‘You’d never talk to a friend that way’: How to quit negative self-talk

Do you tend to berate yourself when you make a mistake? Angrily lament your lack of willpower if you finish a packet of Maltesers? If your inner critic seethes when you feel you've done something wrong, you're far from alone.

Chances are you'd never talk to a friend the way your inner voice talks to you. We're wonderful at showing compassion towards others, but stumble when it comes to extending the same inward.

Imagine you can physically take theself-critic out of your head and justlet it speak to you. Credit:Stocksy

Psychologist Paul Gilbert came across the need for compassion as a therapeutic modality in England in the 1980s. After quizzing patients, he was shocked to hear just how many adopted harsh, scathing tones when engaging in self-talk.

He encouraged them to embrace a kinder tone. Some patients flatly refused, telling him they had never been nice to themselves and couldn't imagine starting now. Those who persevered faced another hurdle.

"They began to realise how lonely they'd felt for so long, because they'd had this hostile relationship with themselves for so long," he said.

Professor Gilbert could see these patients were crying out for self-compassion. Through the 1990s, he developed what's now known as Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT).

CFT has since spread to our shores, says Dr James Kirby, a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland and director of the Compassionate Mind Research Group. He cites the "recent surge" in people embracing mindfulness for creating our demand for compassion-based therapies.

Professor Gilbert is keen to note compassion is a sensitivity to suffering (either in yourself or others) along with a commitment to trying to alleviate and prevent such pain.

"Compassion involves, firstly, finding the courage to engage with things that are hard, frightening or upsetting … and secondly … the wisdom to find out how best to help one's self and others." These principles guide CFT's motto, which is "to be helpful, not harmful, to myself and others".

That harsh, negative self-talk is harmful to our health, Gilbert says. He says being verbally attacked by someone stimulates our stress system. "But equally, we can do it ourselves [by being self-critical]."

He cites studies that used brain scanners to support this notion. "When we're being self-critical, we're stimulating stress processes in your body, whereas when we're being compassionate, we don't."

The main problem to generating self-compassion, Gilbert says, is understanding that it's about becoming aware of your suffering, while nurturing a desire to alleviate it. Once people grasp this, he says, it's "fairly straightforward".

Start by becoming mindful of your inner voice. Gilbert says most people tend to "slip" into it, so pay attention. When you have the time, try to slow the process down. Imagine you can physically take the self-critic out of your head and just let it speak to you.

"When people do that, they suddenly realise this self-criticism can be much more vicious than they thought. It can say things like, 'You're no good, you're a waste of space.' The emotion in those words can be quite angry," he says.

Once you've let the self-critic rant, consider why it's so angry or afraid, but don't fight with it. Make a decision to treat yourself – and your critic – with the kind of "wise compassion" you'd afford a good friend, offering helpful suggestions, in a kind tone.

We don't have to believe what we're telling ourselves. Your critical mind will try to jump in and attack, Gilbert warns, but try not to let that deter you. He recommends deepening your breathing, aiming for around five breaths a minute. Doing that takes us from the frantic "fight or flight" sympathetic system into the calming, parasympathetic system.

The benefits? We become more courageous, better able to cope with life's difficulties, and improve the way we relate to others. And there's no upside to letting our inner critic run rampant, Gilbert says: "It just makes everything much harder."

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale May 26.

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