Sound familiar? Congratulations, you are a human. Our inner dialogues can be harsh and critical. We say things to ourselves that we would never say out loud to another person.

Factors like our parenting, socialization, culture and our own perceptions of the world combine to form our inner dialogue: the way we speak to ourselves. Negative thoughts can give us a chemical boost from the ancient, instinctual parts of our brain. With this negativity we tap into our fight-or-flight response, which releases chemicals like adrenaline into our systems. Not achieving that seven-day workout streak will not be changed by critical thoughts. In fact, they’re more likely to decrease your motivation.

But when we consciously choose a compassionate alternative, we change that critical pattern and are rewarded with positive results and even different chemicals from our bodies. Just like we get from a sweaty workout, we can get a boost of positive, happy chemicals instead.

Being mindful of our thoughts, body sensations and actions helps us make significant lasting change. Self-compassion is an alternative to the automatic, unconscious critical and judgmental string of thoughts that play through our minds on a daily basis. There are three components to self-compassion: self-kindness; common humanity; and mindfulness.

Self-kindness involves acceptance of ourselves fully, without judgment. Life is full of challenges. We can choose to let go of expectations and embrace our perceived mistakes or faults. Common humanity helps to remind us that pain and challenges are a human experience. We are never alone in our suffering or hardship. Mindfulness allows us to be present in this moment right now as it is. It calls on us to sit in our pain and discomfort, and to be open to our emotions rather than trying to solve the problem or avoid emotions altogether.

So how do we put this into action? Follow these three directives:

Notice your patterns. The next time something doesn’t work out (your toddler refused to play with the amazing sensory activity you stayed up to make, or you attempted to sell a new product no one buys), take the time to acknowledge what thoughts come up afterward. Build awareness of what you feel in your body at those moments and write the thought and body sensation down.

Cultivate compassion. Instead of allowing the flow of critical, judgmental thoughts to run wild, remind yourself that you tried. Remember, every failure is just a step toward a future breakthrough, and there are many lessons to be learned. Try again, and do again.

Practice loving kindness. Whatever you are into—prayer, mediation, mantra, or positive affirmations—this exercise is for you. It’s a practice of sending loving kindness: first to ourselves (“May I be happy,” “May I be calm,” “May I be healthy,” “May I accept challenges, “May I let go”). Next, expand that kindness outward to people you love (“May Bob be happy”), to your friends (“May Cara and Leanne be happy”), people you know casually (“May that woman in HR be happy”). If you want to add a deeper practice, consider sending out kindness and compassion to people who have hurt you. Close with sending loving kindness to people you have never met: “May they be happy.” You will be surprised by how simple and relieving this practice can be.

Rachel Dash-Dougherty, LCSW RYT-200, is the founder of Grounded Therapy & Coaching LLC