Refined sugar matters, yes. Hydrogenated oil matters, yes. Riesling, pumpkin spiced lattés, and croissants all matter, too. What we put into our bodies inevitably becomes us, and much of the research that points towards certain dietary changes has great validity and truth within it that can help us to achieve our wellness goals. But often, when we talk about food, nutrition, and our other wellness habits, we skip over an element more deeply engrained into us that impacts our ability to live healthy lives: that is, the way we think about and speak to ourselves.
In an externally focused world, it comes quite naturally to fixate on the outer changes we can make to become more aligned, balanced, and whole. There is no shortage of dietary, supplement, and other product recommendations that promise great things for us. The best of these do have a place and purpose, but they only scratch the surface if the inner work is not in alignment. If we have not addressed what is happening within us, we cannot reach the root of whatever health issue we are dealing with, whether physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional.
Our inner dialogue slips discretely under the surface, bypassing our own ability to discern between what we wish to let through and what needs to be released. If we consider that 95 percent of our thoughts are the same as yesterday, it should not be surprising that we yield the same results as the day before. Change becomes much more challenging to make when we are working with a mind that believes the same things as it did in the days preceding this one.
Thomas Jefferson said, “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” We can consider this suggestion when it comes to changing exercise and diet habits of course, but on a more intimate level, the notion can be applied to the way we think about ourselves. What thoughts do we wish to nurture? What thoughts and self-spoken words facilitate healthy change?
A dominating character of the mind is the inner judge, one who hangs around in the darkest corners going largely unnoticed. The judge infiltrates our thoughts, influencing what we believe about and how we speak to ourselves. This voice lacks a key trait that is crucial to successful and sustainable change: self-compassion. These thought patterns, that criticise our weaknesses rather than hold them in compassionate awareness, keep us from looking honestly at the deeply rooted beliefs that leave us feeling incapable of change.
Compassionate awareness does not mean that we let ourselves off the hook entirely. From this standpoint, we assess our behaviours themselves without criticising and questioning our fundamental value or worth. We speak kindly and compassionately, acknowledging when we have acted in a way that is less than self-nurturing. In place of self-criticism, we inquire into the behaviour itself. This is the difference, as Brené Brown writes, between guilt and shame. She explains that guilt is the belief that, “I have done something bad,” whereas shame is the belief that, “I am bad.” Becoming attuned to the difference and beginning to transform our shame-ridden self-talk will help us to open the space for transformation to occur.
Brown put it simply when she wrote, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” If we do not believe we are capable of change, how could we then nurture the behaviours that would lead to it? This is where the inner work begins — with the inquiry into the part of the mind that does not believe in our capacity to grow, to change, and to heal.
Diving into and healing the root cause of our shame is not a simple task, and in some cases may require professional guidance. But to begin with, we can start to pay attention to the way we speak to ourselves. Are our words ridden with shame or with guilt? Is there warmth in our tone? Do we give ourselves credit where it is due, or is the lens one that says we can’t seem to do anything right? As we become more mindfully aware of our inner dialogue, we gain the power, bit by bit, to shift it. This is the starting ground for real change.
Nestled into the core of who we are, there is untapped self-acceptance. It seems counterintuitive that we must first love and accept who we are in order to change, but true transformation comes from a place of self-love. Only if we love ourselves enough are we able to wholeheartedly and steadily hold onto new habits that strengthen our experience of wellness. Watching our thoughts and minding our words is one place to start; from there, all our best future selves are possible.