Let me be the first to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with you. You may have some patterns to unlearn, some self-love to embrace, and some new behaviors to embody, but seriously, there’s nothing wrong with you. If you want to change your negative self-talk, you’ve got to first understand where it comes from.
There’s a famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi, that, in a nutshell says, “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. And your words become your actions.”
So if your actions include binging on sourdough (again), rolling your eyes at your rolls and wrinkles, or subconsciously sabotaging your sleep cycle, you can go ahead and thank your belief system for that. You can also take comfort in knowing you’re not alone.
On any given week I’ll hear my clients say that making a protein rich breakfast takes too much effort. Or that they’re too busy to work out. Or they can’t stop eating desserts. These are all beliefs. And, as we’ll be breaking down here in a second, there’s a big difference between beliefs and truths.
Your Brain’s Role in Self-talk
Here’s the deal. Your brain’s job is to keep you safe.1 Because of this, it will always choose what’s familiar and comfortable over working toward a change that’s different. Even if that change is in the best interest of your health and happiness.
What’s familiar is safe and what’s unknown has the potential to hurt you. At least from your brain’s point of view. And so, it automatically creates negative thoughts (and negative self-talk) to keep you nicely tucked into your comfort zone.
Examples of Negative Self-talk
Here’s a scenario to illustrate what I mean. Say you’re thinking about ordering take out. Will it be a large, extra pepperoni pizza or a thick steak and roasted veggies? Depending on your past experiences and your personal belief system, your brain will automatically assign a meaning to that choice.
If you choose the pizza, your self-talk might be, “well, I guess I’ll be heavy my whole life” or “I never make good choices” or “life’s too short not to eat pizza!!” Unfortunately, that reaffirms your negative beliefs, which you’ll continue to repeat unless you do something to change them.
Other examples of negative self-talk might be:
I’m always out of shape
I’m too lazy
Why bother I never have enough time
Nothing ever goes right for me
When will I learn
It’s my fault
I always mess things up
Overcoming Negative Self-talk
Reframing is a psychological technique used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Also known as cognitive restructuring, 2 it allows you to reprogram your brain, changing your pattern of negative thinking — and the way you feel about certain situations, people, places, and things (including yourself).
This is important because, as noted above, your thoughts end up becoming your actions. And negative thoughts very often turn into self-destructive actions. “I’ll never be able to stick to the Primal Blueprint” quickly spirals into you speeding through a Krispy Kreme drive-thru for a dozen maple bars. Negative self-talk can cause a lot of damage. Not just to your waistline or your pancreas either. Having a critical inner dialogue has been linked to an increased risk of mental health issues, including depression.
The thing is, we’re so quick to criticize ourselves and classify our attempts as failures. But what they should really be, are learnings. Take for example, toddlers figuring out how to walk. If they bad mouthed themselves or gave up every time they fell down, we’d have a bunch of grownups crawling around on all fours.
Since they don’t have the stories we do — yet — they don’t thrash themselves with self-talk like “I always fall down” or “what the heck is wrong with me?” They just do it. And then they do it again, learning from their mistakes and building their confidence along the way.
Positive Self-talk Leads to Success
While negative self-talk clearly has its consequences, research shows that positive self-talk is actually the best predictor of how successful you’ll be. In One study, athletes were placed into four groups and asked to use four different methods of self-talk, including instructional, motivational, positive, and negative. Researchers found that the group that practiced positive self-talk performed the best.3 What they learned is that the athletes didn’t need to be reminded of what to do to play better or even psych themselves up to do it. They were the most successful when they told themselves what a great job they were doing.
The language you use creates your reality. So, when you say you hate exercising, do you really hate it, or do you just dislike the workouts you’ve done in the past? If you say healthy food is disgusting, is it really gross or not as delicious as a cheeseburger and fries? If you indulged too much over the weekend are you a failure or are you learning what you need to do differently next time? See where I’m going with this?
It’s all in the way you talk to yourself.
But you don’t have to do a complete 180 right out of the gates. Turning “I want to eat healthier, but I don’t know where to start” into “I want to eat healthier and I don’t know where to start” is a great first step. Changing the but to and allows you to acknowledge your experience and create room for opportunity.
How to Turn Negative Self-talk Into Positive Self-talk
Our brains are often hardwired to see the negative side4 of things, but choosing whether or not to believe those thoughts is always up to you. It’s entirely under your control to reframe those negative, nagging thoughts into empowering ones. Here’s a snapshot of how to do it, followed by a deeper dive down below.
Catch yourself in the act
Name your inner critic
Challenge your inner critic
Go from negative to neutral
Think like a friend
Be willing to be imperfect
Break out a gratitude journal
Ready? Here we go:
1. Catch yourself in the act. There’s a good chance you’re not even aware that you’re using negative self-talk, because you’re so used to doing it — it just feels normal! Building an awareness of your self-talk and acknowledging the fact that you’re sending yourself a negative message is the first step toward changing it. Track your negative thoughts for a week, writing down every time you say something mean to yourself.
2. Name your inner critic. This is designed to help separate yourself from your negative thoughts. And if you’re up for it, give it a silly voice too and say the mean thought out loud. Doing this interrupts the pattern, takes away your inner critic’s power, and creates space between you and the self-sabotaging message. When you give your inner critic a name, choose something lighthearted that reminds you not to take it seriously.
3. Challenge your inner critic. Look for evidence that this mean thought isn’t true. Do you always stress eat? Or feel defeated? Or skip workouts? The answer is probably no. I’m sure there’s been at least one time in your life that you made a choice that benefited your health. Think of the positive experiences you’ve had instead of dwelling on the not-so-positive ones.
4. Go from negative to neutral. As far as positivity goes, it doesn’t have to be all rainbows and puppies right away. However, starting to move from negative thoughts to neutral ones is a good start. Instead of “it’s disgusting how out of shape I am,” you could say “I get tired easily during my workouts right now.” It’s just a neutral awareness. No negativity. No mean inner critic.
5. Think like a friend. You’d never talk to a friend or family member the way you talk to yourself. Well, at least I hope you wouldn’t. Imagine someone close to you is in the situation that you’re currently in. What kind of words or emotions would you use to console them? Or motivate them? When you take yourself out of the situation, it’s easier to see things from a positive viewpoint.
6. Be willing to be imperfect. As a recovering perfectionist, I can tell you first-hand that this is key to changing your self-talk. We’re humans — and while we are miraculous creatures, we’re far from perfect. Having the ability to accept your imperfections allows you to look for what you can learn from your efforts. Plus, it helps you stay on track with your goals because you’re not fussing over whether or not every little detail is on point.
7. Break out a gratitude journal. Research that having a gratitude practice can help you see things from a glass-half-full perspective rather than half empty.5 I started incorporating a gratitude practice into my morning routine a few months ago and it’s a game changer. To help redirect your negative patterns and begin seeing things with a positive outlook, try writing down three to five things that you’re grateful for every day.
I don’t care how much proof you have that you always get it wrong, or that you couldn’t lose fat if your life depended on it. You’re a work in progress. It takes time and regular practice to unlearn years or maybe even decades of negative self-talk and start seeing (and believing) things from a positive point of view.
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.