Self-talk: how to be compassionate with yourself

Published by Ali Gordon-Creed on

Do you speak to yourself as you would to others? Are you kind?

We all tend to have an inner critic and lots of us are harsher on ourselves than we would ever dream of being to others that we love. Our inner voice generally doesn’t have a filter and, as a result, can be more damaging than we might imagine.

The standard treatment for anxiety is CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – which usually comes in the form of counselling. However, this misses out a critical element of recovery: changing our inner voice from critical to compassionate.

Listen to yourself

Even by reading this blog you will become more aware of your own inner voice. Try to spend a few hours tuning in to it and listening to what it has to say and the tone with which it says it.

Part of psychotherapy training is becoming aware of your own self talk and at the beginning of my training, some 35 years ago, I noticed that I exclaimed out loud, “you stupid cow!” about myself as I brushed past my desk and knocked some papers off of it.

Saying that out loud feels shocking. But my inner voice thought nothing of it. It made me stop in my tracks. From then on, I resolved to notice my inner voice and have more compassion for myself.


Changing your inner narrative means understanding more about what compassion is. Kristin Neff says that there are three components of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness vs self-judgement

This is about being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate. It’s about recognising that being imperfect is part of being human and that we can’t always have exactly what we want.

  1. Common humanity vs isolation

The narrative that “It’s not fair, I am the only one suffering” is the isolation part of this component. We need to learn to recognise that all humans share the experience of suffering, losing, failing. It’s not reserved especially for ‘me’.

  1. Mindfulness vs over-identification

We need to take a balanced approach to our negative emotions. Neither should be suppressed or exaggerated. This means learning to observe thoughts of feeling as they are, not trying to deny them.

These are often tricky balances to achieve. Kristin herself says “we cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.” She makes the point that self-compassion is not self-pity but instead, it is learning to recognise and acknowledge our feelings and see them in the right perspective. Sometimes this can come from the conversations we have with others where we compare and sympathise.

How to find the balance

There is a simple exercise you can undertake to start engaging with a more positive internal dialogue and it is to write a letter to your younger self.

Imagine this letter as one you would have loved to receive as a child. Fill it with positive messages that you wished you had received. Tell yourself it is ok to make mistakes, that you are unique and therefore individual with reactions and experiences to match. Remind yourself that your only job in life is to be yourself; be true to who you are.

When you’ve written the letter, pick a phrase that especially resonates. This is likely to generate a strong emotional reaction, maybe a tear or two.

(A top tip here is to record yourself reading the letter aloud and then listen to the playback – it may be easier to hear what resonates this way.)

Now take this phrase or statement and write it on lots of post-it notes which you can then place around your home or office. Make sure they are left in places you will see then regularly. Your bathroom mirror might be a good starting point.

This statement can then become your daily mantra, a part of your morning or daily routine. Each time you read it, say it aloud too. It will enable you to re-embody it and believe it.


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Categories: selfcare