Trading In Your Self-Injuring Self-Talk

Am I a Saint Yet

The old adage that “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” is false. Words can indeed hurt. They can wound so deeply, in fact, that healing from them can be more difficult than healing from physical injuries. Words matter.

This is an excerpt from Am I a Saint Yet by M. Sue Bergin.

For perfectionists, the words we say to ourselves—our thoughts—are at least as important as words that others say to us. Often we don’t wait for others to say things that hurt us. We beat them to it. To illustrate, try the following brief exercise.

• Slowly read the scripture: As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.

• Take a few moments to absorb it, then apply it to yourself.

• Take note of your thoughts.

Did you go quickly to self-critical thinking—that your imperfect thoughts mean your heart isn’t good? Maybe your thinking went something like this: “If that’s true, then I’m a hopeless case” or “I have a lot of bad thoughts, so I must be a bad person. I’ll never be good enough.”

While you might think these thoughts would motivate you to do better, they actually create such negative feelings that they demotivate you. Rather than propelling you to work harder, they discourage you. They might even stop you from trying at all and thus from progressing. This does not mean that the phrase “I have a lot of bad thoughts” isn’t true. It’s the next thoughts—the conclusive judgments of yourself that you must be “bad” and will “never be good enough”—that are not true. It is the hardness and harshness of your thoughts toward yourself that are spiritually deadening, not thoughts that are true but spoken kindly, compassionately, and without final judgment.

About twenty years ago, my thoughts about the Proverbs scripture would have gone something like this: “Hmmm. I prefer ‘As a woman thinketh in her heart, so is she.’ Why can’t the scriptures be more gender inclusive? I hate having to reword things in my mind so the scriptures really speak to me. Good heavens, Sue, you are so rigid. Can’t you take your feminist glasses off for even five seconds? These are the words of God! How can you be so ungrateful?”

My self-berating would often become a loop, and my mood would plummet. To avoid that mood, I would close the scriptures and distract myself with some other activity. I sometimes would avoid the scriptures for long periods. Who wants to do something that triggers awful feelings about themselves? Even though I longed for the good feelings I also experienced when reading the scriptures, the discouraging feelings created by my thoughts around my reading experience were strong enough to make me avoid them. As a result, my spiritual growth was impeded.

I did not have the clarity then to realize that the scriptures themselves were not the problem, nor were my feminist ideas. Rather, the problem was my self-punishing thoughts that would escalate as I read. Getting this clarity—that it is our thinking that could use some adjustment and not necessarily the frustrating thing in front of us (though it could be that as well)—is a first step in gently leading ourselves away from perfectionism and toward a more rewarding path. I’m choosing carefully the words “our thinking could use some adjustment” rather than our thinking “must be transformed” or “has to be overhauled.” Adjustment is enough for now. Again, words matter.

Today, my thoughts about the Proverbs scripture would go more like this: “There is such a deep truth in that. ‘As I think in my heart, so am I.’ Much of my inner life is good. I could do better, but I see progress, and I feel good about that.”

Notice Your Thoughts

Becoming aware of your self-injuring thoughts and replacing them with healing thoughts is a straightforward, relatively easy first step to alleviate some of the pain of perfectionism. Starting here will lay a solid foundation for the steps in following chapters. This might sound too simple and perhaps not sophisticated enough if you consider yourself already self-aware. But it is not. It works.

Begin by noticing your thoughts during the day. If you’re like most busy people, you won’t remember to do this very often at first. Keep trying, and you’ll start to remember more. Pay attention to times when you feel anxious or worried about something that you’re responsible for. Say, for example, that you’re speaking or teaching a lesson in church in a few weeks, and you find your anxiety rising whenever you think about it. Notice your thoughts around the anxiety.

After a few days of taking mental notes, try writing down your thoughts. Write them down as they occur to you. Don’t edit them or sugarcoat them. Here’s an example:




Preparing a lesson or talk.

Last time I spoke, I saw people yawning and some heads nodding. I’m such a bore. What if that happens again?

I have to get my lesson just right, like Brother Johnson’s lessons always are.

Thinking about asking a woman out for a date.

I’m such a bumbling idiot on the phone. What if she realizes that before I get two sentences out?

I can’t try this again until I feel fully confident.


Making an important decision.

I’m so scared to pray about this because I never get an answer. I must be unworthy or not sincere enough. Or maybe I’m just spiritually defective.


This is an excerpt from Am I a Saint Yet by M. Sue Bergin.

Create Alternative Wording

It’s probably quite obvious how destructive the thoughts in the right-hand column are. While it’s easy to recognize other people’s self-injurious thinking, it’s not as easy with ourselves. Most perfectionists are so used to thinking about themselves negatively that it’s like the air we breathe—almost impossible to be aware of with any consistency. But we can get better at it with practice. Not perfect! But better.

Once you’ve begun to recognize, notice, and write down your own thoughts like the ones in the sample thought journal, you’re ready to come up with alternative words and phrases. The objective is to find new wording that is gentle, kind, and compassionate.

Below are common words, phrases, and sentences that feed perfectionistic thinking. Alongside them are alternatives. There’s space for you to write your own self-injuring words and alternatives. Come up with new phrases that are unique to you. Have fun with it.


Perfectionistic Words & Thoughts

Alternative Words & Thoughts

I should

I must

I’ve got to

I choose to

I want to

I don’t want to

I don’t choose to

I choose not to

Just right




Good enough

Some good, some not as good

Both wonderful and imperfect

Picture perfect




Delightfully imperfect



I always . . .

I sometimes . . .


Perhaps you can hear relief in the words and sentences on the right. I see them as much closer to loving words the Savior would say to us.

Once you have your own replacement words and phrases, practice saying them to yourself and use them as often as you can. As they become more and more second-nature, you will find yourself feeling less anxious and more relaxed. Life is so much more enjoyable when we give ourselves permission to stop editing a piece of writing before it’s perfect (which it will never be), to spend just a short time preparing a church lesson during a week with high demands, and to let go quickly when we make a poor decision.

This is not to say that exactness and precision do not have their place. We all want an exact dentist, not one who decides our new crown is “good enough.” We’re grateful for a surgeon whose incisions are precise, a mail carrier who gets the right mail to the right house, and a construction worker who will take the time to make excellent floors and walls. When it comes to working on becoming a better person, however, we hope our dentist, surgeon, mail carrier, and construction worker do not carry their exactness into their personal lives. In that arena, we hope they can be content with progression, not perfection—just as we have this hope for ourselves.

This is an excerpt from Am I a Saint Yet by M. Sue Bergin.