Do you struggle with constant negative thoughts about yourself? Is your self-talk consistently negative, judgmental, or even cruel?
If so, you know how much this steady stream of negative thoughts impacts almost every aspect of life, from your own mood and wellbeing to your relationships and performance at work.
While it can seem like negative thoughts are an inevitable fact of your personality, that’s simply not the case. Despite how automatic and out-of-control they can feel, it is possible to re-train your mind out of unhelpful patterns of negative thoughts and judgmental self-talk. And one of the best methods is to cultivate self-compassion.
Psychologist and researcher Kristen Neff has spent years studying the psychological mechanisms behind self-compassion and documenting their beneficial effects. She’s identified 3 core elements and skills behind self-compassion—self-kindness, interconnection, and mindfulness—and shown how we can use these skills to dramatically improve our wellbeing, including quieting our negative self-talk.
Let’s jump right in.
1. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend
Ironically, most people with a harsh inner critic and extremely negative self-talk toward themselves are quite compassionate and loving with other people. In fact, this has probably crossed your mind more than once and led to some frustration:
When people come to me after a struggle or making a mistake, I don’t judge them or tell them what failure they are. I just listen and try to be supportive. Why can’t I just do that for myself!
Actually, you can. Trouble is, while it’s relatively easy to be supportive and compassionate with other people’s failings and mistakes, it’s hard—often really hard—to do with ourselves.
The reason is, most of us are actually afraid to let go of our negative thoughts and judgmental self-talk because we think we need them.
From the youngest ages, most of us grew up having the drill-sergeant theory of motivation beat into us: That the only way to stay motivated and achieve success in life was to be hard on yourself.
Unfortunately, this is a pretty misguided theory of human motivation. While punishment in the form of threats and criticism sometimes works, a little bit, briefly, it’s actually a pretty terrible way to motivate people, including ourselves.
If you’ve been successful in life, it’s likely despite your negative thoughts, not because of them.
So the next time you’ve made a mistake or generally feel bad about yourself, ask yourself this question:
If a friend was going through the same thing, how would I respond?
Then do that for yourself:
- Start by simply listening and being there for yourself.
- Acknowledge that what happened or how you feel is real and feels bad, but withhold any judgment about why or what should have happened. Just listen.
- Be validating of your pain instead of rushing to give yourself advice. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel bad even if it’s painful
In other words, just remember to be kind to yourself.
Not only will you feel better, but you’ll actually be better prepared to address any problems or obstacles you need to going forward.
Remember: If you want to be strong, learn to be gentle.
2. Remember that you’re not alone
As we just discussed, simply being kind to yourself, is the first step toward quieting your negative thoughts. But the next step involves expanding your awareness outside of yourself and acknowledging your humanity—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
A fundamental aspect of self-compassion is the acknowledgment that you are a human being, one among many—that whatever you’re struggling with, other people have struggled with it before and likely at the same time. It means you’re not alone in your pain.
I know, I know, that sounds like new-age nonsense. But hear me out…
Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have wired us as inherently social creatures. In fact, our capacity for connectedness and teamwork is probably our greatest competitive advantage as a species, even more so than our intelligence and reasoning abilities.
For most of our history as a species, we lived in small, close-knit tribes where being alone in any meaningful sense of the word just wouldn’t have happened. Loneliness is a distinctly modern phenomenon for which we are both biologically and psychologically ill-equipped.
We evolved to struggle together, not alone.
So when I say you’re not alone in your pain, I’m talking about a very hard-science idea: We evolved to struggle together, not alone. Which means if you’re isolating yourself and your struggles, you’re fighting against millennia of evolutionary biology. And as tough as you think you are (or should be), you’re not that tough.
The next time you find yourself struggling, consumed with negative thoughts and harsh self-talk, reach out. Call a friend. Text a loved one. Make chit-chat with a stranger at Starbucks. Ruthlessly reject our modern tendency to isolate under stress and make a connection instead.
But even if you can’t literally connect with another person, you can internally acknowledge that you and your struggles are, in a very real way, something shared, something that connects you with others:
- Remind yourself that your struggles make you human, make you normal.
- Whatever you’re dealing with, remember that dozen, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of other people are dealing with at this exact moment.
- Call to mind a time when you helped a friend or loved one through a similar struggle.
Remember: Isolation isn’t just unhelpful, it’s unnatural. You were born to connect and be together. And while we can’t always have the compassionate ear of a trusted friend, you can learn to be that friend to yourself.
3. Be a detective, not a judge
The pinnacle of our educational system—in which we spend, essentially, the first 20+ years of our lives—is analytical reasoning. Above all else, we admire the ability to think critically, draw sharp distinctions, and judge true from false, right from wrong.
And while our capacity for analysis is often a force for tremendous good in the world, it can be a double-edged sword.
When you spend your whole life practicing and being reinforced for judging and analyzing anything and everything you encounter, it’s easy to start judging and analyzing yourself.
But even there, the capacity for self-judgment isn’t all bad. When we screw up, it’s good that we can catch ourselves, analyze our mistakes, learn from them, and improve.
The trouble is when judgment and analysis is our immediate, automatic response to our own mistakes and suffering.
Here’s an example: Suppose you unexpectedly lose your job. You’re devasted and terrified since you loved the work and you’re the sole provider for your family.
As you walk through the door and tell your spouse about what happened, they immediately lay into you with comments like:
- How could you screw up that job—it was perfect!
- We’re already behind in the mortgage… what are we going to do about money?
- I told you to start looking for other jobs last month when your coworker got let go. You’re not prepared at all!
Even if all those things are true—you did something to get fired, you’re in trouble financially, and you should have been looking for another job—that doesn’t make them helpful.
I think all of us can acknowledge that after getting laid off from our job, what we’d hope for from our spouse in the short term is love and support, compassion and encouragement. But that’s hard to do if our default, automatic response to everything is judgment and analysis.
Even if your ultimate goal is to analyze and fix things, you’re going to be able to do that better if your first assessment is factual and non-judgmental.
After losing your job, is being berated by your spouse going to make you any better or faster at turning things around? No! You’re likely to feel even worse about yourself, which will make it that much harder to do what needs to be done.
The solution to this automatic habit of instant self-judgment is mindfulness.
Mindfulness simply means observing things as they are without rushing in to analyze or pass judgment on them. Like a good scientist or detective, you observe the nature of things before you start theorizing and running experiments or passing judgments.
Similarly, the best way to effectively move beyond suffering and difficulty is to start by seeing it simply for what it is first.
When you’re suffering and feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts and judgmental self-talk, try to observe yourself and your suffering like a detective, not a judge. Look for the facts of the situation as they are without passing judgment:
- Notice how your anxiety and worry feels without insisting on it going away.
- Observe the quality of your sadness or guilt. Take notes on it without analyzing what it means about you.
- Think plainly about what just happened and what your options are moving forward without interpreting the meaning behind those facts.
Remember: Like a good detective, you’re much more likely to solve the mystery when you collect clues and investigate the scene before rushing into trial and merely asserting your innocence or guilt.
All You Need to Know
The best way to quiet your negative thoughts is stop fighting or running away from them and learn to be compassionate toward your own self-talk. Because when you get in the habit of approaching difficult negative thoughts with compassion, you stop teaching your brain to fear them, and as a result, become less reactive to them.
Treat yourself as you would treat a friend.
Remember that you’re not alone.
Be a detective, not a judge.