What we say to ourselves and others about ourselves triggers a double whammy.
Intrapersonal communication is the ongoing dialogue we have with ourselves as we move through our day. The conversation takes many forms—from an internal monologue to keeping a diary, from communication between body parts, such as "My head is starting to hurt," to day dreaming.
For those of us trying to lose weight and get fit, the negative self-talk frequently begins in the morning when we start getting dressed. We view ourselves in the mirror critically, and a voice tells us we're too fat, our double chin is ugly, our stomach sticks out where it should be flat, our hips are oversized and so on.
As if these comments weren't hard enough on our psyche, we ascribe character flaws to these conditions. We say, "If only I weren't so undisciplined, I could lose weight" or "Why try to lose weight since I always fail anyhow?"
Dr. Michelle Cleere, a physician who helps athletes break emotional patterns that hold them back, says, "Negative self talk is a self fulfilling prophecy. It provides negative messages to your brain: I can't, I won't, I am fat, I am not attractive, etc. What we think and feel about ourselves comes through in thoughts and actions."
But the damage doesn't stop there. The negative talk hurts our relationships. Alexandra Corning, research associate professor of psychology and director of Notre Dame's Body Image and Eating Disorder Lab, found that women who fat-talk are liked less than the women who engage in positive body talk. And that sentiment holds true whether the fat-talker is thin or overweight. Instead of helping us bond with others, negative fat-talk drives friends away.
Changing fat-talk to fit-talk can be a challenging task, especially if making self-abasing comments is a lifelong habit. But knowledge is power. And once we understand that fat-talk is toxic for both the speaker and the listener, we have a strong incentive to change our words.
If you are ready to give up fat-talk and switch to fit-talk, here are three practical steps you can take (FIT):
F: Frame one authentic, constructive comment about your body and make the statement your mantra. For example, "I appreciate my body and the precious gift of life." Each time you have the impulse to criticize yourself, repeat the positive statement.
I: Inventory your commonest self-criticisms. Write them down and keep adding until the list is complete—usually a dozen or so will pop into your head. Then go back and reframe each statement. For example, replace "I hate the way my body looks—I'm so fat!" with "I am learning to make better choices about what to eat." This homework will not be a quick or easy task because you are reprogramming habitual ways of thinking. Review the constructive statements again and again until you own them.
T: Team up with a good friend (maybe a colleague at work or a family member) to replace fat-talk in your conversations with fit-talk. As teammates, resolve to recognize and eliminate patterns of careless self-criticism. As partners, agree to teach each other how to defuse fat-talk whenever it occurs and instead infuse fit-talk into your conversations.
Whoever came up with the children's rhyme "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me" was dead wrong. The ugly words we privately or publicly tell ourselves injure us and, according to researchers, injure our relationships as well. Even worse, destructive comments hold us back—they keep us from making constructive changes.
William Carleton, a nineteenth-century Irish writer, summarizes the power of words in his clever two-line poem:
"Careful with fire" is good advice we know.
"Careful with words" is ten times doubly so.
Knowing that we have total control over our choice of words—from the time we rise in the morning and look in the mirror to the time we retire—is comforting. However challenging the task each day, we know that changing negative fat-talk to constructive fit-talk will define the person we become tomorrow.