Four Steps to Switch from Negative Self-Talk to Positive Self-Talk After WLSApril 7, 2017
What do you tend to say to yourself when you step on the scale and it isn’t moving in the direction you’d like it to? What do you tell yourself when you’ve outgrown your favorite shirt, or you had to ask for a seatbelt extender on an airline? Are the things you tell yourself negative or positive self-talk?
If you’re like most people, your statements to yourself aren’t pretty (and probably not fit to print here). Your first inclination is to berate yourself, tell yourself how awful you are, that you have no willpower. You may ask yourself, “Why can’t I just get it together? What’s wrong with me?” Do you call yourself names or say things that you would never in a million years say to another person? Most people believe by doing that, it will make them better/thinner/more in control.
Many of us think that berating ourselves will force us to be more motivated to work harder toward our goals. You may truly feel that if you ease up on yourself at all, you will be completely out of control and will gain even more weight. You aren't alone! It is a very common thing to do. But the fact is, it doesn’t work.
Negative Self-Talk and Its Effects
According to Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Willpower Instinct, “Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control (emphasis mine). It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression.”
When you think about it, why would berating yourself work? If the goal is to motivate ourselves, then let’s think about what we find motivating.
I often ask clients to think back to the people in their lives who they found motivating. Were they the ones who were screaming at them, calling them names, and telling them to do better or else? Or were they the people who were nurturing, kind, and encouraging? Pretty much everyone says it was the latter of the two.
That often isn’t enough to convince the person sitting in my office that their way may not be working. So, I often take it a step further and ask, “If you came in here and told me that you had a bad week eating-wise (or binged or gained weight) and I said the same things to you that you tend to say to yourself, would you ever come back to see me?” They all, of course, know what I am getting at and chuckle.
They start seeing the point.They come to me for support, understanding, and validation. Because those are the things that make them feel better, valuable, more worthwhile, and more motivated. So, if it works when I do that for them, doesn’t it stand to reason that they should be doing the same for themselves?
If you need to look at it from one more angle before you really buy into the idea that negative self-talk does more harm than good, think about this: let's say your best friend is struggling with her weight and calls you saying she just overate and she feels horrible about herself. Would you say “Well you should feel horrible! That was an awful thing to do! Can’t you control yourself?” Of course, you wouldn’t! You would say something along the lines of “Stop being so hard on yourself. You’re doing your best. I know you can do this.” So again, if you would say that to your best friend, why wouldn’t you say that to yourself?
The Idea of Self-Compassion
What we’re really talking about here is self-compassion. The idea of self-compassion is gaining more popularity these days and with good reason. Most of us do our best to be kind and considerate to others, to consider the feelings of others. We do our best to edit what we say so that we do not hurt someone else. But why do we not treat ourselves in the same way?
Part of being self-compassionate is really looking at how we speak to ourselves. We all know the significant impact our words can have. We have all had the experience of being hurt by someone or hurting someone else just with words. What we say to ourselves can have the same impact.
What we say to ourselves impacts how we treat ourselves. If we tell ourselves day in and day out that we are worthless/fat/lazy (or whatever you tend to call yourself), why would we ever feel valuable enough to take care of ourselves?
Switching from Negative Self-Talk to Positive Self-Talk
Have I convinced you to be a little (or a lot) nicer to yourself? I truly hope so. You are the only person who is with you 24/7 and if you can’t support yourself during that time, it’s going to be very difficult for you to be a happy, motivated person. Try these four steps to make the switch today!
Step One: Notice it
The first step to changing your inner voice is to notice it. We all know that we criticize ourselves, but it frequently isn’t until we really stop to notice how often we do it and what we say to ourselves that we realize just how bad it can be. Start paying attention to that negative voice.
Step Two: Say to yourself what you say to others
Think about what you might say to a friend or loved one who just said the same sort of negative thing about themselves. Next, say exactly the same thing to yourself.
For example, if you hear your critical voice say “oh that was so stupid! What’s wrong with you?” You might think "wow—if my daughter said that to herself, I would say to her 'please—stop being so hard on yourself. Just because you made a mistake doesn’t mean you’re stupid.'” Then respond to yourself in the same way.
Step Three: No perfection expected
Remind yourself that you are human, and human beings are NOT perfect. Self-criticism often stems from our belief that we should be perfect and we see ourselves not measuring up to that yardstick. The more we remind ourselves that there is no such thing as perfection—and indeed, our imperfections are really what make us interesting—the less critical you will be.
Step Four: Positive self-statements
Start making positive self-statements. I know, those are tough! We are not generally encouraged to talk positively about or to ourselves, but it is very important! Notice the things you like about yourself and tell yourself about them. Even if you make a mistake, notice the things that you’ve done well. Think about what your loved ones might say to you or about you—they love you for a reason. And finally, surround yourself with people who let you know how much they value you.
There is a Buddhist teaching story that speaks to this: The Buddha asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied that "yes, it is." The Buddha then asked, "If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student again replied that "yes, it is."
The Buddha then explained that we cannot always control the first arrow. But the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.
The point is that an upsetting experience, such as gaining weight, bingeing, etc., is the first arrow. Berating yourself about it is the second. The second one is optional. And it’s even more painful than the first one.
So, please, stop shooting that second arrow!
ABOUT THE AUTHORDr. Kimberly M. Daniels is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who has been working with clients for over 14 years. Dr. Daniels earned her Doctor of Psychology degree from the University of Hartford Graduate Institute of Professional Psychology. She completed Counseling and Assessment Services and postdoctoral fellowship at the Middlesex Hospital Center for Behavioral Health, Outpatient in Middletown, CT.
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