Self-Talk: How To Make It Work For You Instead Of Against You

Last week my husband sent me the best article.  It’s about self-talk, particularly for athletes, (this is where our worlds meet) and there was SO much good stuff that could be applied to so many situations.  Because I work on self-talk so much with clients around food and body image, I just knew I had to share.

The article is here:  Positive Self Talk for Your Athletes


Is starts by defining what self-talk is by quoting The Mayo Clinic:

the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head… [that] can be positive or negative.

It’s important to note that self-talk is always happening.  Since it’s endless and always present, channeling energy into making it consistently positive is a really good idea.  I find that a critical mindset is a very common characteristic among those struggling with food or body image.  Reframing self-talk clears up mental space for more flexible thinking.  In short, to change behaviors, to feel less distressed about food and body image, and to learn how to best support yourself in recovery, I think you'll benefit from the following tips on self-talk.    

Negative vs Positive Self-Talk

Negative vs Positive Self-Talk

I’ve blogged previously about self-talk, specifically on positive affirmations.  That is actually one of my favorite blog posts and one I share most often.  An excerpt below:

The key here is to make sure you can confidently affirm a truth, meaning you have to actually believe it.  It needs to feel true to you.  To affirm that you “do not binge on cookies” will not feel true because you have, in fact, binged on cookies.  That affirmation is neither true or authentic and will only trigger more shame and feelings of failure.  Instead, something like “I am learning to trust myself with food” or “I am learning how to listen to my body and meet my needs” or “I am learning how to connect with my intuitive signals” may feel more true and effective.  Other examples may include “I am learning how to respect my body shape and size”, “I am learning how to include foods I find satisfying and enjoyable”, “I am learning how to overcome past food rules”, etc.

I share this because I learned something new about positive affirmations from this article on self-talk.  Research has shown that using “you” or your own name is more effective than using ‘I”.  For example, “I am learning how to listen to my body and meet my needs” may be more effective if you think or say “Emily, you are just learning how to listen to your body and meet your needs”.  The theory is that you are distancing yourself from the situation, almost acting like a coach or therapist for yourself.  This gives you practice at supporting yourself through difficult situations.  Maybe some other ideas include:

  • “Emily, you are more than a body.” 
  • “Emily, you can do this. Just focus on this one meal, taking one bite at a time.” 
  • “I know this is hard, Emily, but you can do this.”
  • “Take a deep breath, everything is going to be OK.” 
  • "Emily, you're doing the best you can and that's always good enough."

Note that all these statements are positive.  You want to keep them productive (what you should do) rather than critical or negative (what you shouldn’t do).  For example, instead of “Emily, don’t binge on those cookies” use “Emily, all foods can fit. Listen for signs that you are full and trust yourself to know when you’ve had enough”.   

Having said all that, self-talk is deeply personal.  What resonates with you may be different for someone else.  The key here is practice.  This article points out the importance of practicing self-talk ahead of time.  If you have an event coming up where you know food anxiety might be high (maybe a holiday or a meal at a restaurant or a family gathering where there is a lot of diet talk, etc), you should visualize how you want it to go. Talk yourself through possible scenarios and how you might respond, particularly how you would like to navigate the food.  Over time this might become more second-nature and less worrisome, but if there are a lot of fears around food, visualization and practicing self-talk will allow you to decrease anxiety, making the event more enjoyable and making the next time easier.  

Let’s say you are aiming for more variety and flexibility with food and want to challenge yourself by adding some fear foods.  Before you ever attempt it, you’ve gotta build up positive self-talk to get yourself through it.  Otherwise, the anxiety will likely be too much and will easily send you back to restriction (as a way to control the anxiety).  Meet yourself where you are with compassionate, positive self-talk.

Let's say you had a food experience that has left you really judgmental.  You might be feeling like a failure or frustrated that you made a mistake or maybe even feeling guilty.  When we judge ourselves (and engage in negative self-talk), we leave no room to learn from the experience.  Instead, if we can be curious about the experience instead of judgmental, we leave room for inspiration and creativity for how to best solve our problem.  Positive self-talk gives us the opportunity to learn and grow from experiences instead of feeling like we are defined by them.  

I could talk about this all day.  I love this idea of changing our internal dialogue as the way to change our relationship with food.  That's the exact process.  We can't get where we want to go without learning how to support ourselves.  Compassionate, positive self-talk and affirmations teach us how to show up for ourselves and cheer ourselves on.  It's necessary and non-negotiable for recovery.

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD