How many times have you criticized yourself in the last 24 hours? Stop for a minute and think about it. If you’re having any doubts that you’ve been anything but complimentary, think back to when you got dressed this morning. What exactly did you say to the image in the mirror? “Look at that stomach! Your thighs are enormous! You’ll never fit into those pants you got last month. You look terrible!”
Most of us wouldn’t dream of speaking to another human being like that. But we have no problem routinely addressing ourselves in a disrespectful, even demeaning, way. And those voices make weight loss, or any kind of change, difficult or even agonizing.
Where do they come from, these critical, demeaning voices? Mostly, they’re the collective, cruel voices of our past — our parents, our siblings, schoolyard bullies, former lovers — that we’ve internalized. Over time, we come to believe them as true. They’re incredibly powerful. And they can set up all kinds of horribly self-sabotaging situations.
Not long ago, I was in an unavoidable situation with a person from my past who was the source of many of my own voices. I had gone into this situation feeling positive, even elated: my career was successful, my friendships were solid, my family life was strong, my health was great. Less than 24 hours after being with her, I felt demoralized, pitiful, small. Nothing in my life had changed, but I was utterly deflated — until I became aware of a cacophony of voices inside my head. There it was: a steady stream of small but painful self-criticisms, like an onslaught of tiny, fierce hornets. The irony is, this woman’s criticisms of me paled in comparison to my own self-talk. I’d done most of the work for her.
How does negative self talk hamper your best efforts to lose weight or, for that matter, get a job, run three miles, begin a new relationship, even move through your day in a peaceful fashion?
- It keeps you stuck in the past. Most of the time, negative self-talk has nothing to do with what’s going on in the moment, in present time. Those critical, blaming voices are based almost entirely on past influences that don’t recognize who you are today. They’re not accurate. Staying in the past also keeps you in a comfortably familiar role, even if it’s a miserable one. No matter how much you want to change, it’s scary to step out of a familiar pattern and into a new way of being — even if, ultimately, it will bring you joy and peace.
- It increases cortisol. Stress — any kind of stress, be it physical, mental or emotional — increases levels of cortisol which in turn encourage the storage of fat, especially around the belly. A new study published in the journal NeuroImage, found that study participants who engaged in self-criticism showed more brain activity in the regions associated with depression, anxiety and eating disorders. In other words, mean self-talk makes you eat more, and hold on to excess weight.
- It undermines your confidence. You’ve got to be your own champion, your own best friend. No one else will do it for you. If the voice in your head is hurling demoralizing epithets at you every 10 seconds, you’ll feel defeated before you’ve even left the starting gate. And when you’re standing on the sidelines screaming, “Who are you kidding? You’ll never lose weight,” you probably won’t.
- It destroys your trust in yourself. When the nasty little voice in your head is hurling unkind words at you, it’s impossible to simultaneously trust yourself. And trusting yourself is key to any kind of change — especially a positive change in dietary habits.
- It’s really believable. The voice that’s spewing out that steady stream of negative talk is powerfully persuasive. It knows the right phrases, the exact tone, the fastest way to cut you off at the knees. But the voice isn’t always obvious; it can be clever, slippery and so hard to pin down that you’re not even aware of its presence until the damage is done.
Knowing that negative self-talk is a nasty habit is one thing. Stopping it is another issue altogether. The first step is to simply draw attention to the voice in your head. What is it saying? And whose voice is that anyway? Try this exercise: for one hour every day, become acutely aware of your negative self-talk. You don’t have to confront it right away; this first step is a fact-finding mission. Take a step back from the voice, and listen to it with curiosity. Give it lots of space to express, but stay non-committal. For some people, 15 minutes of this practice is plenty.
Once you’ve become painfully aware of your own negative self-talk, talk back. This is your chance to say all those things you didn’t get to say in real life. If it’s possible for you, talk back out loud. Really loud. It’s freeing to holler at the voice that represents the critical people from your past.
I had a client whose parents sat at the dinner table every night and poured on a torrent of criticisms as she ate: “Why are you eating so much? You’re already so fat! You’re only going to get fatter!” Mind you, this woman was a child at the time, and she played out their predictions: she ate more, and she got fatter. She’s a grown woman now, and not speaking to either of her parents, but their voices continue to ruin her meals on a nightly basis. Once she became aware of how efficiently she’d internalized their negative dialogue, she started to talk back — or, rather, holler back, using words I can’t print in this column.
Eventually their voices stopped, the negative self-talk slowed, and she regained control of her own mind and life once again. Try it yourself; with practice, you’ll become your own champion and best friend — and speaking nicely to yourself will become a cherished habit.