Dispute This! Negative Self-Talk And Better Health

Susie* had been careful and disciplined with her diet. For the last three weeks, she'd been paying extra attention to what she ate. She cut out sugary drinks and reduced her between-meal snacking. And what little snacking she did do was on healthier foods like unsalted nuts, fiber-rich fruit, and so on. She was starting to find real success changing her eating habits.

Everything was going great.... until last Friday.

That's when Susie went out with a big group of coworkers after work. It was fun. She had a couple of big, sugary frozen margaritas. Somebody ordered a big platter of chicken wings, and she ate... several. And then, for dinner, she had a huge burger and a ton of fries.

So when Susie woke up Saturday morning, this is what she said to herself:

Great job Susan. Really good. You really blew it with your diet, didn't you? Jeez, you are such a glutton. Absolutely no self-control. You've just ruined your diet.

Readers: what is Susie likely to do next? Do you think the odds are good that she'll return to her prior habit of cleaner eating? Or will her diet go off the rails?

Would you believe that Susie's own words play a gigantic role in determining the answer?

One of the most important insights in Martin Seligman's striking book Learned Optimism is the strong link between what Susie says to herself and her future actions. Let's take a moment and analyze her self-talk:

You really blew it with your diet
Jeez, you are such a glutton
Absolutely no self-control
You've just ruined your diet

What do these sentences have in common?

For one thing, they're judgmental and pessimistic. Deeply so. Dr. Seligman would say they are permanent, pervasive and personal. Sure, admittedly, Susie experienced a setback in her diet. But what she's doing here is taking a one-time mistake and extrapolating it into permanent negative traits. This is a single instance of poor eating, but according to her self-talk, she views it as "proof" that she's a diet-ruining glutton with no self-control.

Look, we all screw up occasionally. We're only human. And from time to time, we all use negative language when we're angry at ourselves for screwing up. Take it from me, an expert negative self-judger: it is really, really hard to avoid doing this.

The problem is, this negative explanatory style sets us up for future failure. Our negative explanations usually become self-fulfilling. With her negative self-talk, Susie is actually increasing the chances that she will revert back to her old, unhealthy eating habits.

So what's the solution? The solution is to train yourself to dispute these negative statements--and to do so instinctively. Here's an example of what Susie could say next:

No, wait. Stop. Just because I overate on a single Friday night does not mean I "blew it" with my diet. It does not mean I am a glutton. In fact I've eaten really well for three full weeks! If anything, that is proof that I do have a lot of self-control. I just had a one-evening letdown in my eating habits. There's no way my diet's "ruined." It's up to me to decide how I eat going forward.

Unlike the first set of Susie's statements, all of which are either false or cartoonishly exaggerated, these disputative statements have the benefit of actually being true.

In fact, it's usually quite easy to find evidence to support your disputations. As Seligman says: "most of the time you will have facts on your side, since pessimistic reactions to adversity are so often overreactions." We tend to catastrophize in reaction to our setbacks, and our minds reach for extremely negative conclusions. And once again, our negative internal explanations can lead us into a self-fulfilling prophesy. In Susie's case, it may mean actually behaving in the future like a glutton with no self-control. It's the exact result she dreads.

Okay. You've heard Susie's initial negative self-talk and you've heard her disputation of that self-talk. What do you think her most likely course of action will be now? I'd bet she gets right back to her established pattern of clean eating.

Our minds are always chattering away, constantly making predictions, judgments and explanations. And when we experience a failure or a setback, our minds instantly leap to the most dire negative explanation. Once again, the secret is to dispute that instant negative explanation. Change it.

Our observations of reality are both highly subjective and self-fulfilling. We owe it to ourselves to see ourselves in a positive--and accurate--light.

This post is gratefully dedicated to Dr. Martin Seligman and his book Learned Optimism.

* not her real name--in fact I pretty much made this person up.

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Melissa said...

Great insight into the control system of homo-sapiens and how we tend to embrace the negativity while shunning the sane side of things. Making mistakes is not a crime. The crime is to sulk after we have given in under certain.
Mind is a wayward child, without a leash, it is a bull in the china shop and the results are never pretty. We just need to be keep sane and move on with our life.

Thanks for the share.

Sally said...

So much of our language surrounding food and eating is negative. We don't indulge or have a treat; we cheat or give in to temptation. A dessert isn't delicious or luxurious; it's sinful.

Joanne said...

You are actually describing my biggest downfall! I totally do this all the time and I know as soon as I start this negative-talking it's just a downward spiral. Some days I'm good at fighting it and others not so much. Working on it!

KB said...

Agreed. There's sort of this all-or-nothing, perfectionist view of health, and I think that's why so many of us are in bad shape, both literally and figuratively.

I read this after consuming about a a half bag of Hershey's Hugs while grading papers (a horribly addictive taste for me) and had been feeling bad about doing so. But, I thought about it... the rest of my day is all veggies and unprocessed... most of my meals are good. Why can't I be 80/20 good/not good where eating is concerned? I refuse to continue beating myself up. In the grand picture, it's a blip on the radar.

Thanks for the reminder!

Daniel said...

The key is the disputation. The simple habit of automatically disputing any negative self-judgments has helped me deal with periods of discouragement more than anything else. It really works.