Do you ever say any of these things to a good friend?
- Wow, you’ve gained a lot of weight.
- Your house is a wreck.
- Why can’t you get more done?
- Your hair is a disaster.
- Why aren’t you a better wife/mother/employee/friend?
- You don’t have time to exercise, eat well, get enough sleep or relax.
No? Me either. But I bet you say them to yourself. How do I know? Because I’ve said all of those things, as well as dozens of other untrue or unhelpful things, to myself – hundreds if not thousands of times.
Why do we handle the feelings of our friends so carefully, wanting to encourage them rather than tear them down, but handle our own feelings so roughly? I really don’t know. Maybe we haven’t learned to see ourselves as beautiful and valuable people, created in the image of God. Maybe we’re overwhelmed by cultural messages about what women “should” be and “ought to” do. Or maybe we just haven’t slowed down enough to hear the damaging words we’re saying to ourselves.
For me, I think it’s the cultural messages that seem overwhelming. Because I’m not as thin, beautiful, smart or accomplished as the women our culture holds up as paragons of value and success, I assume there’s something wrong with me. And so the negative self-talk begins: “I look terrible. I’m really showing my age. She’s accomplished so much more than I ever will. I’ll never lose this weight. I’m not going to be able to achieve my goals.” And on and on and on. You know, things I would never say to a friend.
Your reasons may be the same as mine, or they may be different. Regardless, I think we both can change. If you’re saying, thinking and doing things that sabotage your own health, happiness or peace of mind, here are 5 ways to change course – and begin treating yourself like a good friend:
• Identify the negative things you think and say about yourself. For many women, negative self-talk is so ingrained in their lives, they aren’t even aware of it. They subconsciously think or say things like “I’m so fat,” “I’m so ugly,” or “I’m a terrible mother” repeatedly throughout the day. For example, a woman I know recently posted her “mother fail of the day” on Facebook. It was nothing – a small “blip” in her family’s life and not something she could have prevented. But she believed she had “failed” as a mother, even though by any objective standard she’s a great mother. Those kinds of thoughts really add up and become part of our (false) identify over time. So start taking notice of the things you think and say about yourself and identify the ones that are negative.
• Figure out what’s true and what’s false. Chances are, most of your negative thoughts and words about yourself are false. (Some may have an element of truth – we’ll get to those in a minute.) When we think negative thoughts about ourselves, we tend to “go big.” When that happens, small things become huge. “I let my daughter down today” becomes “I’m a terrible mother.” “I really need a haircut” becomes “I look horrible.” Or “This house needs to be straightened up” becomes “I’m a terrible housekeeper.” But now, instead of accepting those thoughts at face value, really analyze them. Are you a terrible mother who looks horrible and can’t manage her house? Probably not. Call out those thoughts for what they are – false.
• Replace false negative thoughts with true positive thoughts. Once you’ve begun to identify false negative thoughts and words, replace them with positive ones. At first, this will seem awkward. That’s fine – just try to do it 2 or 3 times a day. As it becomes easier, replace more negative thoughts with positive ones. So, for example, “My kids ate fast food 3 days in a row – I’m a bad mother” might become “My kids ate fast food 3 days in a row – that’s not normal for us, but we’ll get back on track today.” Or “I’m never going to accomplish anything important” might become “I’m a good wife, mother and friend. I’m making a difference in the lives of the people closest to me.” Don’t accept the false negative thoughts – call them out and counter them with truth.
• Take action on negative thoughts that hold some truth. Some of the negative things we think about ourselves are, at least in part, true. For example, if I gain 50 pounds over a couple of years, then my self-talk about being fat would have some basis in reality. And if you take on so many tasks you can’t do any of them well, then your feeling that you can’t do anything right is partly true. But it’s not because I’m a “fat person” or you’re a “failure;” it’s because we need to make changes in our lives.
So figure out the “themes” in your negative thoughts about yourself. What messages come up over and over again, and which of those have some basis in reality? Then figure out steps you can take to change those things. Not sure how to start? Do what you would do for a good friend. If a friend came to you and said, “I really want to change this, but I’m struggling,” how would you encourage her? What would you suggest she do? Then do those things for yourself.
• Make space in your life for things that are good for you. Women often say variations of “I don’t have time” when it comes to taking care of their own health and peace of mind. Things like “I don’t have time to sleep 7 hours a night or to exercise or to eat well” or “I can’t take time to read a book or pursue a hobby.” In many cases, what that really means is “My needs aren’t as important as the needs of other people.” It may also mean “I haven’t taken the time to figure out a way to do those things.”
Again, think about what you would say to a good friend. Would you tell her that her health isn’t important, or that she doesn’t need to do things that reduce her stress level or make her happy? I know you wouldn’t. So don’t say them to yourself either. Instead, pick one or two things that would really make a positive difference in your life and figure out a way to make them happen. (In order to do that, you may need to say no to some things or manage your family’s schedule.)
Have you learned to treat yourself as you would a good friend, or do you struggle with the way you think and talk about yourself? Either way, I would love to hear from you.
Also published at The Huffington Post.