Unconditional Friendliness

Self-talk is a complicated beast.

In a lot of ways, it feels like one of the most private acts in which I can engage.  Nobody can overhear it.  Nobody can contradict me if I don’t totally accurately report it.  …Most people don’t really even want to know about it.  And so it is easy to be careless about self-talk: not to pay attention to the relationship I am having with myself; not to be mindful about the language that I’m using; not to be sure I’m being consistent, effective, and kind.

On the other hand, I actually believe that this is one of my most public behaviors.  Self-talk flavors every single interaction I have, intimate to casual, private to public.  When I’ve been internally hoarse from screaming at myself like a way-too-personal drill instructor, I interact with others through tiredness, overcarefulness,  defensiveness, and a still, very small voice that says that if I just yell at myself louder, I’ll work harder, mess up less, and get more done.

The odd thing is, this isn’t how I believe in dealing with other people.  I believe in dealing with other people via unflinching respect, good-natured humor, and encouragement.  I believe that to get the most out of every relationship I have, I have to pour my best self into it.

So…why did I think that the person I’m around the most was the one exception to the rule?

A while back, I finally decided that that was foolish.  I was also kind of tired of the internal yelling, the castigations, the flaming guilt sessions.  I was exhausted by the philosophy of “yell harder => go faster”.  I thought: Even if it isn’t more effective, I’m just kind of…tired.  And I’m ready to be a little gentler to me.

I have come to believe firmly (and I am not the only one) that my internal dialogue sets the tone for how I communicate with others; negative bleeds through, as does positive; and I have seen thousands of times how practicing the same communication with myself as I do with others has positively influenced those outer communications.  I’m not on edge, not ready to bite my head off and accidentally landing on someone else’s, I’m not stuck trying to make an emotional swamp look like Fiji all the time.  I try to be the coach and cheerleader for myself that I want to have, which means I rely on other people much less for the validation I legitimately need, which mean I can serve as a resource for courage and compassion much more often and strongly.

In this expedition towards internal peace and non-agenda-driven communication – and sometimes it has felt like a brutal safari, machete-ing past jungle-dense overgrowth of bad habits and stale negativity – I have learned a phrase that I first encountered from Buddhist monk and spiritual writer Thich Nhat Hanh: unconditional friendliness.

This has turned into an incredibly productive mantra.  Whenever I am disappointed in myself, or tempted to feel shame, or experiencing any kind of gap between the person that I try to be and the person that I actually am, I speak this reminder to myself: “Now I get to be unconditionally friendly to myself.”  While I may still experience disappointment or some other internal discomfort, it helps me lean on a version of myself that is lovingly nonjudgmental, pleasingly supportive, good-naturedly kind.  I have a friend in me!

I’ve been working on this for so long – almost a decade, now – it’s developed into quite a cozy little habit; a routine that brings comfort almost as soon as it kicks on (like instant air conditioning for the soul!).  Now, almost as soon as the “How could you do that?” machine starts gearing up, so does the unconditionally friendly mantra, short-circuiting the machine before it reaches full speed.

Sometimes, I don’t even get to the words of unconditional friendliness; sometimes, it’s just a reaction now, and that reaction feels like a hammock to my battered soul.  It’s a hammock that lets me take the weight off my emotional feet – I don’t cheer myself on, but I don’t berate myself either; I just let the moment be and swing with it, until I feel more able to manage myself positively.   In this way I have been spending less and less time in the downswings of personal frustration, and more and more energy on improvement and rewarding action.  As a result my entire environment, internal and external, personal and interpersonal, has gotten easier, kinder, more joyful; and I am stronger, more resilient, and more productive than ever before.  I am grateful for the idea of unconditional friendliness, and I plan to stick with it for a long time to come.

What about you?  How do you approach your self-talk?

— Posted on 17 August 2015 at 11:09am by

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