Self-talk: What Is Is and How It Can Help You Achieve Your Healthy Lifestyle Goals

Self-talk is what goes on inside your head automatically. What you say to yourself will either put you in control of your life or give you a passive role in your own health and success achieving your lifestyle goals. Controlling your self-talk is key to sticking with your New Year’s resolution. Most people are unaware of the conversation that goes on inside their own heads all day, every day, and are, therefore, unaware of the great effect it has on how they feel and act. In order to control your self-talk, you must first become aware of its existence. Here you’ll learn how self talk can be used to help you achieve your healthy lifestyle goals. Let’s look at some examples.

LISTENING TO THE EXCUSES

When it comes to behavior modification, self-talk can determine success or failure. People start a diet, exercise, or smoking cessation program full of hope and motivation, but often that determination disappears by the third or fourth day. The culprit is usually self-defeating self-talk.

How many times have you been on a diet and said to yourself, “I deserve a treat. I’ve been good all day.” Before you know it, you’ve eaten something you did not plan to eat. Or how about when you say, “Today was so stressful at work. I just can’t face working out tonight. I will do it tomorrow.” The self-talk continues to something like, “I’ve already blown it today, so I’ll just start again tomorrow.” The next day you find your motivation has greatly decreased and you blow your diet, skip exercise, or smoke a cigarette again. By the following day, you are off your plan completely. The next usual step is to say, “I’ll just start again Monday,” but when Monday arrives, your motivation has completely disappeared.

If this same person had said something like, “I’ll exercise for 45 minutes today, and then I can have that treat,” or “I know going for a walk will make me feel better than sitting on the couch,” that person might not have fallen off the plan.

TRY THIS SELF-TALK ACTIVITY

Self-talk is not necessarily what we say out loud, but what we think and say to ourselves inside our heads. Try saying something positive to yourself, and you will find that you instantly feel better than when you say something negative to yourself. For example, say, “This is going to be a good day.” You will feel better than if you say, “Here comes another terrible day.” This internal dialogue takes place constantly, but most of us are not even aware of it and operate on “automatic.” Think back to when you learned a new skill, such as using a computer, riding a bicycle, or playing a sport. If you said to yourself, “This is fun. I know I can do it,” chances are you did. If you said to yourself, “I’ll never be able to do this,” chances are you had difficulty. Everyone has self-talk and can learn to control it. It’s just a matter of learning to recognize it. (See sidebar on next page on talking to yourself in 3rd person.)

A THEORY REGARDING DIET AND EXERCISE

Evolutionary psychologists have a theory. Human beings have been around for many thousands of years. For most of the history of our human existence, food was scarce and we learned to eat whenever possible. With the exception of the last few hundred years, people often did not know when they might be able to consume another meal. When it comes to exercise, conserving energy was a priority of our past because we needed energy to be available to fight, work, farm, or travel long distances. Things have changed radically. In the last few generations, calorie-dense, high-fat food has become abundant, and there is very little need in the lives of modern human beings to expend large amounts of energy. The result is that now we need to restrict our food intake and force ourselves to exercise to maintain health.

If this theory makes sense, then you may agree with what happens next. Since “dieting” or “working out” are relatively new concepts for human beings, it is as if we are going against our own instincts, and something very interesting happens. Our minds begin to work against us, too. We actually enemy. Our minds actually send us messages that give us long lists of really good reasons to stop dieting and exercising. Many psychologists believe we are “hard-wired” to say YES to food and NO to exercise. When we try to say no to food and yes to exercise, we are actually going against human nature. This is why self-talk is important. When it is time for a workout, our minds will begin to go through a list of possible reasons that allow us to skip that workout. Almost everyone’s mind works in this way. Call them “excuses” because that is the purpose they serve. For example, we will search for a good reason to consume the foods we know are not on our diets. Have you ever said to yourself, “Well, it is a special occasion. I’ll just have a little bit of the cake.” Or with exercise, one might say, “It is cold outside. I can’t work out in the cold.” Then tomorrow there is another reason.

Many times, the excuses may be true. The gym may be very expensive, or it may be very cold outside. That’s not why they are excuses. They are called excuses because we don’t find a way around them. We don’t exercise inside if it is cold. We let the excuses stop us from exercising. Accept that excuse-making is normal, natural, and part of life. Your challenge it to learn to ignore the excuses by overriding them through positive self- talk and behavioral strategies. Those who successfully achieve and maintain their healthy lifestyle goals are the ones who learn to recognize the excuses and decide to ignore them. You will want to listen to them. Learning to override them is one of the most important keys to long-term success. Let’s consider two different scenarios:

1. Mary gets out of bed and takes a shower. Afterward she looks in the mirror and says to  herself, “You look disgusting. How could you ever go out in public looking like this?” Her self-talk will now influence how she feels. She will likely leave for work feeling down, self-conscious, negative about the day, and not motivated to eat properly or exercise. As her day progresses and lunch approaches, she may make poor choices, asking herself, “What difference does it make anyway?” In the afternoon she has a big piece of her coworker’s birthday cake, rationalizing, “This will be my last piece. I’m really going to hit the diet hard tomorrow.” When she gets home she does not exercise, deciding, “The day’s shot. I’ll start again tomorrow.” This cycle perpetuates itself as she feels even worse the next day.

2. Mary gets out of bed and takes a shower. Afterward she looks in the mirror and says to herself, “You look strong. You will take care of yourself today, and tomorrow you will be even stronger and healthier. You’re a winner.” Her self-talk will now influence how she feels. She will likely leave for work feeling better about herself and more motivated to eat properly and possibly exercise. When lunchtime approaches, she again uses positive self-talk by saying to herself, “A healthy lunch will make you feel better, lose a little weight, and you’re worth it.” She orders an appropriate lunch. Later, at the company birthday party, she says no thank-you to the cake because she tells herself, “It’s not worth the calories. You’d have to walk three miles to walk that off.” When she gets home, she is tired from a hard day, but says to herself, “You can manage 30 minutes of walking. You’ll feel better than if you skip it.” This cycle perpetuates itself as she feels better the next day.

CHANGING NEGATIVE SELF- TALK TO MORE REALISTIC TALK

At times, our negative self-talk becomes completely unrealistic.

During these times, it is useful to know how to change that negative thought to a more realistic one. An example of negative or destructive self-talk would be, “I’ve had a terrible day. What would it hurt if I just had some of my old comfort foods for dinner? I’m miserable without my favorite foods.” Obviously the person in this example is on his way to giving into eating something unhealthy. He can avert this by listening to his own self-talk, recognizing how it makes him feel, and deciding to make changes. He may use a “Thought-stopping Technique” (see sidebar on page 21), and then replace that negative thought with one more likely to benefit his health and help him meet his health goals. An example of more realistic and positive self-talk would be, “You’re progressing daily, you are able to run three miles now, and you couldn’t even run one mile three months ago. You’re feeling good. You can do this.” So next time you are struggling with a behavior you are trying to change, try this: 1. Tune into self-talk.

2. Recognize excuses.
3. Use a “Thought-stopping Technique.”
4. Override excuses.
5. Replace excuses with realistic self-talk.
6. Use the “What If” technique (see sidebar on page 21).

MOTIVATIONAL VISUALS

A variation of self-talk is having a motivating picture that you can use to say “no” when in a situation that triggers negative behavior. For example, use your mind as a photo album that shows the future. You will open that photo album in your mind when needed. The album should contain photos of yourself in your future. You’ve achieved your healthy lifestyle goal. What are you doing? What are you wearing? Who are you with? You are happy, healthy, and enjoying yourself. Use your mental photo album any time. Your mental photo album provides a visual of the best aspects of your goals and will assist in keeping you on track.

ON YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS!

Remember—any decision you make concerning your lifestyle goals will either negatively or positively impact your ability to achieve success and maintain that lifestyle change. When in doubt or when struggling with a difficult situation, always ask yourself “Will this action get me closer to my goal or keep me from it?” Make your long-term goals part of your own self-talk. Whatever thoughts came between you and success in the past will likely occur again. The best defense is to expect them and be ready with a strategy.

Adapted with permission from The Emotional First Aid Kit: A Practical Guide to Life after Bariatric Surgery (©2009 Matrix Medical Communications) by Cynthia Alexander, PsyD

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