For most people, negative self-talk is a way of life—whether you just occasionally criticize yourself or shame and blame is the norm in your day-to-day life.
Unfortunately, negative internal dialogue is often deeply rooted in our issues with food and body image. You may judge yourself harshly when you overeat, when you fail at a new diet, or when you can’t lose that 20 pounds you’ve been working your entire adult life to get rid of.
The interesting thing about negative self-talk, however, is that it does nothing productive. Meaning that despite berating yourself about overindulging on a Friday night, for example, that self-criticism doesn’t change anything. It can’t undo the past, and it doesn’t even work to prevent you from repeating the same behavior in the future. We tend to think that if we punish ourselves—the way we were probably punished at school or home when we were children—we will learn not to make the same mistake again.
But it doesn’t work that way.
In fact, research shows that negative self-talk can actually hinder our efforts to change, and that the best plan of action when you’ve done something you feel guilty about is to—surprise!—forgive yourself, love yourself, and affirm what it is you are doing right.
Here are five ways to cope with negative self-talk:
1. Have a little compassion–for yourself, that is.
Compassion may be the last thing that seems natural in response to a diet slip-up or a body image hang-up you’ve had for years. Yet compassion is the best possible approach, as it can actually lead to better choices in the future. A popular study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that when college women were given a “compassion intervention” after eating doughnuts (where researchers basically told them things like, “Don’t be too hard on yourself for indulging,” or “Everyone eats unhealthy foods sometimes; it’s OK”), these women actually ate less candy afterwards than a group of women who also ate the doughnuts but who weren’t given the same compassion intervention.
The bottom line? Compassion helps you motivate yourself with encouragement—and it works better than criticism.
2. Make mindfulness your mantra.
“Mindfulness” may sound like an out-there spiritual philosophy, but it’s actually just the process of bringing conscious awareness to your daily habits. Making mindfulness your mantra when it comes to food, body image, and weight loss can help you come to understand how negative self-talk can actually trigger overeating or emotional eating.
For example, imagine you’re curled up on the couch with your favorite snack watching TV. Before you know it, you’ve eaten way more than you intended, and you really don’t know why.
Bringing mindfulness to that situation might involve assessing your feelings before you actually grab that snack and sit down on the couch. How are you feeling? What time of day is it? What thoughts are going through your head before you do this? What void is the act of snacking in front of the TV filling? When you get quiet enough to ask yourself these questions, you might realize that perhaps you’re eating to relieve the stress you feel about work or the loneliness you’re experiencing after the death of a loved one. Or maybe you’ll find you’re just doing it out of habit or boredom.
According to Susan Albers, PsyD, author of “Eat, Drink and Be Mindful,” mindless eating plays a big role when it comes to weight gain.
“In many cases, it’s not the meals we eat that cause weight gain,” Albers says. “It’s the snacking, the mindless eating while watching television, when we’re on autopilot and not really aware of what we’re eating.”
Pay attention to the internal and external cues when it comes to food. You’ll probably find that your decisions to eat have more to do with your feelings than actual hunger.
3. Accept yourself now (not tomorrow, not next week, not in a hour)
Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, says that guilt is one of the leading causes of diet “lapses.” Why? It’s based on what researchers have dubbed the “what-the-hell” effect: when you have a minor setback (you ate a few cookies on your diet) that you turn into a total sabotage (you finish off the entire bag of cookies because you feel like you already blew it).
The key, McGonigal says, is to cultivate self-acceptance now—no matter what size, shape, or weight you are. Even if you’re not exactly where you’d like to be, acceptance can help increase a sense of personal responsibility for where you are now and where you’d like to be.
4. Focus on how you feel, not what you look like
Negative self-talk about body image often revolves around how we fail to live up to external standards: what we look like, what size we wear, how our clothes fit, etc. Yet research has shown that focusing on creating health, rather than just weight loss, helps to direct your thoughts to be more focused on self-care and self-love.
Studies of an approach called “Health at Every Size” (HAES) show that paying attention to things like how much energy you have, your blood sugar, cholesterol levels, or the quality of your sleep will tip the scale toward better self-esteem. Women who have participated in HAES studies have also been shown to be less susceptible to guilt-induced binge eating or a loss of control around food.
5. Use affirmations
You may feel silly looking in the mirror and telling yourself you’re beautiful, but new research is beginning to suggest that positive self-affirmations can protect people against stress and improve problem-solving abilities. A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that affirmations—identifying and focusing on your core values and beliefs you’d like to foster—can help you tackle tough situations better in the future. So repeating statements like, “I nourish my body with the rights foods,” or “I’m capable of making good decisions today,” can give you a protective shield as you encounter challenging circumstances (like at a party where all your favorite junk foods are present).
“People under high stress can foster better problem-solving simply by taking a moment beforehand to think about something that is important to them,” said J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology in Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.. “It’s an easy-to-use and portable strategy you can roll out before you enter that high pressure performance situation.”
So the next time you find yourself listening to the drama of your own negative self-talk, recognize it as an opportunity to start practicing more compassion, self-acceptance, and confidence. And remember—thoughts are habits. The more you work to create affirming, encouraging ones, the better you’ll be able to replace limiting beliefs about yourself with a sense of empowerment and self-love.