Nourishing Self-talk for the New Year

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Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed., is a psychotherapist, international, award-winning author of 8 books, and popular blogger. She has 30-plus years of experience in the field of eating psychology teaching chronic dieters and emotional, binge, and over-eaters to become “normal” eaters through using a non-diet, non-weight focus on eating intuitively and creating joyous, meaningful lives. Her eighth book, Words to Eat By: Using the Power of Self-talk to Transform Your Relationship with Food and Your Body (Turner), is due out January 26, 2021. She lives and practices in Sarasota, Florida. Her website is http://www.karenrkoenig.com.

It is January 2021, a time when many people are chiding themselves for their holiday food intake and psyching themselves up to change their eating, exercise, and self-care habits. But more often than not, our standard self-talk is so judgmental, punitive, and bullying that it fails to generate sustainable positive change and leaves us frustrated and hopeless before the first quarter of the new year has gone by.

To turn this pattern around, it’s crucial to understand that self-talk is not simply mindless mental chatter but instead a major way we humans have evolved to get our brains to take action. Whether conscious or unconscious, self-talk is what governs our emotions and behavior. That is, the brain interprets whatever we say as a directive to feel or behave in a certain way. It awaits our instructions and then executes them.

For example, if you say, “I’m upset about what I ate over the holidays,” your brain thinks that you did something wrong and want it to feel distress. It hears your comment as “Be upset,” and makes sure that you are. Alternatively, if you say, “I’ll relax around food and trust in my body,” your brain hears “Relax and trust yourself” and you feel a good deal better.

Unfortunately, a lot of self-talk does nothing to move people forward and instead keeps them stuck. Speaking badly to and about yourself actually decreases motivation when what you’re trying to do is increase it.

Here are examples of self-talk to avoid:

  • Commands like “I should or shouldn’t eat that” are well-meaning ways to pressure ourselves to do things we’re ambivalent about doing, especially in the arenas of food and exercise. We use words like “should,” “shouldn’t,” “must,” “need to,” and “have to” as motivators, but such self-bullying often makes us feel resentful and rebellious, resulting in our doing the opposite of our expressed intent. This rigidity and distancing from our natural appetites are part of why weight-loss diets fail long-term.
  • Put-downs like “People won’t like me because of my size” or “I’m too lazy to take good care of myself” attack our self-esteem and make us feel awful about ourselves. They are zingers we likely would never let other people get away with saying to us, yet we don’t think twice about zinging ourselves.
  • Negative thoughts like “I’ll never be able to eat normally” or “Whenever I feel good, something bad happens to ruin my mood” keep us from taking and sustaining positive actions. Dwelling in negativity makes us feel helpless and like a victim. The more pessimistic our self-talk, the more disempowered and hopeless we become.
  • Anxiety-generators like “With all my friends dieting this year, I’ll end up dieting, too” or “Eating this meal will cause me to gain weight” keep us focused exclusively on what we fear might happen. Worry increases inner tension and detracts from efforts at genuine problem-solving.

To flip your self-talk from destructive to constructive, make a point of listening to your thoughts. Stop. Listen. Notice your words and tone. Notice how what you say makes you feel. Use only self-talk that is intentional, hopeful, challenging, empowering, inspiring, and self-loving. Feed your brain only healthy thoughts.

Here are examples of healthy self-talk to practice in the new year:

About Food:

  • I’ll eat when I’m hungry.
  • I’ll relax around food.
  • I’ll listen to my body and nourish it well.
  • I’ll eat mindfully.
  • I’ll stop eating when I’m full.
  • I’ll eat what I want and not defer to others.
  • I’ll find pleasure in food and feel satisfied.

About Body Size:

  • I will take good care of my body.
  • I value my body as is, even if I wish it were different.
  • I love taking care of my body.
  • I want to be healthy.
  • My body loves to be well-nourished.
  • I’m proud of the way I treat my body.
  • I decide if I am enough for myself and for others.

About Self-Care:

  • I speak only kindly and compassionately to myself.
  • I’m lovable being imperfect.
  • I enjoy learning how to motivate myself with loving thoughts and kind words.
  • The more I practice compassionate self-talk, the better I feel.
  • I am enough.
  • I am worthy and deserving.
  • I can handle stress.
  • I will manage my emotions.
  • I can take care of myself effectively.

Worried that not actually believing your positive self-talk will prevent it from moving you forward? Good news: Scientific studies on the fake-it-till-you-make-it mindset tell us that you need not believe what you’re saying for it to have a profound impact on improving your attitude and behavior. You simply have to say the same thing over and over to generate change at the brain level. After all, all those unhealthy things you’ve repeated about your eating and body for years have led you to today’s negative beliefs about yourself.

This January, do something radically different. Instead of watching what you eat or the number on the scale, pour your energy into watching what you say to yourself and making sure that every word nourishes your hopes and dreams and validates your self-worth and lovability. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel and how much easier it is to reach your goals in the new year.

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