How Negative Self Talk Affects Body Image and Weight Loss


How many times have you heard a friend, or yourself, say, “Oh, I’m just disgusting!” or “Ugh, I hate my body!”? No one wants to be fat. But when you tell yourself such put-downs, you may actually be sabotaging yourself and your weight-loss efforts.

Cognitive psychology has long known that the thoughts we think and the beliefs we hold are very powerful and affect our moods and our behaviors. We know, for example, from sports performance research, that positive thinking and a positive attitude does influence outcomes. These results have been supported by findings in obesity research. Women in one study who limited their negative self-talk were more likely to adhere to a weight loss program than women who did not limit such negative statements about themselves.

Colleen Arnold, Ph.D. MFT

While negative self-talk might result from feelings of shame, stress and sadness, what we’ve realized is that when the feelings are expressed as an insult to oneself, those negative feelings are actually magnified and increased. So while you might have a negative feeling about your body, the negative thought reinforces that feeling and makes it worse.

Negative statements lead to stress, shame, and sadness, all of which emotional over-eaters tend to relieve with eating. See the vicious circle?

We’ve all heard the rap about positive thinking – the book “The Secret” and other self-help books tell us that we create our reality with our thoughts and therefore, all we need to do is think, “I am a sleek, thin person,” and it will happen. If you believe it, you can achieve it!

That’s not exactly true, either. No amount of positive thinking and affirmations are going to turn me into a tall, skinny non-pot-bellied model. In fact, research has shown that if you try telling yourself positive statements that you don’t believe, you can actually make yourself feel worse.

Therefore, the trick is to replace the negative thoughts with realistic, positive ones. For instance, when I see the bulge right below my belly button and am immediately disgusted (an automatic reaction I’ve had since puberty, no matter what I weigh), I think instead, “That belly is where my body nurtured and grew my babies.” I feel better immediately, and I feel less like ducking into the nearest ice cream store for some soothing.

An Exercise for Changing the Way You Talk To Yourself

Try this exercise: For just one day, carry around a notebook and write down all the negative statements you make to yourself, or to anyone else about yourself, in that 24-hour period. You might be surprised at how many you find.

Next, take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. List the most prevalent negative statements you make about yourself on the left side. Now, look at the first statement and think of a realistic, more positive response to that statement.

For example:

1. I am such a pig. I am a worthwhile, smart human being. (inset whatever positive characteristics you have here. Yes, you do have some)
2. My body is so disgusting. My body takes care of me, gets me around and keeps me alive, and for that I’m grateful to it.
3. I was so bad today. I ate more than I planned. That may not be in line with my goals, but it’s neither bad nor good.

10 Will-Powers for Improving Body Image

Another exercise confronts the mistaken beliefs that these statements reflect. Consider these 10 steps from the National Eating Disorders Association, adapted from “10 Will-Powers for Improving Body Image” by Michael Levine, Ph.D. and Linda Smolak, Ph.D.

  1. Ask yourself everyday, am I benefiting from focusing on what I believe are the flaws in my body weight or shape?
  2. Think of three reasons why it is ridiculous to believe that thinner people are happier or ‘better.” Repeat these reasons to yourself whenever you feel the urge to compare your body shape to someone else’s.
  3. Spend less and less time in front of mirrors—especially when they are making you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious about your body.
  4. Exercise for the joy of feeling my body move and grow stronger. Don’t exercise simply to lose weight, purge fat from my body, or to “makeup” for calories you’ve eaten.
  5. Promise yourself to participate in activities that you enjoy, even if they call attention to your weight and shape. Remind yourself that your deserve to do things you enjoy, like dancing, swimming, etc., no matter what your shape or size is!
  6. Refuse to wear clothes that are uncomfortable or that you do not like but wear simply because they divert attention from my weight or shape. Wear clothes that are comfortable and that make you feel comfortable in your body.
  7. List 5-10 good qualities that you have, such as understanding, intelligence, or creativity. Repeat these to yourself whenever you start to feel bad about your body.
  8. Practice taking people seriously for what they say, feel, and do. Not for how slender, or “well put together” they appear.
  9. Surround yourself with people and things that make you feel good about yourself and your abilities. When you are around people and things that support you and make you feel good, you will be less likely to base your self-esteem on the way your body looks.
  10. Treat your body with respect and kindness. Feed it, keep it active, and listen to its needs. Remember that your body is the vehicle that will carry you to your goals.

Losing weight definitely requires physical, emotional and mental commitment. Use your mental energy to appreciate your body, and what will result is a natural desire to take care of that body, and yourself, better.

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