Just about every other Thursday, between 4pm and 5pm, I can expect a phone call from one of my most trusted friends, calling from her car’s hands-free device, on her way to pick up her granddaughter from day care. These check-ins are exercises in intensity and brevity: how much can we share and process with one another about our weeks in time that is limited by the length of this drive? Today, about halfway through our conversation, we paused while she fetched her grandchild and loaded her into the backseat. That she did not press the mute button on her phone during this intermission was the greatest gift of my day.
A few minutes after she left, the silence broke when I heard her talking gently and happily to her grandchild. Her tone was that of a hostess opening the door to her favorite house guest after a long separation, ready to embrace her with a big hug, an offer to take her bags off her hands, and hear all about her journey.
“Hi! Look at you! What a smile you have!” “You wore mittens! Were you cold today?” “We are going to see daddy and daddy loves you.”
“You love daddy too? Yes!”
Everything she said to this small child expressed love and sincere interest. Also, every part of her communication could be categorized one of four ways: a warm greeting, a curious and compassionate question, an observation or teaching, and an expression of delight. It had been a good day, so the tone was cheery and warm. On days that aren’t so good, days when she gets hurt or is sick, the same categories come through, but the tone is gentler, quieter, exclamation points replaced with periods.
No matter what the day brings, when my friend sees her beloved granddaughter, she greets her with curiosity, compassion, and delight. Because she loves her, yes. Also, because she knows that how she talks to her shapes her very being. She knows: words have power.
Before this pause in our conversation, I had just told my friend about a recent disappointment related to my work, and shared that per usual, I was being hard on everyone, including myself. I had spent the better part of my early morning walk telling myself how I should have done better – and this was after I spent the better part of the night before mulling over how I thought the other people should have also done better. I am well-practiced at critique, and I am a world champion in critical self-evaluation.
For those four minutes I was on hold, my entire audible experience was the intimate exchange between grandmother and granddaughter, high-pitched words of welcome and belonging. The contrast between the way she spoke to this child and the way I speak to myself each day could not have been sharper. While the words I say to myself are silent, they are no less real:
“If you had only asked better questions, we’d be in a better place.” “You responded too quickly and now everything’s a mess.” “Why didn’t you catch that mistake?” “How could you forget about that appointment? So disrespectful.”
If I had to categorize my messages, they’d all fall into one giant lump with a label that says: You're not enough.
If my friend had talked to her granddaughter the way I talk to myself some days, I would be appalled. I would call her out on it. I might actually call her son and tell him to stop letting her talk to the child at all.
So why haven’t I called it out on myself? Why haven’t I stuck up for myself? For starters, I’m a grown woman with a big job who gets paid to deliver results. Critique is a part of what helps me hone in on how I want to grow. It keeps me sharp and it has its place. Right?
And: perhaps it should not be the only topic of conversation when I spend time in self-reflection. Perhaps greeting myself at the end of the day should not be conflated with evaluating my performance.
My question: What would happen if I gave half as much attention to self-hospitality as I gave to self-critique?
My experiment: Every night, for the next seven nights, I will journal a note to myself modeled after my friend’s conversation with her granddaughter: 1. A warm greeting. 2. A curious and compassionate question. 3. An observation or a teaching. 4. A tiny expression of delight.
The words we say, even to ourselves, matter so much. If you’re interested in joining this micro-experiment, you can send a note to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. What is the value of warm and welcoming self-talk beyond the daycare pickup? Let’s find out together.
Photo courtesy of unsplash