It’s a really important question that if we take the time to ask ourselves, could have a hugely positive impact on our self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. The words that we say to and about ourselves, either out loud or in our own heads, hold a lot of power. They drive our mood, emotions, and sense of self-worth and ultimately can accelerate or diminish our achievements.
Think about all the things that you say to yourself. Perhaps when you see your reflection in the mirror, or look at a photo of yourself, or if something feels difficult or you make a mistake. If you saw your friend in the same mirror/photo, or they made a similar error, would you say the same thing to them?
The chances are that the honest answer for most of us is probably not. If it was a friend or family member in the same situation we would aim to build them up, make them feel good and help them do the best that they can. We are often our own harshest critics and sometimes that can help us achieve great things, but if we’re tough on ourselves more often than we’re kind, it can lead to us feeling pretty crappy. It can make us believe that we’re capable of less than our true potential, stop us from trying new things and affect our mental health.
I see it in myself, and also with clients, friends and family. In social circles, on group Whatsapp chats or in the kitchen at work, we share stories about our own failures, how we need to be better and how we don’t look as good as we feel we should. Sometimes it seems like we spur each other on by putting ourselves down, and I think there’s even a part of us that feels like pointing out our own flaws is how we’re expected to behave!
The way in which we speak to ourselves is really important. If we regularly tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, that we’re going to find something really hard or that we don’t look right, I’m going to bet that we’ll feel pretty crap. I’m also nigh on certain that our emotions, behaviour and performance following those thoughts or words, won’t be the best that it could be. Negative self-talk is essentially a form of self-sabotage where we set ourselves up to perform at a lower level than we’re capable of. This seems like a sad situation to put ourselves in.
Aside from how we end up feeling and behaving, how about the impact we have on others? We don’t often stop to think about how our words might be affecting those around us. We probably don’t give a second thought to how anyone else might interpret what we say, because we’re aiming our words at ourselves and no one else. But as human beings we’re constantly taking in, digesting and ultimately believing what we hear around us. This is especially true when it comes to children and teens who are busy forming their thoughts and ideas and are at a very impressionable stage in their development.
If we say to our friends that we hate our body, our bum is too big or our boobs are too small, the chances are that our comment could make them reflect on their own body. What if our friend’s body looks the same as ours? Or is bigger or smaller? Are we telling them that they’re no good either? Obviously, that’s not our intention, but that’s essentially what we’re doing. By criticising ourselves, by association we’re also talking down anyone with similar characteristics.
And what about how our words could affect children around us, either our own or those of friends and family? I grew up listening to my mum and her friends discussing the latest diets and wanting to have smaller bodies. Those words stayed with me long into adulthood, so much so that I spent 30 years trying not to have gravy on my roast dinner because I heard one of my mum’s friends saying that it was really bad for you! Total nonsense, but I was a 7-year-old girl and made it my mission to eavesdrop on every conversation around me. So even when we think we’re not being listened to, we probably are…
It’s not just about body image, the relationship that we form with exercise can be very much affected by the words we hear around us, both as a child and into adulthood. I grew up hating running, it doesn’t come naturally to me and I find it hard. My daughter is exactly the same. I spent all of my adult life up to the age of 38 avoiding running at all costs, and telling myself and everyone else how much I disliked it and how rubbish I was at it. Even though I knew my daughter wasn’t going to naturally find running easy, I didn’t want her to have the same negative relationship that I did with the activity. I decided to challenge myself to reach a particular running goal to prove to myself that I could do it, and also show my children that everything is possible. Since then I go for runs as and when I feel like them, and I genuinely enjoy putting on music or a podcast and getting out in the fresh air. I’m able to talk positively to myself and my children about running, and although my daughter still doesn’t love it, she tackles running events at school with a positive mindset and achieves more than she might have as a result!
If we approach and talk about exercise and our bodies with a negative tone, this will definitely rub off on the people around us. Ultimately, we want to feel good about ourselves and make moving our bodies a consistent and natural part of our lives. We can help achieve this through the way we talk about it both inwardly and out loud.
From an exercise perspective, noticing and congratulating ourselves on the progress we make, even small steps forward can be really powerful. Talking about how we feel after an activity can be really motivating for ourselves and others; that sense of strength, freedom, exhilaration and achievement is very powerful to hear. It can be hard, but trying to catch ourselves when we start to say “I can’t”, “I’m not very good”, or “I shouldn’t” will make a big difference to how we, and those around us view exercise.
When it comes to our bodies, it can be even harder to change up our dialogue. We can be pretty mean when it comes to self-talk and personal feedback, and guess what? If we tell ourselves often enough that we’re not good enough, or that we don’t look right then we’ll start to believe that it’s true. The way our bodies look will largely be determined by genetics, so if we bemoan our strong thighs, there’s likely to be a family member with a very similar physique listening to our body shaming. Let’s try and call out the things we like, and accept the things we’re not so crazy about, for ourselves and those around us too.
We’ve been led to believe that recognising positive things in our own abilities, performance and appearance is somehow arrogant or self-obsessed. And it’s just not true! Highlighting and calling out the things we do well, and learning to love and be vocal about that love when it comes to our bodies, is such a powerful and positive thing.
So I come back to my original question… if you wouldn’t say a comment to a friend; because it’s untrue, mean, discouraging, negative or just unnecessary, please don’t say it to yourself.
Give some thought over the next few days to your own self-talk, what you say out loud, and send in messages; see what you notice. Maybe there’s the opportunity to big yourself up just a little bit more!
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