Worthiness: Quiet Negative Self-Talk with a Little Self-Compassion

“The wholehearted are all in.” – Brene Brown

As I learn about Brene Brown’s research that culminated in her book, The Daring Way, I am struck by her description of the people she spoke to who feel a profound sense of love and belonging no matter what (translate: “wholehearted”). These folks fundamentally articulated a deep belief that they are worthy, and this belief played out in choices they make every day.

I find myself poking at worthiness and what it means to me. I find that on the surface of most days I feel generally worthy, and I think I certainly act that way—competent, sure-footed, and open.

However, on second glance, and with rigorous honesty in the privacy of my own mind, I find that the self-talk I am doing a good deal of the time is actually all about my essential unworthiness. It is like a soundtrack that plays in the background in my own mind—I don’t say these things aloud, but I do think them.

“I can’t believe you said that, you idiot.”

“You have failed to be clear, once again.”

“What makes you think your opinion matters here?”

“Shut up.”

“You did it again you lazy person.”

“Bad parent.”

“You look so old and heavy in this outfit.”

The more I listen, the more I notice that both the volume and frequency of negative self-talk related to my worthiness is actually high, and the compassion I offer myself is very low.  If I talked to clients, colleagues, friends, or family the way I talk to myself, I am quite sure they would claim verbal abuse and simply walk away.

What is this about I wonder?

Clearly it is connected to my identity, and my own internalized triggers that send me to a place of shame, a feeling inside that I am simply not enough. Don’t get me wrong, I generally feel good about myself, but at the same time, I notice that there are certain arenas of my identity where I am particularly sensitive to being triggered into self-recrimination.  I notice that most often these are related to areas of imperfection—pieces of my work or identify that matter to me deeply and around which I have some fear or tenderness. It makes sense that I feel triggered into shame and negative self-talk in those very areas where I am the most exposed—where I am practicing courage and vulnerability.

I recently had a conversation with a client about a project that was a stretch for me.  I was working hard on it, and felt very exposed—was I good enough to imagine I could pull it off? He offered some perspective about improvement for next time that completely activated the voice in my head: “Of course you didn’t pull this off—he is telling you where you failed, and you knew you would.”  I caught myself in time to really hear what he was saying, which was simply clear, refinement feedback for next time.

He was happy with the work, and with me, and in the spirit of learning, offered some helpful feedback. I did not need to cycle into the cave of feeling unworthy and back pedal to prove to him or to myself that I would do it better next time. All I needed to do was hear the observation, be open to our joint overall satisfaction, and acknowledge the courage I showed with such a stretch.

The negative voice in my head of self-talk can be easily quieted by self-compassion.  If I treat myself as I would another person in partnership, the words I use and the care I bring elevate significantly.  How lovely that music will be inside my head, rather than the tired old soundtrack.

How do you talk to yourself? Is it helping you courageously risk and learn, or is it prompting you to shut down, walk away, and stay safe?

Jim Morris