How to Talk to Yourself with Compassion
by Alice Boyes
Often, we’re our own worst critic. When we feel anxious or frustrated, we talk to ourselves more harshly than we’d find acceptable from anyone else. I blew that presentation. Everyone on my team has such strong technical skills; I can’t follow the conversation. My kiddo is going to be so mad at me for working late again. We wrongly assume that criticism will motivate us to do better. We become even more of a perfectionist than usual. Instead of talking to ourselves with self-compassion, we raise our standards for our behavior as a defense against our feelings of doubt, anxiety, or frustration.
Self-compassion improves people’s participation in groups and is associated with a more adaptive attitude to failure.1 People who are self-compassionate recover better from psychological knocks, like relationship breakups and career setbacks.2 When people have self-compassion skills, they have options for feeling better beyond decimating a large bag of chips.
One way to show yourself compassion is through self-talk. Here’s what that is and how it works.
There are four elements of self-compassion: using a tone of kindness, recognizing that pain is a universal human experience, taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions that neither suppresses or exaggerates them, and expecting yourself to make the best decision you can in the situation you’re in.
What Does Compassionate Self-Talk Look Like?
Here are three examples of what it looks like in the real world:
Sometimes, compassionate self-talk is a gentle and supportive nudge. For example, I like to ask myself, What do I need right now? This gives me the flexibility to choose what’s most self-compassionate in a given situation. Since I’m prone to worry and micromanage everything, a message like trust the process for a while can help me let go. At other times, greater self-discipline is the kinder thing to do. For example, I might need to knuckle down to do a task I’ve been putting off. If that relieves my dread, it’s self-compassionate. In this scenario, I might say to myself, You don’t want to start because you’re anxious. That’s understandable. You want to do a good job. The best way to do a good job is to chip away at it. You don’t have to work on it all day. Give it 90 minutes and then enjoy the rest of the day.
Sometimes, self-compassionate talk is an irreverent challenge of beliefs. For example, I’ve written hundreds of blog articles. Some have over a million reads. Yet sometimes I’ll doubt myself. I’m not very good at this. I have nothing unique to say about this. Instead of taking these thoughts seriously, I will lightheartedly say to myself, Yup, you’ve forgotten how to do this. A fairy must’ve come overnight and taken away all the skills you used to write those other hundreds of articles. Everyone who shares your articles thinks they’re boring. That’s why editors keep giving you opportunities. That irreverence jolts me into a more realistic view of my competencies and opportunities.
And sometimes, self-compassionate talk is reframing a trait or tendency, like perfectionism. Use it to prevent psyching yourself out and letting perfect be the enemy of done. Perfectionists are less likely to be self-compassionate.3 Self-compassion can help you take a more balanced view of yourself and see when not everything is great (say, your performance on a project), but not everything is terrible (your entire career is a flop). A perfectionist might say to themselves, I have to get this exactly right, first try, or I’ll never get another opportunity. That attitude can make starting at all feel too daunting. Someone who is self-compassionate might say to themselves, Everyone has blind spots that result in first attempts being imperfect. I don’t have to get everything right all on my own. I can use others’ perspectives. That’s how great work happens.
How to Get Better at Compassionate Self-Talk
You control the conversation in your head, and you can reframe it positively in a way that feels natural and authentic to you. When you find yourself ruminating (such as rehashing past decisions, doing social comparison, dwelling on your imperfections), it’s time to practice self-compassion.
Here are some common traps to avoid and hints to make your self-talk feel more natural:
The more your kids see you taking on projects outside your comfort zone, the more opportunity you’ll have to demonstrate how you react emotionally to being challenged. Say out loud, “I’ve never done this before. I’m feeling nervous. I’m going to handle it by reading the instructions twice.” Or “I’m feeling stuck with this; let’s take a break till tomorrow and try again.” Let them hear you verbalize your strategies, see you accept the presence of difficult emotions, and move forward in productive ways with those emotions.
With little kids: Model how to handle your thoughts and emotions when what you try doesn’t always work. For example, my 4-year-old and I do crafting projects, like building dioramas. We try various materials from around the house and garden. Some of our ideas work, others flop. I use language like “We’re not as good at this as the people in the YouTube videos. They’ve practiced more than us and have more supplies. We can try our best and come up with our own ideas to use what we have at our house.”
With teens: Talk to your teenager about your experiences of only succeeding on your third or fourth try, or of working in groups with people more skilled than you are. Even if it seems as if they are tuning you out, something will get through.4 Sometimes you might want to revisit experiences to help your children emotionally process events. You might say, “You know last week when you were feeling confused about what your teacher wanted for your project? That happened to me at work today. I thought about you when it happened. I knew I wasn’t giving my coworker exactly what she wanted, but I wasn’t sure what I was missing. It’s a tough feeling to go through. And it took a while to figure it out, but I got there in the end. Just like you did. It didn’t feel great to go through that uncertainty, but it happens to everyone.”
Kids don’t need to think that their parents never experience negative emotions or doubt. They need to feel confident that their parents can handle themselves, will always be accessible to them, and will keep them safe, even when they’re having difficult emotions.
Talking to yourself with self-compassion will help you deal with a raft of challenging situations, including those you experience personally and those you need to help your kids (or students or employees) through. To use it effectively, follow these practices to build specific, personalized habits of self-compassionate talk.
Adapted from “Be Kinder to Yourself,” on hbr.org, January 12, 2021 (product H063MP).