Self-Talk and Affirmations

by Charles Platkin, PhD
Walking to Yourself Can Help: We all talk to ourselves. Whether you’re aware of it or not, most people’s lives are accompanied by a stream of internal dialogue. Sometimes this internal talk is not very positive. An example would be constantly telling yourself, “I can’t lose weight ­it’s just too difficult” or “I’ll never be able to get out there and walk every day” or “I can’t eat at a restaurant without pigging out on the bread basket.” There are several levels of impact this has on your weight-loss goals. Mostly it can cause stress.

As the book Integrative Weight Management: A Guide for Clinicians (Humana Press, 2014)points out: “The role and effects of stress on all aspects of obesity are clearly negative. Stress plays a role in potentiating obesity, maintaining obesity, and undermining the obese person’s power to reduce weight.” Another study not related specifically to found that “cognitive strategies, such as self-affirmations and positive , were helpful” in mitigating some of the “harsher effects” of the workplace. So at the very least, eliminating negative self-talk can reduce stress. Here are some tips to help you talk more positively to yourself about yourself.

Let’s say you were sitting in the departure lounge in the airport about to take a trip to Florida. Would you ever get on an airplane once you’d overheard the pilot say to the co-pilot, “I don’t think I can make it all the way to Florida. I just know I’m going to crash; I’m so scared.”

Probably not. Why? You wouldn’t take the risk.  Research shows that having a negative dialogue is tantamount to convincing yourself that you cannot complete a task.  Why start out with a disadvantage?  Aren’t you the pilot of your own life? You’re the one in charge, so do you really want to be the one convincing yourself that you won’t succeed? Granted, there are times when it’s natural to feel insecure about your undertakings­but don’t be your own worst enemy.

A study in the Journal of Sports Sciences divided golfers of high and low skill levels into two groups to execute a series of putts. Those in the first group were asked to believe and tell themselves they would succeed and those in the second group were instructed to think and tell themselves they would not succeed. The investigators found that the players they’d instructed to engage in negative self-talk performed much worse than those who used positive self-talk regardless of their actual skill level.

The key to using affirmations effectively is to overcome “the corniness factor.” Many people feel strange talking to themselves or putting up reminder notes on their refrigerators or mirrors saying “You are great” or “You can do it today.” You may even laugh at yourself when you start to use affirmations, and that’s okay. Affirmations do sound funny at first. Eventually, however, as you become more comfortable with thinking of yourself as someone who can achieve your dreams, you’ll become more comfortable with the strategies to reach them.  And at the very least, if you don’t feel comfortable with proactive self-affirmations, make sure to put a stop to negative self-talk­telling yourself you can’t do something.

It’s normal and expected to feel strange and uncomfortable when you first start to make changes, so just pretend until it becomes real. And get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
As automotive pioneer Henry Ford said, “If you think you can do a thing, or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” Negative self-talk is associated with poorer performance. It simply undermines your ability to succeed.

Try to listen to your own internal dialogue and be aware of your current self-talk. You need to know what motivates you as well as what keeps you from being consistent and committed to your goal. Becoming aware of what you are saying to yourself is an important first step so you can know how much of your self-talk is negative, what the exact wording is, and then find the appropriate replacement language that will improve confidence, and commitment.

Try stating your affirmations as if they are already true. “I am successful at eating healthy.” “I am a good person.” “I’m an exerciser.”

Vague goals lead to vague outcomes. Make your affirmations and self-talk strategies specific. “Being positive is not enough. Productive self-talk is more instructional and technical,” says Michael Voight, PhD, a sports psychologist and professor at Central Connecticut State University. Instead of working simply to inflate the ego and improve self-esteem, productive self-talk helps you to focus on important environmental cues (e.g., there is a doughnut shop coming — I should pass it up) or technical/tactical aspects of performance.

The repetition of such positive statements will eventually lead to a change in the way you view yourself and your own capabilities. Gradually, the mind responds affirmatively, and you begin to experience your intended results.

When you begin to think of affirmations, write them down in the present tense on index cards or Post-it Notes and place them where you can view them regularly. Set up text reminders on your smart phone and repeat them to yourself, either as a kind of meditation or whenever you’re experiencing a situation that normally upsets you, stresses you out, or damages your self-esteem. For the person who experiences problems on the job, such an affirmation might go something like: “I am a competent person who is capable of succeeding at this task.” For an overweight person who struggles with a poor body image, the affirmation might be: “I am a beautiful person and I deserve to look the way I want to look.”

The act of “talking to yourself about yourself” makes the situation more real than just visualizing it. And positive self-talk, or affirmations, can improve your chances of sticking to your diet and exercising more.

When practiced and repeated over time, affirmations can alter your mental climate and empower you to make changes in your life. Most of you are probably familiar with the children’s book The Little Engine That Could, in which a humanized “choo-choo” train is able to surmount challenges that seem impossible by chanting over and over, “I think I can, I think I can.” This is a parable about the power of affirmations.

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