What Bambi and a T-Shirt Taught Me About Self-Love
If you can’t say something nice to yourself, don’t say nothing at all.
I learned from a very young age how to be kind to others. Growing up, when I said something rude, the adults in my life often responded with that old adage from Bambi:
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
That niceness training helped me to make friends, and as an adult, form productive working relationships.
But for some reason, those skills never translated to my self-talk. My inner voice had never been kind, always pointing out my shortcomings and calling me names. So, one day I challenged my inner voice to talk to me with the same level of courtesy I would extend to a complete stranger.
I have this shirt that says,
“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”
I bought it because I thought the shirt would be a nice reminder to myself (and maybe others) that being kind is still important, even when the frustration and isolation of COVID lockdown start to get to me.
One day I was wearing that shirt when I had a particularly bad day. You know the kind — those days when nothing seems to go right? I forgot a key ingredient for dinner that night when I bought groceries earlier that day; I knocked over a glass of water, creating a health hazard on the living room floor; and my toddler whined and cried all day because she wanted to go outside in the wind and pouring rain. I was frustrated and exhausted, and all emotional maturity went out the window.
Over the course of that day my inner voice was not helpful. In my lowest moments, it chimed in with, “You’re a failure,” or a sarcastic, “Way to go.” After soaking myself for the hundredth time while trying to clean the high chair tray that is too big for our sink, I noticed the quote on my shirt. I realized in that moment how I value kindness, but I don’t speak kindly to myself. In fact, I tend to feel more compassion for complete strangers than I do for myself.
If I saw a frazzled mother at the grocery store who dropped a jar, shattering the glass and sending its contents across the aisle, while a baby sat in the cart wailing, I would probably look at her and think, “That poor person is having a terrible day.” I would never think, “Wow, that lady is a total failure. Way to go.” Yet those were my first thoughts when I was having a terrible day myself.
I decided that for the next week I would try to speak to myself with only as much kindness as I would extend to a stranger. This felt like a very low bar. Surely, I could speak to myself with at least that level of courtesy. But it proved much more difficult than I expected.
That week I noticed how intrusive and cruel my inner voice was. I tried to catch myself in those moments of frustration when it would normally chime in with its hurtful two cents. And when I failed to catch my inner voice before it laid into me, I tried to correct it.
I also tried to change my inner voice’s usual “You” statements, to “We” statements. An insult that starts with “You” implies finger-pointing, removing responsibility from the person who says it. I found it much more difficult to lob insults at myself starting those same statements with “We.” In this version, my inner voice and I sound more like one messed up unit, than separate mortal enemies.
“You’re a failure” sounds like an insult. “We’re a failure” sounds like something a teammate might say after realizing your team just lost the game. Instead of harping on failure, I tried to coax my inner voice to say something just a little nicer, like, “Everyone has a tough day now and then.”
Just coming up with something kinder to say to myself wasn’t easy at first. I imagined what I might think if I saw a stranger in a similar situation to me, experiencing similar emotions. This made it easier to take a step back and see my position more objectively. As with most things, over time the whole process became easier with practice.
Even though I was a long way from mastering any of these skills, I still noticed progress. That inner voice was less persuasive, the volume of its insults lower. I could roll my eyes at it. I found I was less rattled in those stressful moments too, because I didn’t feel attacked, or defensive.
If I was seeing results just from being stranger-level kind, imagine how peaceful my inner life would be if I could be even kinder.
Weeks went by and stranger-level kindness was finally becoming easier. Now that I could, more often than not, successfully stop the internal insults before they started, I decided to try a new challenge. Surely, I could speak to myself with as much kindness as I would show to a colleague.
Colleague-level kindness meant not only not making snap judgements about the other person, but also being outwardly supportive. If a colleague made an error at work, I would never say to them, “Wow, you’re a total failure. Way to go.” I would say, “It’s okay. People make mistakes.” The kindness stakes are higher with a colleague because they could be someone I have to see or interact with regularly, so maintaining a pleasant rapport is important. Since my inner voice and I have to work together every minute of every day, colleague-level kindness seemed like a logical next step.
Today, I’m still working at convincing my inner voice to talk to me like a colleague. As with most things, some days are easier than others. On days where I want to scream into a pillow, my self-kindness efforts can fall by the wayside, but even on those days I’m still aware of how unkind that inner voice is. On those days I’m less effective at stopping it before it intrudes, or finding something kind to say instead, and that’s okay. Progress isn’t a straight line, and people make mistakes. But the practice is ingrained in me now, and that makes it easier to begin again the next day.
Someday, when I see my daughter beating herself up after not being perfect at something, I will recite that same line from Bambi. Maybe teaching her from an early age to say nice things to everyone, including herself, will set her up for higher self-esteem. If someone had done this for me, would I have to work so hard to keep my inner voice operating a colleague-level kindness? I’ll never know for sure, but why not give my daughter the chance to find out?