How to be nice to yourself (it’s not how you think)

Ever heard this advice?

“Talk to yourself as you would to a friend.”

For example, would you ever tell a friend:

  • “You’re going to royally fuck up this presentation.”
  • “Why were you too chicken to ask her out again?”
  • “You don’t have what it takes.”
  • “You’re a phoney.”

You wouldn’t, of course. But many of us talk to ourselves this way sometimes.

Or do we? 

Many of us certainly experience these thoughts from time to time. But that doesn’t mean we are actively talking to ourselves this way.

I forget this all the time, but it’s true: we are not our thoughts.

Thoughts simply appear in our consciousness, for reasons that we humans cannot yet understand. When we notice the thought “I can’t do this”, we don’t have to identify with it. We don’t have to accept our thoughts. We don’t even have to think of them as our thoughts. They’re just phenomena that we happen to experience. We can choose whether to believe them.

The standard advice to be nice to ourselves is to replace our negative thoughts with positive thoughts. For example, replace the thoughts above with:

  • “I’m going to kick ass at this presentation.”
  • “I learned what’s stopping me from asking her out—next time I won’t make the same mistake.”
  • “I will learn whichever skills I need to make it work.”
  • “I’m inexperienced, but I learn quickly.”

Certainly, we’d prefer to experience these positive thoughts instead of negative thoughts. But force-repeating these sentences ten times, a hundred times, or a thousand times won’t make us believe them. Doing so won’t make our brain stop generating worries and fears. Attempting to bowl over the negative thoughts with a flood of positive thoughts is not the way.

But what can we do when we’re about to give a presentation and we notice a negative thought like ‘I’m going to screw this up’?

Question the thought.

Remember that we are not our thoughts. We don’t have to believe any given thought. Let’s question this particular one: 

Sure, we could perhaps have prepared better. And sure, we do not have hundreds of presentations under our belt. But we know the material. We rehearsed a few times. So our presentation might actually go really well. We can’t know in advance. We’ll just have to do our best and see. Worrying won’t make us perform better.

Now these are things we can actively tell ourselves. 

Frequent negative thoughts can be painful, no doubt about it. But let’s not resist them. Let’s not try to steamroll them in an artificial way. Let’s recognize our negative thoughts, question them, and then let them go.

Yours,

— Peter

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