I used to be a terrible communicator. I was the queen of slamming drawers, closing the dishwasher loudly, walking away during a stressful conversation without saying a word. I hated confrontation; it made me so uncomfortable that I would shut down and get quiet, almost like my mind would go blank and there’d be nothing for me to draw on. When I felt attacked, I’d get defensive and end up saying things I didn’t mean and then feel badly about what I’d said, beating myself up for it. Also, I had problems with silence. Put me in a room and I’d be the first to fill the space.
Then something—everything—changed. My first love tragically passed away, and with his passing the world looked different. What I saw was that life was too beautiful to be upset all the time, constantly comparing, competing, thinking this is right that is wrong. Life was too unpredictable to disrespect others and myself with my interactions. Life was to be enjoyed, not to suffer through. I wanted to feel present, to enjoy my time here. I read books, took courses, signed up for workshops all on this quest to care for myself; to understand how to feel good in my day-to-day.
No matter the class, or teacher, or mentor, over and over again I found that the root of my unhappiness and insecurity was how I communicated with myself. How I talked with myself dictated so much of how I felt and that was reflected in how I talked to other people. Although I wanted to be open and understanding and compassionate, and to celebrate others, all I could do was react from a place of insecurity because I felt like others’ goodness took away from mine, or their successes somehow made mine further out of reach. Comparing myself to others made me even more reactionary, pushing me to be passive-aggressive and blame others for what I wasn’t feeling or doing.
In all the soul searching I did after my first love’s passing, I realized that to really enjoy each moment, to be here now, I had to teach myself a new way of interacting—with myself.
This means that the words we choose have an incredibly powerful effect on how we see the world and ourselves. Simple statements like “nothing looks right on me today” to the more damaging “I can’t do anything right” can affect our day in the same way that dark clouds or rain might affect an otherwise sunny day. I realized that to enjoy my life, to really see that the world is full of possibilities rather than liabilities, I needed to let go of negative self-talk and speak to myself from a place of compassion; to be aware of any self-judgments and biases that arise, and replace them with truthful, helpful, and kind language.
Using this style of self-communication changed my life. It increased my self-esteem, reduced stress and anxiety, and helped me understand my own feelings and the feelings of others; it enhanced my overall appreciation for life and helped me create a more calm, balanced, and energized life. Through this practice, I’ve become a better friend, daughter, sister, wife, aunt, and mother.
As I started to see how the practice of what I call Intentional Communication was helping me, I began sharing it through articles, and soon after people started asking for guidance. I became a certified meditation and mindfulness instructor and then published a book called How to Communicate Like a Buddhist. After the release of the book, I created an online course; coaches, therapists, educators, individuals, social workers, and heads of organizations took it and told me about the changes they were seeing in how they interacted with their clients, students, employees, friends, family, and partners. Recently I published a second book, Talk to Yourself Like a Buddhist, focusing on how to talk to yourself with intention and compassion.
Here are six common phrases that promote suffering, and more constructive alternatives that can help you be kinder to yourself in small but powerful ways.
1. Instead of: “I’m an idiot.”
Try: “I’m not understanding this right now.”
A common phrase I hear a lot is “I’m an idiot.” What “I am” plus a description does is imply a fixed or permanent state. There is nowhere for you to go with this type of language, no opportunity for growth. Instead of making a mistake, you are an idiot. Instead of not getting that promotion, you’re a loser. Instead of taking care of your needs, you are selfish. You take a description and make it a part of who you are. If you tell yourself you are these things often enough, you start to believe it. The problem is that this leaves no room to be more than one thing. But if we replace it with relative language such as, “I’m not understanding this right now,” or “I’m acting like an idiot right now,” you leave room to change and bring an observational perspective to yourself and how you feel.
2. Instead of: “I should be _____ by now.”
Try: “I could be _____ right now and I’m choosing to _____ instead.”
Not meeting an internal expectation is one of the biggest ways we create negative self-talk. Think of how you talk to yourself if you don’t meet your internal expectations, or if you don’t reach the goals you’ve set for yourself.
The implication of this negative self-talk is that what you are right now isn’t good enough. You can change this type of self-talk by substituting “could” for “should,” which keeps you grounded in the truth instead of expectation. “I could be married right now and I’m choosing to focus on my career instead.” “I could be financially stable right now and I’m choosing to take a risk and go out on my own instead.”
Also, when you notice you’re using this type of language when you’re let down by an internal expectation, you can ask yourself, “Could this be better than what I’d originally planned?” You might be pleasantly surprised to see where not sticking to the plan can take you.
3. Instead of: “It’s all my fault.”
Try: “I played a part in this situation and am only responsible for my own decisions and actions.”
The I, Me, My pattern to negative self-talk is when you believe that what others do and say is a reaction to you. This happens when you take personal responsibility for the actions of others or for entire situations, and as you can imagine, judge yourself negatively in the process. The truth is that others are responsible for their own choices, just as we are responsible for ours. You want to come from a place of observation and acknowledge the role you have in a situation and nothing further.
4. Instead of: “I never should have…”
Try: “If that hadn’t happened, I…”
Regret is extremely powerful when it comes to generating negative self-talk. It occurs when you look back at your past, at things you did or failed to do, and beat yourself up for the action or inaction. Why this form of negative self-talk is so subtle is that people mistake the judgment of their past as the truth. You want to look for the unexpected benefits, even if it takes years to uncover them. Consider the present benefits of past events: If that hadn’t happened, I never would have met, experienced, seen, etc.
5. Instead of: “They must think I’m _____”
Try: “Their actions are just their actions, nothing more or less. They don’t mean anything about me.”
These kinds of phrases are the most common type of judgment that leads to negative self-talk. When you assume you know what others are thinking or feeling about you, you judge that their thoughts or feelings are negative, and then you berate yourself because of this judgment. In other words, you actually agree with the assumption you’re making, even when it has no basis in reality. Our assumptions are more often reflective of what we think of ourselves than what anyone else thinks about us.
The key to switching your language here is to focus on the facts in any situation and to be cognizant of any story your mind wants to create around the facts. You can’t know what anyone else is feeling or thinking; focus on what you know to be true. Instead of saying something like, “He thinks I’m not good enough,” focus on the action itself. So it’d become, “He didn’t invite me to join his team. All that means is that he didn’t invite me to join his team, nothing more or less.”
6. Instead of: “Why can’t I be like them?”
Try: “They are doing so well; there is enough good in the world for all of us.”
When we compare ourselves to others, we see something they have or some characteristics they possess and judge ourselves as deficient when we don’t measure up. I call this comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides. In other words, if you compare how you feel on the inside to how someone else looks on the outside, you’ll always come out deficient. Comparing ourselves to others creates our own suffering. Much of this habit is rooted in societal ideas about what is important. Who defines what attractiveness is? How does one define intelligence? The next time you find yourself comparing, shift your focus to observing any differences between you and the other person and celebrate their uniqueness as well as your own. Instead of viewing life as competition, view it as cooperation.