Shifting your self-talk

It seems weird to talk about how you talk to yourself- but this is actually one of the most important things you can address to improve your mood, body image, and overall relationship with yourself. Your self-talk is ever-present, shaping ALL of your experiences and driving your feelings about everything that happens to you. If your self-talk tends to be derogatory, chances are you’re not very happy right now. That can change…. But it takes hard work.

Think about how you like for other people to talk to you. How do you best receive feedback? What kind of treatment do you tolerate from others? Are you setting the same standard for how you treat yourself?

For example, if your friend is running a few minutes behind and texts you to say so, what is your response to them? Probably something to the tune of “ Don’t stress, it’s fine” or “ I’ll grab seats, just drive safe”.

What about if you are running behind? Do you think things like “ I’m so stupid for forgetting my wallet”, “ I’m always late”, “ Why can’t I get my shit together”?

Notice the difference? Your friend probably wouldn’t stick around for too long if you said those things to them!

The first step in shifting your self-talk is noticing.

Notice the general trend of how you talk to yourself in casual moments throughout the day as well as during higher stress times or when something isn’t going well. Is it positive? Neutral? Negative? Now let’s get more specific and consider your self-talk related to your body. What is the trend for your thoughts when you look in the mirror, catch a glimpse of yourself in a reflection, or turn your camera on during a virtual meeting?

A better relationship with your body starts with better self-talk.

This is where I think it is really helpful to think about self-talk on a continuum. Depending on your personality, how damaged your relationship is with your body right now, and other factors; “ body positivity” may seem unattainable or just off-putting. That’s ok! I’m not here to advocate for loving your body all the time. That might not be helpful or realistic for you. The important shift is away from hating your body- toward respecting it, talking about it in neutral to positive terms, or just thinking about it less overall so body image doesn’t get in the way of how you want to feel or act.

Here is the continuum:

  1. Self-defeat: The place on the continuum where you want to spend as little time as possible. This kind of self-talk tears you down, belittles, shames, and makes you feel bad. Most people don’t want to talk this way to others or be talked to this way. However, a lot of us practice self-defeating thoughts on a pretty regular basis. This could include self-sabotage or giving in to thoughts that are not in your best interest as well.
  2. Self-tolerance: Have you ever worked with someone you tolerated, but didn’t necessarily like? This kind of self-talk doesn’t have a positive feel, but it is goal-oriented and “ keeps the peace. For example “ That didn’t go well, but I’ll try again” or : I don’t like how my pants feel today but I’m not going to dwell on it” would be examples of self-tolerance.This is a very, very important step in changing your self-talk and getting out of cycles of negativity or self-sabotage, just thinking of yourself/ your body as an entity that you want to tolerate and develop a working relationship with.
  3. Self-respect: This kind of self-talk is pretty neutral. Again, imagine working with someone that you respect. You think they have good ideas and you want to collaborate well, but you don’t feel particularly close or connected. You can respect yourself and your body even if you aren’t feeling positive or connected. For example, self-respect could sound like “ It would be a good idea to do an easier workout today, my body needs it” or “ last time I skipped breakfast I was anxious all day, I’m going to eat something this morning before leaving the house”.
  4. Self-support: We are on the end of the spectrum where it feels easier to like and get along with yourself here. Self-positive thoughts are affirming, recognize your strengths, and come from a good connection with yourself. For example: “ I’m proud of myself for the work I put in on this. It turned out well.”
  5. Self-love: This is where confidence, building yourself up, or even forgiving yourself come into play. Self love could sound like “I’m going to crush this presentation, I know I’m really well prepared” but could also sound like “ I really didn’t do well on that test, it is ok, I’m going to make a plan to do better next time and then move on”. Think of this as unconditional self-support, not necessarily constant gold stars and confetti.

The way I think about this scale, all of the different types of talk fit sometimes: Even self-defeating talk will never be completely eliminated, because it may be an important signal when something is completely wrong for you or goals against your values ( Eg: “I hate that I did that. I feel really bad about it) BUT then it is important to take that information somewhere useful, like self-respect (“ I need to apologize to that person. I don’t want to, but I know it is the right thing to do”) so you don’t stay stuck in the negative thoughts.

I recommend practicing self-tolerance and self-respectas much as you can when you start to shift your inner dialogue. Think of it as building a better working relationship with yourself through improved communication. As the relationship grows, the capacity for support and love will also grow.

Published by Mary Feamster, LPC

Charlottesville-based therapist passionate about helping people improve their mental health, move well, and be well.

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