© 2019 by Erica Mouch, RDN, CD.

Does how we talk to ourselves leave a lasting mark?

En route home to Seattle the other day, a woman approached me on the plane and announced that I was sitting in her seat. I glanced at her ticket and noted that she was in seat E, not seat C. She replied thanks and then said out loud to herself, "What a loser!" There were quite a few giggles around me. The magic of planes is that you often have hours after these encounters to mull over things. What was I thinking about? How negative this woman's self talk must be.

Why self-talk matters

Research shows that how we talk to ourselves models for our brains what is possible of happening. Will you read that sentence again?

In studies involving professional athletes, baseball players, golf players etc, instructional self-talk showed improvement on these athletes performance. It had more improvement on performance than motivational self-talk did! Self-talk was short, so it didn't interfere with the athletes automatic performance. For example, "hit, follow-through completely" when a player was up to bat or golf, "push-pull" for a swing. This illustrates how self-talk can internally remodel what is going on inside our head. Self-talk had the power to improve these athletes performance simply because they told themselves to complete the perfect form in small, bite size steps.

Self-talk about our bodies

Think about this from another perspective - how we talk to ourselves about our bodies. When you look in the mirror or try on a swimsuit, what are you telling yourself? What are you modeling for yourself? This self-talk can impact our internal representation of ourselves. Studies show that some patients with eating disorders have mentally added inches and weight to their bodies that physically, does not exist. They cannot see past these inches because of this image they have created and reinforced for themselves. Therapy for these patients often involves breaking down this image and creating a new one. How you talk to yourself contributes to the image you create in your mind of what you look like. Would you talk to a friend, puppy or loved one the way you talk to yourself? Each time you comment about yourself, comment about your body, you are adding to this image.

Is negative self-talk is harmful?

The research hasn't been conclusive about this. It doesn't show that negative self-talk hurts athletes performance, for example. It doesn't seem to to be particularly harmful on immediate performance or experience. It is however, still internally modeling for your brain. The passenger on the plane who told herself, "what a loser!" What is she modeling for herself? Negative self-talk may not impact performance but research is very clear that self-talk impacts what we think of ourselves. This image is stored in the same neurological networks where we imagine things. Imagining doing the same task over and over again, lets say doing arm curls or squats, can have the exact same effect on our brain as if we physically did the exercises! This is one reason why 'manifesting' things is such a hot topic right now. Research is coming out that essentially supports manifesting. If you think you did arm curls again and again, believe it or not, your brain believes you did it and starts to have your body react as if you had been doing it. Hello suns out, guns out! What you tell yourself has power that goes further than your day to day performance. What is stopping you from changing the conversation? - with yourself?

How to change your self talk:

1. Notice it! Awareness is key to understanding what messages you are telling yourself on a daily basis. It may be a mix of positive and negative. Perhaps it leans towards one side. Spend today checking in and seeing how you talk to yourself.

2. Explore new strategies to change your self-talk. If it is hard telling your body that you love it, can you start with respecting your body? Talking to your body with respect instead of harmful talk is one way to change the conversation. Another strategy? Talking to yourself in the third person. LeBron James is one athlete that regularly does this. "I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James, " the athlete famously said. Studies show that people who change self-talk to be in the third person may have an easier time performing stressful tasks and have less post-event processing times.

3. Start your day with positive self-talk. Think of three compliments you've gotten from friends, coworkers or strangers that are not about your appearance. "You are smart." "You are a quick thinker." "I like the way you listen to me." Write these down somewhere and tell them to yourself every morning. Go one step further and make it your lock screen on your phone. Then continue this throughout the day. When negative se

What has helped your self-talk change? Let me know in the comments!


1.Abdoli, B., Hardy, J., Riyahi, J.F., & Farsi, A. (2018). A closer look at how self-talk influences skilled basketball performance. The Sport Psychologist, 32(1). doi:10.1123/tsp.2016-0162 2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Adult participation in aerobic and muscle-strengthening physical activities– United States, 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 62, 326–330.

3. Dickens, Y.L., Van Raalte, J., & Hurlburt, R.T. (2018). On investigating self-talk: A descriptive experience sampling study of inner experience during golf performance. The Sport Psychologist, 32(1) doi:10.1123/tsp.2016-0073

4. Hardy, J., Begley, K., & Blanchfield, A. (2015). It’s good but it’s not right: Instructional self-talk and skilled performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 27, 132–139. doi:10.1080/10413200.2014.959624

5. Roese, N., Sanna, I., & Galinsky, A. (2005). The mechanics of imagination: Automaticity and control in counterfactual thinking. In R. Hassin, J. Uleman, & J. Baugh (Eds.), The new unconscious (pp. 138–170). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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