You're working hard to quit smoking, eat healthy, or exercise more. You're truly committed. Then you make one tiny misstep and the temptation to give up pokes at you -- hard. How you talk to yourself in those moments can help you stay on course or take a discouraging detour.
Consider this study: One group of water polo athletes used positive self-talk while they learned a new task. Another group didn't.
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The athletes who fed upbeat thoughts to their brains improved more than those who didn’t. They also had fewer interfering thoughts and were able to focus more on what they were learning.
When you find your thoughts veering toward the negative, how do you bring yourself back to a sunnier outlook? Try one of these tactics.
If You Can't Say Something Nice...
“If a friend came to you feeling down, would you beat them over the head? Probably not -- yet that’s what we often do to ourselves,” says Sofia Rydin-Gray, PhD. She is director of health psychology at Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, NC.
As you try to become more positive, start by simply noticing how often you talk down to yourself. If the voice you hear in your head belongs to someone you would never want to be around, it's time to replace it.
"Then next time you beat yourself up, ask: If I was talking with my best friend right now, how would I encourage them? Speak to yourself just as gently as you would a person you love,” Rydin-Gray says.
Hold Onto the Evidence
In a bad moment, it’s possible you will dismiss all the hard work you’ve done. “But if you track your success, you have tangible evidence of your efforts and behavior change,” Rydin-Gray says.
Your weight is one thing you can track. But relying on that record alone might not be your best choice, especially if you have a lot of weight to lose.
Track several behaviors, like your daily physical activity, how often you eat breakfast, whether you make it to a gym class, and even the number of times you choose a healthy snack, Rydin-Gray suggests.
That way when a moment of self-sabotage strikes, you can pull out your records -- and celebrate every single healthy choice you've made.
Have Fail-Proof Habits
You may have heard the saying, "No failure, only feedback." That means instead of feeling bad about something that didn't turn out like you wanted, you look at what happened from a more objective, less emotional place.
Say for instance your weight is up 2 pounds. You could say, "Well, that was a lost week. I'm going to be overweight forever." That's called a failure response.
Or you could say, "My weight is up. I wonder if the salt in the soy sauce last night could have made a difference. I won't do that next week." That's called a positive feedback response.
Another way to look at the concepts of failure or feedback is to consider these two kinds of mindsets described by Carol S. Dweck, PhD, a psychology professor at Stanford University.
A “fixed mindset” is the belief that your qualities or talents can’t be changed.
A “growth mindset” is the belief that you can always develop more.
The second view is about always hoping.
When you take the idea of failure out of the equation of your goal, what you’re left with are success and learning.
Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, director of the Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania; founder of Positive Psychology; author, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Vintage, 2011.
Hatzigeorgiadis, A. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2004.
Sofia Rydin-Gray, PhD, director of Health Psychology at Duke Diet and Fitness Center, Durham, NC.
Erik Hajer, fitness and lifestyle coach, Boston.
Carol S. Dweck, PhD, psychology professor at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books, 2007.