Compassionate Self-Talk Changes You For the Better


Charlie Brown is a “sad-sack”, according to his friends in the Peanut’s gallery. Nothing ever seems to go his way; he fails at everything he does and takes every chance he can to feel sorry for himself. Nevertheless, he’s endearing to us, because we ourselves know how easy it can be to sink into negativity and self-pity when things don’t go our way.

Hopefully, we don’t spend too much time tearing ourselves down and bemoaning our losses, because our self-talk gets turned into images in the brain that depict our attitudes and feelings about ourselves—the good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s see how this all works.

The brain depicts self-talk through images that represent the attitudes and feelings we hold about ourselves. These self-images, also called self-representations, are stored deeply in memory and operate without having to be expressed first through language. This makes them powerful influencers of behavior, as they don’t need our permission to function. A self-representation operates much like a stored computer program does in random access memory (RAM). It waits for a situation that shares features with it and then activates behavior to fulfill itself through the event.

burden imageTake, Tony, for example. He sees himself as a “screw up who is a burden” to people, especially authority figures. This idea isn’t surprising given that Tony’s father always told him he was “the mistake of his life“. He resented having to pay childcare for Tony who was born out of wedlock. Tony always felt like a huge weight that dragged his father down. He carried this negative image of himself into every work situation and didn’t realize just how much this self-image dictated his self-talk. “Don’t be a pain-in-the-ass” to “You’re a miserable pain-in-the-ass, Tony” characterized the way he talked about himself, which only served to reinforce his negative self-image.

Well, nine months ago Tony got fired because he routinely failed to utilize team leaders for guidance on important work projects. He didn’t want to burden them, by asking for their help. This resulted in miscommunications and shabby work product that led coworkers and his boss to view him as a weight that was dragging their work down. Tony became the burden that he wanted so much to avoid, which only reinforced his feeling that he was “a screw up and a burden to people“.

Self-Compassion Rather Than Self-Condemnation

The good news is that we can change negative self-representations by compassionate self-talk. Negative self-images begin to weaken and dissolve when we start talking to ourselves compassionately about the things that happen to us. Compassionate self-talk opens the way to problem solving, personal change, and greater fulfillment and science backs this up. Juliana Breines, University of California, health psychology researcher, found that when people compassionately talk to themselves about negative life events, they show a greater willingness to learn from and improve upon their self-perceived weaknesses, mistakes, and failures.

Compassionate self-talk is more than putting a positive spin on negative events or painting ourselves with an all-glowing brush. It is self-talk that:

  • shows acceptance for who we are and what we are learning, and
  • is tolerant of flaws as well as strengths.

Compassionate self-talk puts us in a neutral mindset and feeling state that invites reflection. We neither exaggerate nor play down our role in the things that happen to us, which readies us to solve our problems rather than blame ourselves or wish them away.

Like many of us, Tony didn’t realize just how much time he spent tearing himself down and feeding negative self-images that undermined his desires and goals. Through compassionate self-talk, Tony learned how to counter negative ideas about himself and to replace them with more positive ones. You can do the same, by the steps that follow.

1. Get Mindful. Start to note the powerful negative self-statements that run through your mind and influence experience. Become mindful of the way you talk to yourself about yourself. What do you say? Take a moment to jot them down.

2. Get Compassionate! Develop compassionate self-talk statements that counter negative self-images. For example, Tony believed he was a burden to people, a “pain in the ass” as he says. His compassionate statements need to show insight into this idea and also counter it. “I’m deserving of help and direction.” “People are happy to help me.” This example shows you the way compassionate statements are tied to negative ones. Tony isn’t just telling himself, “I’m wonderful.” His self-talk compassionately counters the theme of his negative self-representations.

3. Walk the Walk of Your Self-Talk. Backup compassionate self-talk with positive actions. This is the surest way to build up experiences that counter the negative ideas we may have about ourselves and reveal them for what they actually are; just ideas.

Tony did get a new job. Only this time, compassionate self-talk led him to act in positive ways that supported his desires and goals.

string of self compassion imageDon’t let negative self-talk get away from you. Stop it in its tracks with self-compassion. Be as compassionate with yourself as you can be with other people and see the many ways your life will change for the better.

I hope you liked my post today and found something useful to use in your life. If so, please select the Like icon that immediately follows. You can also Tweet or Google+1 today’s post to let your friends know about it. Have a compassionate day my friends and remember, be careful what you say to yourselves, because YOU are listening. Warm regards, Deborah.

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6 Responses to “Compassionate Self-Talk Changes You For the Better”

  1. avatar fahad barki says:

    wonderfull piece,,bt i have got someother problem,,, would u like to provide me with ur email id where i can ask some personal questions,,

  2. I think it is very power therapy for the people who are suffered of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Very nicely composed

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Shahid, I like what you are saying here. You are right. People suffering from anxiety are very hard on themselves. Learning how to be more compassionate with oneself should help one to feel less like they have to worry about everything that is not within their control. Thank you for your excellent insight. Warm regards Deborah.

  3. avatar ayesha says:

    hey doctor i am 40 years housewife , understanding between me and husband is very poor , i m very depressed about this thing plz tell me something for me how its possible to stay stress free

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Ayesha, one of the best things to help with a couple problem is to encourage communication, so that both people have a chance to express their upset and concerns. I don’t know if you have tried to talk to him or if you have both been to a counselor.

      When there is trouble between a couple it is hard to remain completely stress-free because the relationship is an important part of our lives. I don’t know exactly what the trouble is, so I can’t answer specifically to your situation. If you feel there is little to be done to improve the relationship then most certainly you have to work on yourself. First, you have to reach a view of the troubles that causes you less emotional upset and stress. The first step is acceptance that the relationship may not become better. You see I’m kind of reaching for answers for you because I don’t know enough about your situation. I hope you understand. So for now let me say to try to first do all you can to make the situation better. If it doesn’t get better you may want to talk to a professional about a way that you can still find happiness if things don’t change. Thank you Ayesha. Wishing you the best. Deborah.


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