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Neuroplasticity and the Critical Practice of Speaking More Kindly to Yourself.

Neuroplasticity and the Critical Practice of Speaking More Kindly to Yourself. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

I’m writing to you today from the house of one of my very best girlfriends where I’m spending time with her, her husband, and their newborn twin baby girls. For me, it’s heaven!

I adore babies – always have and always will. They’re so incredibly precious to me so it’s a gift and a privilege to spend this weekend (as I have the past several weekends since they were born) with my friends and their twin girls.

Watching how my friends parent their girls so lovingly and consciously, I’m both deeply touched and yet also reminded that for so many of us – including many of my clients – this supportive, kind, attuned parenting may have been lacking some or all of the time growing up.

Neuroplasticity and the Critical Practice of Speaking More Kindly to Yourself. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

Neuroplasticity and the Critical Practice of Speaking More Kindly to Yourself.

Perhaps instead of growing up in homes where we were spoken to kindly and compassionately, where our feelings were valued and our experienced honored, we may have grown up in homes where we were subtly or strongly devalued, criticised, derided, or neglected.

We may have grown up in homes where we learned to introject (e.g.: internalize) negative, critical voices and along the way, this is how we began to speak to ourselves as adults.

Can you relate?

If so, at some point in your own individual healing or personal growth journey one task you may likely face is learning how to more effectively reparent yourself which includes both acting and speaking to yourself in kind, supportive, loving ways.

I’ve written about the act of reparenting yourself before and in today’s post I want to share more about why it’s so critical we actually speak kindly to ourselves (aloud and in our heads) and offer up some concrete, tangible action steps you can take to treat yourself lovingly, in the very way a good-enough parent might do.

Speaking More Kindly to Yourself Is Critical. Because, Neuroplasticity.

Why speak more kindly to yourself? In a word: neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, describes how different life experiences create and reorganize neural pathways in our brain. These neural connections, for better or worse, are what form our thought and behavior patterns as we move through our day-to-day lives.

Now, the bad news is that, for many of us who came from less than loving, attuned, and safe childhood households, the neural pathways we may have developed may include deeply ingrained patterns of negative self-talk, self-doubt, future-doubt, other-doubt, and world-doubt, etc..

But the good news is this: the brain is plastic and can change up until the day we die if we learn new skills, memorize new information, or provide ourselves with new experiences.

Each time you have a repeated experience, whether negative or positive be they thoughts or words about yourself, you deepen the neural grooves in your brain. When you unintentionally or intentionally create a different experience for yourself, you create new neural pathways. New positive experiences and different kinds of self-talk create new, perhaps more functional neural pathways.

This is the science of re-parenting yourself. This is why speaking kindly to yourself is so critical. This is the goal: To provide ourselves with a new set of experiences designed to actually create long lasting, functional changes in our brain that can lead to more effective, satisfying behavior and, ultimately, better outcomes in our lives.

That’s why actually practicing speaking kindly and lovingly to yourself is so critical. It’s not just some pop-psychology-personal-growth-movement advice; it’s at attempt at harnessing the neuroplasticity of your brain to help you create change in your world.

And, as a psychotherapist, I truly think that this longed-for life change can begin when we change the way we speak to ourselves, interrupting the unconscious or conscious critical, derogatory voices we’ve introjected and embodied as habit, and instead try on new, more supportive ways of speaking to ourselves.

So You Know You Have To Speak More Kindly To Yourself. Now What?

If, in reading through you find yourself nodding your head saying to yourself, “Yeah, okay Annie, that makes sense but what I do actually do about this?”, I want to suggest four things:

1) Bring awareness to what is.
2) Interrupt your negative self talk with kinder self-talk.
3) Cultivate kinder re-parenting voices to achieve that better self-talk.
4) Channeling those kinder voices, say these kinds of things to yourself when you’re tired/crabby/sad/mad/scared.
5) And note, this will all feel uncomfortable at first.

1. Bring your awareness to what is.

The first step in any process of change is bringing our awareness to what’s actually happening. In this case, it’s the way you’re currently talking to yourself. So as a first step in this process, I want you to begin tracking yourself very, very closely.

What do you say to yourself when you catch yourself in the mirror first thing in the morning? What do you say to yourself when you make a mistake at work? What do you say to yourself when that date of last weekend hasn’t called you back?

Notice the messages and the tone of voice that you’re currently speaking to yourself with: Is it kind, loving, patient, gentle, unfailingly supportive? Or is it critical, demanding, aggressive, shaming, blaming, and downright cruel? If this voice had a body, a form, what would it look like? What caricature or archetype might it embody?

Really get to know who’s piping up in your mind and emotional body as a default. If it’s an unkind, critical voice, don’t despair. Like with most patterns and behaviors, you come by this voice honestly and we can imagine that at some point it was probably trying to serve you. Now it’s time to try and interrupt that voice.

2. Interrupt your negative self talk with kinder self-talk.

As you bring your awareness of the ways you talk to yourself closer and closer to the moment it actually happens in, your next task will be catching yourself, pausing, and substituting a kinder, more loving form of self-talk.

Simple, but not always easy.

It’s particularly challenging if you’re not sure how and what to say to yourself as a kinder, more loving alternative. So read on…

3. Cultivate kinder re-parenting voices to achieve that better self-talk.

If speaking to yourself kindly and lovingly is foreign for you, it’s your task to begin to internalize some different kinds of voices. If we have those supportive, nurturing voices surrounding us in childhood, that’s great. But if we didn’t, it’s never too late!

I want to invite you to scan through your life and take note of who speaks to you and others really kindly. Is it your best friend? Your partner? A mentor? Your therapist? Someone you know of from afar?

If there’s no one in your immediate life who can provide a good model for kind self-talk, think about some fictional, real life, or pen and paper models and mentors you might know of.

Some of my personal favorites include Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD, Mister Rogers, and the actor and character Andy Griffith.

Each of these souls brings such wisdom, gentleness, and kindness in their interactions. I consider them models and mentors (none of whom I’ve met) in how to speak more kindly to myself. Who are some examples of people who might model kinder self-talk for you?

4. Channeling those kinder voices, say these kinds of things to yourself when you’re tired/crabby/sad/mad/scared.

Below is a list of sample phrases you could imagine practicing saying to yourself as you begin the neuroplasticity-critical work of re-parenting and speaking more kindly to yourself. And please know that this list isn’t exhaustive; it’s simply meant to jog your own creativity and loving, self-kindness in a way that works for you in the nitty-gritty-real-life of your day-to-day:

  • “I’m so proud of myself for being brave and stretching myself today in that work meeting today. That wasn’t easy but I did it.
  • “It makes sense that I’d be tired and crabby, it was a hard day! It’s okay that I’m in a bad mood.”
  • “It’s not fair or realistic to compare myself to those other people on Facebook. I don’t know their story and they probably didn’t have to deal with what I do. From where I’ve come from, I’m doing just fine.”
  • “No matter what happens, I’ll be okay, I trust myself to start over again.”
  • “I made a mistake today and that’s okay. That makes me human. I did the best I could and I’ll try again tomorrow.”
  • “It’s okay that I’m jealous of people taking fancy vacations on Instagram. It just means this is something I’m longing for, too. I’ll get there. It’s just not now.”
  • “True, I’m exhausted but all those years of study are paying off and I’m proud of myself for being so hardworking.”

5. And note, this will all feel uncomfortable at first.

Look, I want to acknowledge that, as you begin to practice speaking more kindly to yourself, it’ll perhaps feel awkward and possibly forced. That’s okay. That’s actually perfectly normal and natural.

Like how most of us have one intuitive way of clasping our fingers when we hold our hands together when you consciously attempt to clasp your fingers the other way it will feel a bit awkward and weird, right? You’re changing your patterning and it’s going to feel awkward.

The same thing is true with practicing a different way of speaking to yourself. So be patient, know that it will be awkward at first, but continue practicing until it feels easier and more normative to speak kindly and lovingly towards yourself.

In doing so, you’ll be re-wiring your brain and creating new, more functional neural pathways for yourself and this, in turn, can have a beneficial impact on the rest of your life.

Wrapping this up.

Now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: What’s one thing that stood out to you from today’s article? Do you personally make an effort to practice speaking more kindly to yourself? What’s helped you in your journey to practice this? Leave a message in the comments below and I’ll be sure to respond.

And until next time, take very good care of yourself.

Warmly, Annie

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    • Annie on  

      Oh Ruth, I’m so glad to know the article found you at the time you needed it. That’s always my hope with my writing! Wishing you all the very best. Warmly, Annie

  1. Dylan on  

    Perfectly put.

    I’m a trauma therapist and child & family play therapist and I teach this too. This article is perfect and so nicely laid out, I’ll be printing it and sharing it with my clients!

    Thank you!

    • Annie on  

      Hi Dylan,

      I’m so glad the article resonated with you as a fellow therapist! Please do feel free to print out and share – the more people who practice speaking kindly to themselves and others, the better for us all.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and for stopping by to comment.

      Warmly, Annie

    • Annie on  

      Hi John,

      I’m really glad to know the post felt helpful and calming to you. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment!

      Warmly, Annie

    • Annie on  

      Hi Heather,

      I’m so glad you found the article helpful and clear! I’d love to know how you incorporate these ideas into your art and poetry — I’ll bet that’s very powerful.

      Please feel free to share more and, once again, thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

      Warmly,

      Annie

  2. Heather Joanne Maloto on  

    Thank you for this very timely article. Starting a new life path at midlife has been very challenging, I will continue to reread this each time I feel like giving up. Blessings to you Annie…

  3. Joley on  

    You nailed it, Annie, at least in my world, when you said your favorite positive self talkers include Fred Rogers. His music has influenced what I share with my students and how I encourage myself. People can understand each other’s anger — “what do you do / when you feel so mad you could bite / do you pound some clay or some dough / do you round up friends for a game of tag / and see how fas you go” — which helps us connect to the truth that anger itself is not condemnable, and how it manifests can be observed and accepted. Mister Rogers’ hope and joy is contagious too: “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive / it’s such a happy feeling, you’re growing inside / And when you wake up ready to say ‘I think I’ll make a snappy new day’ / a very good feeling you feel when you know that we’re friends.” Wow, his peaceful reassurance feels present to me even now, 40+ years later. So grateful! Thank you for imploring others to pattern after his gentle style.

  4. Cheryl on  

    I have often been stuck in negative self talk. It seems a common thing. It trickles down and affects every aspect of life. Thank you for this very practical and helpful input. Much appreciated. ?

  5. Sarah moscho on  

    So so perfect. I work with victims of sex trafficking. Many are struggling with complex trauma, PTSD, dual diagnosis and the shame can be devistating at times. This is an incredibly simple yet transformative way to help them restructure their critical self talk.

    I love Andy Taylor too. Such a great example of a safe and nurturing voice.

    Thank you for sharing! ❤️

  6. Marion on  

    It’s hard to overcome the habit of years and speak kindly to myself. I would never speak as harshly to anyone else, why do put up with it from myself. I am looking forward to better more loving talk in the future. Thank you.

  7. Faith on  

    I really need to do this! I have tried though, and for me the problem is the positive self talk just seems not to be true. I don’t believe it, it just feels like I’m lying to myself and trying to make myself feel better with white lies. I can’t take it seriously because it has no emotional backing behind it in my mind; while the horrible things have an emotional punch to them which make them seem much more real.

    • Dobrina on  

      Dear Faith,
      I will suggest you start at the beginning and take a look at yourself. Once you see the negative talk, talk back and ask questions: Is it really bad? What is bad about X? Is there really nothing, absolutely nothing to speak kindly of? Once you see the positive, the reason to be kind, it will not be difficult. And there will be something, as we are not all black. Things are never only black or white, and we are a mixture of different actions, thoughts and emotions. You may also try Dr. Burns’ book: Feel Good: The New Mood Therapy (https://www.amazon.com/Feeling-Good-New-Mood-Therapy/dp/0380810336). It has made a difference to me.

  8. Nicola on  

    I enjoyed this article and found it useful. Thank you. It is good to be reminded that to change one’s habitual thinking modes can be difficult and feel uncomfortable initially.

  9. Lee on  

    Each time I even try to look in the mirror and speak kindly. I start crying and I can’t stop. is that weird that it’s so foreign to me that it’s painful?

    • Annie on  

      Hi Lee, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and leaving a comment. What you experienced isn’t weird at all. Many people from adverse early beginnings can feel sadness and pain when they begin to speak to themselves more kindly (or have others speak this way to them). For many, it’s a reminder of what they didn’t receive and grief can often be mixed in with the newness and unfamiliarity of it all. I’m proud of you for trying to speak to yourself more kindly. It will get easier, I promise. Warmly, Annie

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