How to change your self-defeating narratives
We don’t change our mental stories with more judgment, shame, self-criticism, or by heaping on yet more perfectionism. We change them with patience and self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a brilliant antidote to some of the mindsets we’ve explored above because it basically tells us that yes, sometimes human beings experience pain and suffering, and sometimes they fail and behave poorly, but all of this is a part of the normal human experience, and doesn’t mean any of us is less worthy of love.
Self-compassion doesn’t mean we condone unacceptable aspects of life or behavior or suddenly lack standards for ourselves. Rather, it’s about shifting the attitude we hold when we regard ourselves and the lives we live. Can we go a little easier on ourselves? Can we do what needs to be done, but with a spirit of care, kindness and good humor?
Adopting an attitude of self-compassion has real, concrete benefits. When you deliberately act to soothe and calm yourself, to refrain from shame and self-criticism, you instantly dial down your body’s stress response. Your mental health improves, you can think a little more clearly and you may even find your relationships feel more harmonious.
When you’re constantly on high alert and unconsciously telling your body that it’s under threat, you flood your system with stress hormones and act out of fear—not a good place to cultivate conscious, intentional thinking.
Intentional thinking takes a little time. It needs a quiet, peaceful moment to thoughtfully consider all aspects of a situation at hand, to become fully aware of what’s occurring, to really feel what’s taking place internally in body and mind, and to contemplate. None of this can be done if you’re constantly stressed and strung out, rushing from one thing to the next, reacting to one minor crisis after another. And it’s especially not possible when a great chunk of your mental processing power is being wasted on thoughts like, Don’t mess this up again, you stupid idiot.
When we talk about mental narratives and stories, it’s easy to imagine we’re talking merely about cognition, or the intellectual content of a story. But if we hope to make lasting and genuine changes to our self-concept, we need to dig a little deeper, and look at the emotional content of the stories we tell ourselves.
Our stories can take millions of different forms, and be told in countless words and phrases. But ignore the words, the layout and story itself, and try to become aware of what it feels like to tell yourself a particular story. This is the beating heart of your self-narrative, and this is where you need to focus your attention if you hope to change it.
Try a meditation practice where you deliberately bring a little compassion to limiting self-beliefs. Start by becoming aware of how you talk to yourself, and how that feels. Try to put words or symbols on the emotion behind the narrative, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the symbols and thoughts are merely vehicles to carry lived, felt experience.
Now, sit with these feelings. Don’t try to avoid them, cover them, argue with them or get angry with them. Just become curious about what they are. Even doing this is starting to flex your conscious, intentional awareness. Simply notice the feelings, and the thoughts they inspire, rather than automatically and unconsciously allowing yourself to be compelled by them.
Accept them fully as a part of you, as part of your experience, without clinging but also without rejecting. Imagine, if you like, that some of these difficult emotions are simply guests you’ve invited to dinner. Invite them in and hear what they have to say.
You might like to visualize a warm, golden light to represent your accepting self-compassion—imagine this warm light encompassing all parts of yourself, even the more difficult and painful ones. Try reciting a mantra or affirmation that reinforces your commitment to be kind to yourself:
“I know who I am, and I am enough.”
“I am worthy, right here, right now, just as I am.”
“I can do this.”
“I treat myself with kindness, love and respect.”
“I forgive myself.”
“It’s OK to feel how I feel.”
With time, you can start to truly believe this alternative narrative over the negative one—a new narrative in which you’re a human, doing your best, who deserves patience and understanding as you navigate this sometimes crazy experience called life.
Practicing self-compassion doesn’t mean you can’t still work really hard, have ambitious dreams for yourself, feel disappointed, confused, or hurt—it just means that you do all these things while acting as your own best friend and ally. It means you deliberately and consciously choose to focus on compassion, gentleness, care and kindness.
Self-compassion bypasses all the distracting stories and narratives we tell ourselves and gets to the actual root of the matter: our core emotional experience. When we work at this level, we see our limiting and unhelpful self-beliefs start to fall away. We notice how bad it feels to hate ourselves, to judge ourselves or be unkind to ourselves when we are scared, confused or sad.
With repeated self-compassion, we can start to remove the damaging mental block of self-doubt and replace it with self-belief. In this frame of mind, we derive our sense of worth internally, and know that it isn’t the end of the world to fail. We trust our abilities, forgive our mistakes, and yes, love ourselves.