My number-one rule when working with clients has always been, “No Self-deprecating Comments Allowed.” Maybe you’ve heard something like the following from your clients:

            “Ugh. That was so stupid of me.”         

            “Well, if I weren’t so fat, I’d be able to do that.”

            “I’m not smart enough to figure that out.”

            “I can’t do that. I’d just screw it up.”

While you may think these little comments are harmless, negative self-talk is really revealing deeper beliefs, and can have some pretty severely negative effects on well-being—and success.

The Origins of Self-talk

Self-talk is what you think about yourself, whether out loud or in your head. It’s a reflection of your beliefs about self, others and the world around you and how you fit into that world.

These beliefs are formed very early in childhood and act as a sort of filter through which we see the world. Because they are formed from a limited perspective—that of a child—they may be based on misinterpretations and incorrect from the start. In this case, they are considered limiting beliefs, because they limit you from reaching your full potential. 

This type of self-talk is considered negative self-talk and includes those little self-deprecating digs you say about yourself (“That was so stupid of me.”), the nagging little voice you hear when you’re ashamed or embarrassed (“I told you you’d make a fool out of yourself if you did that.”) or that inner critic that hangs out in your head telling you you’re not good enough (“Why even bother. You’ll never measure up.”).

So negative self-talk is really a revelation of an underlying belief. The problem with beliefs is that they are “truths” to the person they belong to. When you believe something, you want to prove it’s true. Let me give you a couple examples you might hear from your clients.

Belief: “Everyone leaves me.”

This belief may have been formed when a client’s parents divorced, at which point one of the parents wasn’t as involved in his life. He applied this belief to relationships in general, never fully investing in himself, and partaking in risky behavior to push significant others away until they finally leave him, therefore proving that “no one stays” and “she was just going to leave me anyway.”

Belief: “I’m just meant to be a fat, ugly girl.”

This belief may have formed when, as a little girl, your client overheard a conversation between her mother and a neighbor, during which the neighbor said, “You’re so lucky to have an ugly daughter. She can focus on her studies and not worry about being distracted by boys.” Consequently, this became a belief of hers and throughout her life she neglected self-care, thereby validating this belief.

Where’s the Science on Self-talk?

When I first started working with limiting beliefs, self-declarations and positive affirmations, I thought it lacked scientific support. I wanted evidence, so I went digging and found lots of it.

In a review of the literature, titled The Biochemistry of Belief, researchers highlight several points:

  • Beliefs originate from what we hear and continue to hear from others, starting in childhood. The sources of beliefs include environment, events, knowledge, past experiences, and visualization.
  • The mind is the brain (an actual organ) and our thoughts and beliefs are bursts of neurochemicals in the brain.
  • There are many parts of the brain involved in beliefs, including the hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, precuneus, right temporoparietal junction and the superior temporal gyri.
  • Thoughts and beliefs are an integral part of the brain’s operations. “When we change our thinking, we change our beliefs. When we change our beliefs, we change our behavior.”
  • Research indicates that what we see and experience literally alter our physiology.
  • Our behavior as adults is based on the beliefs we’ve held from childhood.

There are numerous studies on self-talk and athletes, several of which are highlighted in a recent special issue of The Sport Psychologist. In an editorial for the journal, Robert Weinberg, PhD, professor in sport behavior and performance at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, suggests that more research be placed on positive self-talk and imagery for the average exerciser.

“Self-talk research might take the lead from what imagery research has done. Specifically, the area of imagery was mostly about imagery for sport performance. However, more recently, research has also started to focus on exercise imagery,” explains Weinberg. “It would seem logical for self-talk research to start to focus more on helping exercisers with such things as enjoying their exercise more, coping with setbacks, adhering to exercise regimens and motivation on a daily basis.” 

Get Outta My Head!

While you can’t just wave a magic wand and make limiting beliefs disappear, there are things you can coach your clients to do to help them change the neural pathways in their brains—and consequently overwrite their limiting beliefs with more accurate, positive beliefs.

Positive affirmations are simple to practice and also have science to back them up. Self-affirmation theory was first introduced in the late 1980s by Claude Steele. It posits that when people reflect on personally relevant values, they will be less likely to experience distress or react defensively when presented with information or a situation that contradicts or threatens their sense of self. 

A study published in Psychological Science randomly assigned women to an affirmation condition or a no-affirmation condition. Participants were given a list of important values, none of which were health-related. Participants in the affirmation condition were asked to pick one value and write about why it was important to them. Participants in the no-affirmation condition wrote about why their ninth-ranked value might be important to someone else.

According to the researchers, more than two months after the study ended, the women who completed a values affirmation weighed less and had lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than those who had not completed a values affirmation. Furthermore, working memory, which is important for self-regulation, was higher among participants in the affirmation condition than among participants in the no-affirmation condition.

Self-affirmations, which are sometimes referred to as self-declarations, must be practiced regularly to change one’s limiting beliefs. It’s like going to the gym—you must be consistent and put in the work.

There are various ways to do self-affirmations, or you could help your clients come up with their own. To get them started, encourage them to think about their limiting beliefs and things they struggle with the most—then “flip” them around. For example:

“I am fat” becomes “I am strong and fit.”

“I am incapable” becomes “I am capable of learning new things.”

“I am afraid of failing” becomes “I find lessons in every experience.”

If your client feels uncomfortable using “I am,” have him or her speak a self-declaration in the third person, beginning with his or her name. For example, “Carrie, you are strong and fit.”

Avoid using the word “not” and “don’t” in affirmations. Studies suggest that when you focus on what you don’t want to do or feel, you can inadvertently trigger its occurrence. This is known as ironic processes.

Have your clients write down their affirmations and speak them out loud several times a day. The more senses they get involved in practicing them, the faster they will form new neurological connections in their brain.

Some people struggle with affirmations, because they don’t believe them. Of course, that’s the whole point in doing them—you are trying to overwrite old beliefs with new ones.

The Magic Pill?

Remember my rule about no self-deprecating comments? When the occasional negative comment is made, I say, “Now tell me something you appreciate about your body.” This encourages an immediate switch in the client’s focus and thought patterns.

As Sathyanarayana Rao et al conclude in their review of the literature, “Beliefs—internal representations/interpretations—thus hold the magic wand of remarkable transformations in our biochemical profile.” And when simple tools such as positive affirmations are practiced regularly, the body will follow suit.