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Self-Talk: What we Say to Ourselves Matters

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By Dr. Dawn M. Sweet

When we are working to reach a goal, like losing weight, eating healthier, or becoming more physically active, we need to be aware of that voice in our head and how it influences our behavior and sense of self

“I’m never going to lose weight. I can’t believe this is the third time this month that I overindulged and didn’t follow my plan to eat healthy. I’m such a failure. I must be the only person in the world who can’t lose weight. I’m such a failure. I’ll never lose weight.”

Would you ever say those words to a friend who is struggling? Probably not. So why do we talk to ourselves like this following a momentary lapse when we may have chosen the unhealthy food option or ate just a little more than we intended?

What is Self-Talk?

Self-talk is the internal dialogue that we have with ourselves. Think of it as your inner voice. It’s the conversation you are having with yourself. Like conversations we have with others, this conversation matters because it can positively or negatively affect how we feel about ourselves, and it can affect the decisions we make.

When we are working to reach a goal, like losing weight, eating healthier, or becoming more physically active, we need to be aware of that voice in our head and how it influences our behavior and sense of self. Negative self-talk can be damaging to our self-concept and lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy that we don’t want.

Self-Concept and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Self-talk is connected to our self-concept — all the things we believe about ourselves such as whether we are kind, a good friend, or honest. Our self-concept is important because it is susceptible to our inner voice. If our inner voice is being critical of us, then our self-concept will be negatively affected. Our self-concept affects our attitudes and behaviors, which can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when our own expectations influence our behavior. For example, if our inner voice tells us, “I’m a failure, and I’ll never lose weight,” we are laying the groundwork to fail. Self-talk matters because it can motivate us to achieve or goals or derail us from achieving goals. Self-talk does not necessarily reflect reality. It is unlikely that we are failures who will never lose weight, make healthy food choices, or increase our physical activity levels. We are human and we experience occasional setbacks on the path to achieving our health goals.

Flip the Script

To use self-talk to our advantage, we must recognize it and be aware of the thoughts we have about ourselves and the words we use to talk to ourselves. To engage in more positive self-talk, start by recognizing and challenging negative thoughts. When you notice a negative thought, take a minute to question it and look for evidence that it is not true. For example, if you find yourself thinking, “I can’t stick to a healthy eating plan,” recall all the times you made the choice to eat healthy. By recalling all the instances you opted for healthy, low calorie snacks and meals, you are not only affirming your ability to eat healthy but also reinforcing your self-concept of a person who is committed to living a healthy lifestyle.

Consider what you say to a friend who told you they faltered on their journey toward a healthier lifestyle? Would you say unsupportive, unkind, and cruel things? Of course not. So why talk to yourself like that. You deserve the same support and compassion that you would offer a friend in a similar situation.

Some strategies for flipping the self-talk script include:

  • “I am capable of making healthy choices that will lead to a healthier lifestyle.”
  • “I am not a failure. I am human and sometimes struggle. I have been successful at eating healthy “X” number of days this week. I can do this.”
  • “I am worth the time and commitment to making healthy changes in my life.”

It might feel a bit silly at first, but when you counter negative self-talk with positive self-talk you are taking control of your inner voice, flipping that script, and taking steps toward a self-fulfilling prophecy of a healthy lifestyle. Positive self-talk can help you lose weight and help you stay motivated and focused on your goals and build self-confidence. Positive self-talk can challenge negative thoughts and beliefs that might be getting in the way of achieving your goals.


About the Author: Dr. Dawn M. Sweet has over 20 years of experience in the field of communication. Dr. Sweet has given several invited talks to and workshops for academic and private sector audiences on the role of nonverbal and verbal communication in achieving positive outcomes and mitigating bias. Her research has been published in several top ranked peer-review journals, and it has been featured on NPR’s River to River / All Things Considered, Buzzfeed, and Science Daily. Her research has also been used to inform expert testimony.

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