Living By the Reverse Golden Rule

The Golden Rule – Treat others how you’d like to be treated – is easy to understand. It’s actually the Reverse Golden Rule that is much more challenging to live by: Treat yourself how you’d like others to be treated.

Listener Feedback

In our last episode, Good for Her, Not for Me, we talked about using Amy Poehler’s motto to help us withhold judgment when other people make different choices than we do – and interestingly, we heard from a couple of our male listeners who shared how this topic shows up in their lives. 

  • One shared he’s been having a hard time not being judgmental or feeling judged now as everything is so fraught with going back to work and school. He wrote us an email the day the episode released, saying: Good for her, not for me “applies to everything! I’ve already said it to myself ten times today,”
  • Another said he really related to this topic in terms of comparison and competition – seeing someone else and thinking, he can do that, why can’t I? 

Thanks so much for sharing with us. And to other listeners, we’d love to hear from you too: how does “good for her (or him/them), not for me” show up for you? How is it helping you feel less judged and judgmental, especially during these difficult times? 

Living By the Reverse Golden Rule

You’re probably familiar with the Golden Rule – Treat others as you would like to be treated. It dates back to Ancient Egypt with the proverb, “Do to the doer to make him do.” and in the western world it is associated with Christianity; The Gospel of Matthew (7:12): says “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. . . .”

Those of us who value kindness and compassion tend to practice the Golden Rule pretty naturally. It’s actually the Reverse Golden Rule that is much more challenging: Treat yourself how you’d like others to be treated.

There’s an excellent article by psychotherapist John Mathews that unpacks the reasons this is so crucial to our well-being and why it can be so difficult. He finds that his clients often need to practice the Reverse Golden Rule much more than the Golden Rule. 

If you have a habit of negative self-talk, and you’re walking around berating yourself all day, you probably don’t want to use the Golden Rule as a code of conduct. It wouldn’t make you many friends.

In my work I have met some of the nicest, most thoughtful, and considerate people I have ever known. But I find that when we get down to business in therapy, it is often these very same people who reveal a habit of negative self-talk I can only describe as abusive — to themselves.

They say things to themselves that they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone else — name-calling, shaming, blaming. Make no mistake: this negative self-talk is emotional abuse, and abuse can have serious repercussions, whatever its source.

Emotional abuse is not invisible. It creates tangible change in the brain.

Research on the brain imagery of victims of chronic emotional abuse reveal consistent differences from a normal brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobes — the parts of the brain tasked with regulating emotion and promoting self-awareness.

Emotional abuse wears down your ability to make yourself feel better. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. It can also sustain or worsen issues that are already there.

This research was enlightening for us. Though we know self-talk can be a major obstacle in our lives, we hadn’t thought of it as emotional abuse or known about the changes it causes in the brain. 

That’s the sobering news. But don’t despair. The good news is that because of our brains’ neuroplasticity – its ability to reorganize connections and form new ones – we can train it to be kinder and more helpful to us, to reverse the negative effects of trauma. 

You can work with a therapist on this, and also practice mindfulness and self-compassion, as we’ve talked about in several previous episodes we’ll link to in the show notes. The research of Dr. Kristen Neff, a psychologist and expert on self-compassion, has found that: 

“… people who are compassionate to themselves are much less likely to be depressed, anxious, insecure and stressed, and are much more likely to be happy, resilient, optimistic and motivated to change themselves and their lives for the better. They also tend to have better relationships with others.”

We share the areas where we most often talk unkindly to ourselves, and what we try to say or want to say instead, to practice living by the Reverse Golden Rule:

  • Judging our appearance
  • Making mistakes
  • Living up to our own expectations
  • Having emotional overreactions
  • Treating our immediate families as extensions of ourselves.

Tips for Living By the Reverse Golden Rule

Here are a few tips from Matthews, Neff, and other researchers: 

1. Notice the way you’re talking to yourself. 

Often we’re not even conscious of these thoughts because they’ve become so automatic. Is the thought positive, neutral, or negative? Pay attention to the words and tone you use. Would you speak to someone you love this way? 

For example: when you look in the mirror, are you zooming in on your perceived flaws and thinking, ‘God you look rough!” You wouldn’t dream of saying that to your best friend. 

2. Review and challenge negative thoughts. 

Is what you’re telling yourself true? Could it be the result of a cognitive distortion – like catastrophizing, “shoulding,” overgeneralizing, or jumping to conclusions? 

For example: when you make a mistake at work, do you overgeneralize and think, “You always screw up! You’re terrible at your job!” Instead, you could challenge that negative thought and think, “Yikes, I messed up. That wasn’t ideal, but I’m going to try to fix it and not do that again.” 

3. Imagine you’re talking to a friend. 

Compare what you’re saying to yourself to how you would react to a close friend who is struggling. What would you say to them to be supportive or empathetic? Say those same words to yourself. 

For example: “I know you feel awful that you yelled at your son for throwing a tantrum about virtual school. Both of you are under so much stress right now and not your best selves. Glennon Doyle talks about relentless self-forgiveness and says, ‘love is forever tries’ — you can always apologize and start over. And that’s good modeling for your kids for how to handle conflict.”

4. Rewrite your internal messages. 

Identify the negative messages you repeat to yourself, and rewrite them.

Back in Episode 18: How Our Language Shapes Our Reality, we talked about a book that can help reverse the effects of negative self-talk and learn to practice the Reverse Golden Rule – What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter, Ph.D. Our brains save the messages they hear most often and use them as the default. Helmstetter says we have to rewrite these messages, replacing them thought by thought with words that better serve us. 

For example: Rewrite, “I’m such a mess! I’m a terrible friend/ employee/ parent/ or partner” from a place of love and empathy.“I’m having a hard time right now because things are hard, but there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m doing my best, and that’s enough.”

5. Practice radical self-love. 

Sonya Renee Taylor, author of The Body Is Not an Apology, says “Radical self-love is our inherent state of being as worthy and enough. It is the unobstructed access to our highest selves.” It’s an unlearning of our conditioning and the dismantling of the obstacles to our natural state of loving ourselves.

On the days she doesn’t like her body, she says the work is to love the Sonya that doesn’t like her body, until Sonya loves her body again. She tells herself: “I love you, Sonya who can’t stand her cellulite today. I love you, Sonya who’s frustrated about this acne breakout. I love you, Sonya who’s worried that her appearance might make her not desirable as an aging black woman, and she’ll be alone forever. I love you.”

You can, of course, apply this kind of active self-love practice to all areas of your life. Sonya says that self-acceptance is not enough. You want your closest people to not just accept you, but to love you, after all!

That’s a lot to unpack! As with just about everything we cover on the podcast, this is an ongoing practice for both of us.

Get It Together / Got It Together

We each share something that we’d like to work on and something that’s going well for us right now.

Melia Get It Together: Working with Darren to fix their lawn mower right away  

Melia’s Got It Together: Letting her email correspondence back up 

Gill’s Get It Together: Feeling depleted

Gill’s Got It Together: Going on her first hike of the season

Get In Touch

In which areas do you most need to practice the reverse golden rule? Any tips for treating yourself as you’d like others to be treated? Email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com or send us a voice memo.

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