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Compassionate Self Talk

I was walking with my wife in the park a while ago, and we saw a group of people playing spikeball. There were three adults, one girl who looked to be late teens, and a boy who looked to be around 7. Someone hit a ball in the boy’s direction that was obviously headed out, and he reached up and hit at it anyway. He barely touched it, but it was going too fast for him to control, so it kept on going, out of the court. Point to the other team. As he chased down the ball to bring it back, he said, “I always hit the balls that I should let go. I’m so stupid!”

As we were walking away, I told my wife, “That kid’s only 7 years old, and he’s already learned to tell himself that he’s so stupid.”

Now, I wasn’t in that kid’s head, so I don’t know how he was feeling. And, truth be told, from the outside, his voice did not sound like he was in terrible emotional pain. On the other hand, he did sound like he seriously believed that he was that stupid. And, I’m deeply familiar with that sort of self-talk, and I know that there’s nothing but tears down that road.

I spent my entire childhood talking to myself in those sorts of terms:

“You’re so bad at sports, it’s no wonder nobody likes you.”

“You always freeze up when speaking in front of people, you’ll never be able to give any kind of presentation.”

“You’re never going to have any real friends.”

“You may have done well this time, but that was just luck. You won’t be able to do it again next time.”

“Maybe those people are complimenting you now, but they’re just too stupid to see how bad you really are.”

“All those people who like you will eventually figure out how much of a loser you are.”

I don’t today know or remember how I learned to do that or what I thought I was accomplishing, but I know that it was self-defeating and self-perpetuating. Telling myself how bad I was made me feel worse, which made me less likely to do things successfully, to which I responded by telling myself how bad I was, which made me feel worse, and so on.

At some point I realized that I would never allow someone else to talk to me about me the same way that I talked to myself about myself. I haven’t always been great at setting boundaries, so I can’t say for sure that I would tell them that their behavior was unacceptable, but what I can say for sure is that I would shut that person out of my life. I would never call them or reach out to them, I would block their number, and I would walk away if I saw them at a meeting or in the mall. But, for some reason, I thought it was appropriate to talk to myself about myself in that way.

In doing some research for this entry, I found this great quote from Kristin Neff’s site self-compassion.org:

With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.

It’s been very useful for me, as I’ve walked through the process of learning self-talk, to think about it from exactly that perspective: how I would talk to a good friend in that same situation (whether the situation is one in which I think I was successful or not). If I saw a good friend give a presentation that was really well received, would I go up to them after the fact and tell them that they just got lucky and wouldn’t be able to do it again next time? No, no I would not. If I saw a friend make a mistake and watched them feeling down about it, would I go up to them and tell them that they should never expect anything better because that’s all they’re capable of? No, no I would not. Part of actually being a good friend to myself means treating myself as I’d treat a good friend.

Along the same lines, when I had about six or seven years clean, I found John Bradshaw’s Homecoming, which was commonly referred to at the time as “the inner child book.”1 Reading it and working through some of the exercises in it, as well as talking to several friends in recovery who had also done some inner child work, helped me develop ways of compassionately talking to myself when I felt, as we all do from time to time, like I was a small child in an adult body. What I’ve found is that this often means saying to myself the things that I wished my dad could have told me when I was growing up.

It’s okay to not have all the answers.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and I love you anyway.

You did a really good job on that presentation. I’m really proud of you.

I’m really impressed with how you handled that situation.

There are times when I find it the most useful to talk to myself as a particularly loving parent would talk to their small child. Other times, I find it most useful to talk to myself as a good friend would talk to another good friend. After having done the mirror work and the inner child work, I realized that I did like myself, I did love myself, that I was my own friend, and that I therefore needed (and wanted, and deserved) to start treating myself and talking to myself like a friend — not an enemy, or a failing student, or a disappointing child.

  1. The book is based around the metaphor that if childhood “trauma” doesn’t heal, we’re left with that unhealed child as a part of our emotional character, and that intentionally parenting and loving that child inside us can be a powerful way to move forward. (I put trauma in scare quotes because it can be just ordinary childhood pains and experiences, not necessarily abuse or other more standard traumatic events.) Parenting and loving that inner child is what’s referred to by “inner child work.”

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