“Be nice to yourself” is something I say all the time, both to myself on a never-ending loop, and to others. And every time I say it, I have a simultaneous cringe-and-agree-wholeheartedly response. I totally get that it sounds very self-helpy. I used to be very uncomfortable with the whole idea of self-help [they call it self-improvement now, because a lot of people hate the term self-help, and apparently those same people are also extremely gullible]. But then I realized that part of the human existence is needing help, needing improvement, and wanting to get better. And while I am a big-time advocate of getting professional and/or peer support (because the human experience is communal), I also think that leaving ourselves out of the process is not a realistic way to go about making a positive change.
One thing I have chosen to work on within self-care or self-kindness is changing the way I talk to myself. Whether internally judging our rogue eyebrow hairs while brushing our teeth, or screaming, “I’m so stupid!” when we forget something, we talk to ourselves all the time. The things we say have different sources. Here are a few I have noticed when thinking about the things I say and think (especially when forming and giving opinions about myself):
-Social norms [i.e. the daily emails spamming my inbox about how to get a flatter belly, the Facebook sidebar ads telling me about the next big company to work for, the next degree to get, the next magic bullet to buy]
-Negative past experiences with others [for some reason it is a lot easier for me to remember the negative experiences than the positive ones!]
-Comparing myself to others in terms of “what they’ve got that I haven’t got”
Does positive self-talk work?
Yes. While scientists are not certain exactly how it works, they are sure it is effective in every area where it is practiced. Some experts think it’s because you are actually changing interactions in your brain [re-wiring it, relearning what is true about yourself], while others think it’s based on something simpler: the more often we hear something, and the more confidence with which that something is said, the more likely we are to believe it over time [Cable news, anyone?!]. Either way, it works.
Not only is audibly saying positive things to yourself really beneficial, there is a best practice for doing so. Another study about affirmation found that the best way to get positive messages to stick is to use second or third-person when making the affirmations themselves. In other words, when looking in the mirror in the morning, or preparing for the big test or meeting, it works better to say “you can do this!” than it does to say “I can do this!” The same study offered a few examples of public figures or celebrities using this tactic before making a big speech or announcing a major change in their careers.
What I like the most about this strategy is not only that it works, but that it is one of the easiest to practice and maintain. I don’t have to start out believing that I can do something in order to say I can, and doing so takes a couple of seconds. I still have a long way to go, but I can honestly say that pushing through and discarding the negative and almost exclusively false messages about myself to practice courage and positivity is off to a great start for me.
I say practice because it’s not easy, I can’t do it perfectly, and it doesn’t come naturally, but the more it’s done, the more I will be able to see the benefits.
But why does it work better to use second or third person, even though it sounds more than a little weird? The reason is believed to be that doing so creates distance. By saying “you can do this” instead of “I can”, we are mimicking the way we would address another person who is struggling. The results of the research seem to back up what a lot of us know to be true: we are much more often a lot kinder to others than to ourselves.
This may be the only case where pretending to be someone you’re not actually has concrete psychological and emotional benefits.
So, if you battle with being unkind to yourself, there is a way to start making it happen. You can do this.