Pensive woman thinking self-critical thoughts

When you hit a rough patch, what does your self-talk sound like? For some of us, in those moments, our inner voice comes on like a drill-sergeant full of harsh words and criticism. Even people who are naturally supportive and understanding of others may find it hard to offer the same kindness to themselves.

An area of behavioral science research observing self-compassion is taking a closer look at how kindly or unkindly we view ourselves, and the effects on mood, health, and overall wellbeing. Growing research from this field indicates that people who are self-compassionate tend to be more optimistic, resilient, satisfied in life, and generally happier than their tougher-talking counterparts.

Perhaps most surprisingly, self-compassion also appears to be a more effective approach to motivation and success than tough-talk. In other words, it may be helpful to train our inner drill-sergeants to be more like an inner champion, someone who guides and motivates with our best interests at heart.

Encouraging Your Inner Champion

According to behavioral experts, we can grow our self-compassion through three practices:

Be mindfully aware of your inner-life in the moment. To change your dialogue, you first have to notice that your internal drill-sergeant is knocking you down while it’s happening. The next time something goes wrong, or you start to feel low, pay attention to the voice in your head and try naming what you’re feeling without judgment. For example, if you’ve just made a mistake, instead of thinking, that was stupid, or I always do that, or what’s wrong with me, try instead, I’m feeling frustrated…I’m feeling overwhelmed…I’m moving too fast right now. This basic mindfulness technique can help to quiet harsh self-talk and make space for more self-compassionate responses.

Remember your humanity and that you’re not alone. We often speak to ourselves in a way that we’d never speak to others. Understanding that other people go through the same thing we’re experiencing can help us to remember that and feel less isolated and less embarrassed by a mistake. The next time you’ve hit a snag and your self-critical voice rises, try thinking: Everyone makes mistakes and lots of people have been through this or something like it. What would I say to a friend if this happened to them and they asked for my advice? Imagining that we’re helping others can help us engage our compassion engine for ourselves.

Practice a small act of self-kindness. Give yourself a warm and kind response. This could be a physical response, like smiling to yourself, or a verbal one like speaking to yourself in a reassuring and supportive manner. For example, you might stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, smile, and think, It’s OK. Nobody is perfect. I’m a capable person; I can learn to work this out.

Like other healthy habits, the more you practice these techniques, the stronger you’ll become at meeting new challenges with greater self-compassion and resilience.