Talking to yourself with kindness may be hard, maybe even excruciating. Because what automatically spills out sounds more like criticism, judgement, and maybe even hatred.
What’s wrong with you? You’re so stupid. You’re so weak. You’re a horrible mother. You’re a horrible worker. You can’t do anything right or well. Of course, you made another mistake. Of course, you let everyone down. Again. You’re utterly hopeless.
But just because criticism feels more natural to you right now doesn’t mean that it always will.
In the excellent book The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem & Find Balance, Sharon Martin, MSW, LCSW, shares powerful ways we can talk to ourselves with genuine compassion. Martin is a California-based psychotherapist and mental health writer who pens the Psych Central blog Happily Imperfect.
Here’s one strategy, which includes six steps, followed by Martin’s super helpful examples:
- Jot down a situation you were self-critical about. For example: “I was late picking up my daughter from preschool. She was the last child there, and her teacher looked annoyed with me. I told myself, ‘I’m the worst mom. Why can’t you get anything right?'”
- Jot down the pain you’re experiencing. What are you feeling about this situation? For example: “I felt like a failure as a mom. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I was sad about upsetting my daughter and making the teacher stay late.”
- Consider if you’re the only person who’s made this kind of mistake. Or maybe you know someone else who’s done this very thing or something similar. Yes, each of us is unique, and yet we all share similar struggles and slip-ups. For example: “My husband has been late before. And I’ve heard Sara say that it’s really hard for her to pick up Jack by six.”
- Consider what you’d say to someone else who’s experiencing the same kind of pain. For example: “You’re not a bad mom just because you were late. You take really good care of your daughter and work hard all day to provide for her. I know you’re doing the best you can.”
- Try telling yourself the same compassionate response. For example: “Sharon, you’re not a bad mom just because you were late. You take really good care of your daughter and work hard all day to provide for her. You’re doing the best you can.”
- Reflect on how it feels to treat yourself with compassion during a tough time. Yes, maybe giving yourself some compassion is really hard. Yes, maybe it feels a bit insincere. Yes, maybe it even feels undeserved. And it also might feel comforting and reassuring. It also might lower your stress level and your blood pressure and ease your headache. It also might help you to refocus on what you’d like to do next time. It might help you to refocus on how you’d like to handle the situation more effectively, or in a way that’s true to you.
Martin features another powerful exercise in her book, which she calls a “forgiveness affirmation.” She suggests saying it to yourself every morning and night. It includes the formula (which you can modify according to what feels authentic and meaningful to you) below:
“I forgive myself for ___________. I release myself from ___________. I accept that I’m human and I make mistakes. Now I would do things differently, but I did the best I could at the time, and I forgive myself for my mistakes.”
For instance, you might forgive yourself for yelling at your kids, and release yourself from feeling guilty and from feeling like a terrible parent and person.
Martin notes that forgiving ourselves “doesn’t mean we disregard our mistakes or excuse our poor choices. On the contrary, forgiveness requires that we take responsibility for our actions and believe that compassion will allow us to move forward toward better choices.”
Self-forgiveness, Martin emphasizes, is a process. So is self-compassion. And we return to both over and over and over. Each time, this turning toward compassion and forgiveness and gentleness might even get a bit easier. Each time, it helps us to honor ourselves that much more.