Whether you're aware of it or not, most people's lives are accompanied by a stream of internal commentary. 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.
According to James Afremow, a sports physiologist and author of "Lengthen Your Line: The 5 Cs for Exceptional Performance in the Game of Life" (iUniverse, 2005), using self-talk as a performance-enhancement technique means mentally rehearsing positive self-statements to reach goals.
"Self-talk provides a sense of control if you learn to become aware of self-statements and direct them in a positive manner," says JoAnn Dahlkoetter, author of Your Performing Edge (Pulgas Ridge Press, 2002).
And studies prove it: "The latest study showed both instructional and positive self-talk enhances strength, accuracy and fine motor coordination tasks," says Michael Voight, a sports psychologist at the University of Southern California.
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 they are "great" or "You can do it today."
"It's normal and expected to feel strange and uncomfortable making any change at first, so 'fake it until you make it' and 'be comfortable being uncomfortable,' " Afremow says.
Eventually you will become more comfortable with the idea of yourself as someone who can achieve your goals, and with using the appropriate strategies to reach them.
Be aware of your current self-talk. You need to know what you do that 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, motivation and commitment. Of the 66,000 thoughts we typically have per day, 70 to 80 percent of them are negative," says Voight.
MAKE IT POSITIVE
Have you ever told 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"? That's negative self-talk. And 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 undermines your ability to succeed. The idea is to replace the negative talk and make it more positive, says Afremow. And if you don't feel comfortable telling yourself, for example, that you deserve to lose weight and can skip dessert, at the very least stop negative self-talk.
DON'T GET HIJACKED
Be careful. Once you open the door to using self-talk, your thinking could get hijacked, adds Sandra Cousins, professor emerita at the University of Alberta. "It only takes one 'if' to get hijacked — once you say 'if,' you're essentially saying, 'It's not going to happen.' "
A true affirmation is stated as if it is already true. "No 'cans,' 'shoulds,' 'wills,' etc. are to be included. Also, no 'nos' or other negatives should be included. Use the present tense: "I am ..." says Kay Porter, a sports psychologist and author of "The Mental Athlete" (Human Kinetics, 2003).
"Strive to keep your thoughts short, simple and productive. Avoid over-thinking," Afremow says. "Champions think fewer thoughts while performing than those who are less accomplished. In sport, the ultimate goal is to transcend thought, trusting the body to do its thing."
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." 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, says Voight.
For an overweight person who struggles with poor body image, the affirmation might be: "I am a beautiful person, and I deserve to look the way I want to look." 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 experience your intended results.
Write your affirmations down 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.
Write Post-it Notes and place them on your desk, refrigerator or nightstand, says Dahlkoetter.
Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public-health advocate, and author of "Breaking the FAT Pattern" (Plume, 2006). Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter at www.dietdetective.com.