Your Guide to Positive Thinking

Learn the art of self-kindness and feel happier—and more fulfilled—every day.

Recently at a party, I was introduced to a woman who looked vaguely familiar. When I said "nice to meet you," she coolly reminded me that we had already met—twice. I stuttered an apology and ran off to greet an imaginary friend I suddenly "spotted."

You're an idiot, I told myself. At home later that night, I beat myself up some more. "Who cares what she thinks, let it go," said my husband. But I couldn't stop chiding myself. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

When it comes to self-criticism, women are ruthless. For many of us, this self trash-talk seems to run in a continuous loop:

  • Ugh, look at those humongous thighs. No skinny jeans for you!
  • I'm the worst mother ever; how could I have snapped at my kids like that?
  • I may never work again after I blew that meeting.

What is most worrying, says Brené Brown, PhD, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and author of The Gifts Of Imperfection, "is that we talk to ourselves in ways we would never, ever consider talking to someone else."

It's hard to find a female who doesn't do it. Consider this quote from someone you've probably seen on the big screen: "You think, 'Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie?' And I don't know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?"

Who uttered this little self-negating gem—some starlet on a low-budget horror film? Nope: It was Meryl Streep.

Why are we so hard on ourselves? Brown thinks one reason is the idea that "if I cut myself down, it will somehow move me to engage in better behaviors." But research shows just the opposite is true.

It's at least some comfort that we're biologically programmed to do this. Louann Brizendine, MD, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco and author of The Female Brain, says there is a part of our brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which she dubs the "worrywart center."

It's wired to remember negative moments most keenly, which is your brain's way of teaching you not to do something potentially harmful again. As it happens, it's larger in women than in men.

Of course, guys are self-critical, too. "But I think men can 'feel the fear and do it anyway,'" says Amy Johnson, PhD, a psychologist and life coach, "whereas women hear that critical voice and believe it." This practice is so pervasive among women that cutting ourselves down has actually become the way we bond. Last year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University found that 90 percent of the college-age women they studied engaged in "fat talk"—going on with friends about how "fat" they were, regardless of their actual size.

Valerie Young, EdD, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, offers a few reasons why we're such relentless perfectionists with ourselves. "On some level, we know that we're being held to a higher standard in the workplace," she says. "And most of us grew up thinking it's our job to please everyone; so if someone isn't happy, it must be something that you've done, or haven't done."

She points to research by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, PhD, that found that boys receive eight times more criticism than girls. "Boys grow up more resilient to criticism because they heard more of it—they tend to razz each other more too." Meanwhile, she adds, girls tend to internalize criticism. "So if someone isn't happy, it must be something that you've done. This can set up a pattern of self-blame."

Not that a little self-criticism is all bad: It can be a reality check and may fire us up to perform better (which can make us more successful) or strive to be better people (which makes us happier). But there is a vast difference between "I need to work out more," which sparks your motivation, and "I'm a jiggly blob"—which just makes you want to sit on the couch.

The problem with cranking up the self-criticism, says Tamar E. Chansky, PhD, a Philadelphia psychologist and author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety, "is that it gets us worked up about the wrong things. If we weren't so distracted about how we'd ruined everything, we might see that there are some small ways that we could have improved."

And the longer self trash-talk goes unchecked, the worse the implications can be. Multiple studies have shown that having a nitpicky inner voice can cause your stress levels to skyrocket and even lead to depression. Happily, there are many ways to muzzle that inner critic for good.

When we're beating ourselves up, a tiny blunder is inflated into an epic typhoon of failure. So the next time a negative thought intrudes, take a few deep breaths and then "quickly narrow it down and put your problems into the smallest box possible," Chansky says. "If you think you screwed up in a meeting, instead of saying, 'I'm an idiot; I ruined my career,' say, 'Man, I used a poor choice of words.' Visualizing that box can really help."

Seeing a tiny box in your mind shows the actual size of the problem and helps you feel more confident that you can take it on.

Try the power of possible thinking

"We feel a lot of pressure to turn it all around and make it positive," Chansky says. "But research has found that when you're down and out and force yourself to say positive things to yourself, you end up feeling worse." That's because our internal lie detector goes off.

She suggests a technique called possible thinking, which involves reaching for neutral thoughts about the situation and naming the facts. "I'm a fat cow" becomes "I'd like to lose 10 pounds. I know how to do it." The facts give you a lot more choices and directions you can go in.

Ask yourself if you're really so guilty

Let's say in a meeting you blurt out that your Spanx are too tight. You think, I've just made the biggest fool of myself. Challenge your version of the story: Did everyone really recoil in horror, or were most of them actually tapping on their BlackBerrys under the table?

"Make the choice to be kind to yourself by questioning your initial thoughts, which is key to slowing down that voice," Johnson says. The more follow-ups you ask yourself, the more you dilute the shameful moment.

Put a better spin on things

A simple semantic tweak can actually change your outlook, Chansky says. Instead of telling yourself, "I'm so disorganized, I'll never get anything done," train yourself to say, "I'm having a thought that I'm not going to get it done." Rather than, "Ugh, I look tired and worn-out," sub in "I'm feeling like I look tired and worn out right now."

It may sound silly, but this little change of wording gives you distance and reminds you that your low self-esteem moment is just that: a moment. It's not the final word of what's going on in your life.

"I always tell people that saying, 'Boy, did I feel stupid,' rather than 'I am so stupid' may seem like a nuance, but there's a significant difference," Young adds, because the former describes how you feel, not who you are.

Ask: what would my best friend say?

A quick way to puncture nasty self-talk is to think of someone you trust and imagine what she would say to you. "Which is probably, 'Oh please, was it really that bad?'" notes Chansky. "Did you really ruin your career in the meeting?" Another rule: If you wouldn't say it to your friend, don't say it to yourself. You would never—at least, we hope you would never—call your friend a "total slob" for dribbling tomato sauce on her blouse.

It's hard to take that inner voice seriously when you call it The Nag. ("Here comes The Nag again.") Brown calls hers The Gremlin. Chansky prefers The Perfectionist. "Naming it something goofy adds a bit of levity, " she says, "which helps break through the emotional hold that anxiety has on you. Over time, this short circuits the whole anxious cycle."

...While you're at it, give your rants a name, too

Johnson likes to call these inner harangues "stories." "I love calling some tirade the 'my friends are better than me' story, or the 'I don't get enough done' story," she says. "Instead of feeling like it's some kind of valid feedback, this highlights how consistent the stories are. We have pretty much the same thoughts today that we had yesterday, which should clue us in to the fact that they're habits, not necessarily truths."

Pick up the phone

Shame only works if we keep it secret, Brown says. "So if I get in the car after a party and thought I said something stupid, I pick up the phone and say, 'OK, I'm in a total shame downward spiral—here's what happened.'" She laughs. "At that moment, you've basically cut shame off at the knees. So find the courage to do the counterintuitive thing and tell someone what happened—invariably those conversations end with laughter."

Embrace your imperfections

It's enormously freeing (not to mention a huge stress reducer) to stop holding yourself to insanely high standards.

"Perfectionism is so destructive," Brown says. "I've interviewed CEOs and award-winning athletes, and not once in twelve years did I ever hear someone say, 'I achieved everything I have because I am a perfectionist.' Never!" What she hears instead? They credit their success to a willingness to mess up and move on.

So relax your standards just a little. If you give yourself the same empathy you'd show a friend, it will be so much easier to take on The Nag, and win.

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