As a coach for Girls on the Run, one of the lessons I try to instill in the girls who participate in the program is the importance of positive self-image. For girls at this formative age (8-14), it’s absolutely critical that their inner dialogue be constructive. As a very wise woman said to me once in a yoga class: “You only get one body in this lifetime and it’s a good idea to make friends with it, or you’re in for a very rough ride.”
Like your body, your internal dialogue is your constant traveling companion. And that conversation had better be friendly or you’re in for a lifetime of pain. Negative self-talk can be brutal, and nothing robs people of their health and happiness faster. Yet most of us are unaware of the power of that voice, because it happens so subtly.
Before I even get out of bed in the morning, I will have a dozen automatic thoughts, none of them helpful. Now that I’ve slept past the alarm, I’ll never make it. I have nothing to offer today. Help, I’m in over my head! Sound familiar?
Most people can usually pinpoint one or two ongoing debates in their heads: I’m lousy at my job, I can’t believe no one has actually noticed yet. I will never accomplish anything worthwhile with my life. I have no discernible skills. Look at me, I’m too old, middle-aged and tired. I am unattractive, nobody will ever want me.
Now, imagine for a second, a friend saying that to you. How would you feel? That person would no longer be your pal, right? Yet, we do this to ourselves every single day.
You Can Change the Channel
But we don’t have to. Like all bad habits, the tendency to react with harsh, self-directed criticism is one that can be unlearned. The first step is awareness. Like tuning into the signal of an obscure AM radio station, you may have to listen carefully at first to locate the source of this verbal abuser. It’s important to remember that this is not some oracle of truth. It’s just a bunch of noise and tired old jingles you forgot to erase a long time ago. But remember, you own the radio. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, change the channel.
How to Creative a Healthier Inner Dialogue
#1: The 8-minute Solution
Find a place where you’ll be undisturbed for 8 minutes. Write down examples of occasions when:
- someone loved or praised you, even though you didn’t perform perfectly;
- evidence of when your work received recognition;
- ways that you’ve added value or acted courageously.
If you’re deeply mired in self-loathing, this is not easy. Do it anyway. Push yourself to make new associations – unthinking the painful and imprisoning thoughts you’re more used to. Next week, do it again. If you talk back to your inner critic, it very quickly begins to lose steam. It doesn’t like the competition.
#2: Counter Thoughts with Action
You know the voice that says, “game over” before the game has even begun? It makes you feel hopeless and helpless by telling you things will never improve. And that light at the end of the tunnel? Probably a train.
This self-defeating voice says things like, “I feel exhausted today, so what’s the point in doing anything?” Prove that voice wrong by taking one act—however small—to prove it wrong. Whittle that overwhelming task down to its component parts and take a step: A new exercise program you wish to begin? Start with something very simple – a twenty-minute walk, for example. Then build slowly on that. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something. Doing just one thing will combat the tendency to obsess on negative thoughts or debate the futility of action.
#3 Picture a Loved One
If you’re having trouble finding something good to say about yourself, picture someone else doing it. How would your best friend, brother, sister, mentor, grandmother describe you to another? Then allow yourself to trust in that person’s good opinion of you. The key here is learning to be more gentle and compassionate company for ourselves.
By constantly criticizing, we reject not only ourselves, but all those people who love and care about us as well. Silencing the inner critic may take some work at first. But with practice and awareness, you can change both the way you think and feel on a regular basis.
Ann Mehl is an executive career and life coach, marathoner, and former recruiter who helps her clients reach their own personal and professional finish lines through one-on-one sessions and her blog. In the past 16 years, Ann has completed over forty marathons, and volunteers for Girls On The Run, a non-profit organization dedicated to the health and well-being of adolescent girls ranging in age from eight to fourteen. Visit her at annmehl.com.