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By Robyn Osborn, PhD

If you listen carefully, you will hear all sorts of thoughts running through your head at any given moment. There are the endless to-do lists for the future (pick up the dry cleaning, return that email, schedule eye exam, etc.) that take up space in our heads. There are the thoughts about past events and conversations (e.g., “I wish I had said no to that request,” or “I wonder if I made my point clearly enough in that meeting”). Then there are the most important thoughts—your own thoughts about you. These are the thoughts that are hardest to notice, and we call this “self-talk.”

Self-talk is the category of thoughts that most folks don’t tune into or even recognize they have, yet these are the thoughts that ultimately have the biggest impact on how we feel and what we actually do (or don’t do). I like to call self-talk the ‘stuff that lives in the gap between knowledge and action.’  Self-talk is what gets in the way when we say things like “I know I should go out for a walk” but then we don’t go.

Perhaps not surprisingly, self-talk is often negative, which may be why we are so quick to ignore it.  Thoughts like “I am so lazy” or “I look so fat in that window reflection” or “I’m never going to lose weight” can become so common, we may not even notice them. Further, these thoughts often crop up so quickly (i.e., automatically) that we can’t separate them from reality. We just come to accept that this self-talk is true, and it becomes our way of making sense of our experiences (e.g., “I haven’t been to the gym because I’m lazy.”) Equally problematic, we may tell ourselves that if we let go of this negative self-talk, then we will really go ‘off the deep end’ or ‘totally lose control’. We may cling to long-standing patterns of negative self-talk at times because we don’t know what we would think in its place. Yet at the same time, these are the thoughts that we would never dream of saying aloud to another person (can you imagine telling your best friend that he/she was “disgusting” after he/she ate chips with her sandwich at lunch?). The truth is, negative self-talk is detrimental to mood, to behavior change, and to overall wellness.  In other words, if we tell ourselves that we are lazy and going to fail, it tends to be far more depressing than motivating.  Rather, people who make lasting positive behavior changes are those who learn, over time, to talk to themselves in affirming, encouraging, and reinforcing ways.

Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment modality (practiced at some level by all of the behavioral health providers at NCWW) to address a host of issues and goals including: anxiety and depression management, reducing binge eating and emotional eating, and weight loss. The fundamental principle of CBT is that the way we think directly influences the way we feel and ultimately the actions we take. Central to CBT is that our self-talk system is a series of automatic thoughts that lie beneath our daily to-do lists and wandering thoughts. Importantly, CBT teaches people how to recognize and then change their self-talk using a set of tools such as recognizing cognitive distortions (like all-or-nothing thinking such as “I overate so now the week is ruined,”) recording thoughts in order to examine and challenge them, and setting up behavioral experiments (e.g., even after overeating at lunch, what is it like to have a healthy dinner?)

Although these tools may seem foreign, consider this:  You already use CBT in your daily life, you just may not know it yet. Every time you give a talk in front of peers or colleagues and talk yourself through your anticipatory nerves with statements like, “You know what you are talking about because you have been in this field of work for a number of years, and you can do this!” you have recognized your defeating self-talk (e.g., “I can’t do this”) and challenged it head-on with more accurate data and positive self-talk. Every time you have dragged yourself out of bed in the morning to go to work or to take your kids to school even when you didn’t feel like it, you have used CBT. You have talked back at that negative, unhelpful self-talk (e.g., changing “I am too tired to go in today” or “I don’t feel like getting up this morning, this is awful” into “I’m tired right now, but I usually feel better once I get going, and I can do my best”) and then changed your behavior as a result.

When working on making lifestyle changes, like losing weight or starting an exercise program, self-talk is perhaps the single biggest factor that determines how likely you are to persist with the effort and motivation needed to make changes over the long run. The great news is, you can master more positive, self-affirming, and realistic self-talk, and use it to your advantage. To learn more about how CBT can help you with your goals, talk to your individual behavioral health provider at NCWW or attend the “Thinking Styles and Behavior” drop-in group (Wednesdays at 5:30pm) led by Dr. Robyn Osborn.