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Right Speech and Self Talk

In one of my favorite passages in one of my favorite dharma books, "Loving Kindness," Sharon Salzberg talks about how she'd been practicing metta, loving kindness meditation, and wasn't sure it was having any effect -- until one morning when she broke something, said to herself what she always said, "You're such a klutz," and then surprised herself with, "But I love you anyway."

Wise or skillful speech is one of the steps on the Buddha's Eightfold Path to liberation from suffering. While it's often looked at as relational -- how we speak to others -- it also applies to how we talk to ourselves. Is it kind? Is it useful? Does it need to be said?

It's been a loud, short-tempered week in the office. Blame it on the full moon, Mercury in retrograde, new-and-not-yet-up-to-speed staff, a dozen other things. When I hear people talk meanly to others, I try to consider that they also talk that way to themselves. I know how uncomfortable it is to experience it coming from someone else. I suspect it sounds just as harsh directed at yourself.


NPR this week had a story on self talk as it's used in therapy for people with eating disorders. It quotes David Sarwer, a psychologist and clinical director at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania, says that one of the first things he does with new patients is stand them in front of a mirror and coach them to use gentler, more neutral language as they evaluate their bodies. The goal, he says, is to remove "negative and pejorative terms" from the patient's self-talk.

It also matters how you address yourself, the report says.  Psychologist Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan studied the pronouns people use when they talk to themselves silently, inside their minds.

"What we find," Kross says, "is that a subtle linguistic shift — shifting from 'I' to your own name — can have really powerful self-regulatory effects."

... He asked volunteers to give a speech — with only five minutes of mental preparation. As they prepped, he asked some to talk to themselves and to address themselves as "I." Others he asked to either call themselves "you," or to use their own names as they readied their speeches.

Kross says that people who used "I" had a mental monologue that sounded something like, " 'Oh, my god, how am I going do this? I can't prepare a speech in five minutes without notes. It takes days for me to prepare a speech!' "

People who used their own names, on the other hand, were more likely to give themselves support and advice, saying things like, "Ethan, you can do this. You've given a ton of speeches before." These people sounded more rational, and less emotional — perhaps because they were able to get some distance from themselves.

"It's almost like you are duping yourself into thinking about you as though you were another person," he says.

This is interesting from a Buddhist perspective. Since the self is only a collection of constantly changing constituent elements -- the skandhas of form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness -- when we speak to our selves as "I," it's our confused mind talking to our confused mind. When we speak from awareness, from our innately clear and confident buddhanature, it has a different quality.

I just gave this a run-through. Looking in the mirror, "I" told myself I looked like I had gotten dressed out of the lost-and-found bin at the yoga studio. Awareness said, "Pay no attention. You look fine."

The practice -- and practicing it in meditation helps -- is to notice the self-talk before you act on it and question it. "I look fat," I say. "Really? By what standard? The irrational one in your head?" Well, yes.

Ask the magic questions: Is it kind? Is it useful? Is this the time to bring it up?

Kindness to yourself inevitably spills over into kindness to others -- genuine kindness, not indulgence. Covering up self-hatred in designer clothes doesn't actually make you feel any better. A person who feels at home in their skin does have to cover it in status symbols to prove their worth.

Try it. You, as much as anyone in the world, are deserving of your kindness.

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